Written by: Victoria Broehm | May 11, 2023
Last week, I, along with several members of the American Feed Industry Association staff, participated in the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s Stakeholders Summit, where we walked away with a lot to chew on, from what is driving people to click on news articles about the animal agriculture industry to who is shaping the coverage and why. Here are some of my takeaways.
In the past, Ray Starling, general counsel of the NC Chamber, said those advocating for the agriculture industry tended to be older, from rural areas and more conservative politically, with younger, left-leaning, city dwellers questioning agricultural practices. Now, the lines are more blurred. It is more about “farmers” versus “foodies,” where self-proclaimed food or nutrition “experts” are leading the agricultural policy dialogue, often at odds with farming communities. Such “experts” use tactics to shame individuals about the foods they eat and the practices used to cultivate them, claiming our food system is “broken,” despite the fact that the U.S. boasts one of the most efficient food production systems in the world.
Starling went on to say that in the 1950s, Congress was comprised of 15-20% of members with agrarian backgrounds, compared to just 5% now, which is problematic because these members may bend to the whims of outside forces, who may capitalize on cultural trends and a façade of ‘taking action’ without science to back their arguments.
Mike Bober, president and CEO of the Pet Advocacy Network, later echoed this sentiment, saying, “All politics is local-ish.” He shared many examples of groups seeking to abolish the use of animals in food production (e.g., animal rights organizations or those from pet humane charities) descending on local communities to put forward local or state referendums or costly lawsuits, which in some cases, may not impact the local communities at all, to “hide the hit” and slowly chip away at animal agriculture.
These groups are “creating a future where the legislation coming up is saying it is what is best for animals, but it should be about the data and science over emotion and rhetoric,” Bober said.
His advice for farmers and ranchers and those involved in agriculture in general is to get involved in local, state and federal advocacy to serve as credible resources for lawmakers so they hear balanced views when crafting policy.
Joe Proudman, associate director of communications for the University of California-Davis CLEAR Center, which conducts research on livestock can reduce its impact on the climate, discussed challenges communicating the industry’s side of the story in the current media and social media landscape.
He shared that through a quick Google search, he found maybe half a dozen dedicated agriculture journalists at mainstream newspaper outlets, suggesting that most articles on agricultural policy are being written by food journalists. This trend is concerning, because these journalists may not have in-depth knowledge of modern production agriculture or farming practices.
Often, he finds that the negative hit pieces about the industry are written “because people click on them,” without any bearing on the facts. Couple that with the fact that most Americans do not have personal, firsthand relationships with farmers (and most are getting their news from social media anyway, where it can be hard to distinguish real from fake news!), it can be tough for agricultural voices to cut through the clutter.
“The story that animal agriculture can be part of the climate solution is not getting out there,” Proudman said.
He mentioned that some of the noise comes from animal rights organizations who are getting into the media game, creating websites that look like reputable, unbiased news outlets, despite their political agendas, and taking advantage of social algorithms and Americans’ distrust for traditional media to further spew biased information and taint the industry in a negative light.
His advice to those in the animal agriculture industry is to be authentic, simple and “speak bullishly” about their sustainability progress.
From improved animal genetics to better technology, animal husbandry and manure management practices, feed additives, etc., the list goes on for the many ways the animal agriculture industry is innovating and improving its environmental footprint.
Paul Davis, Ph.D., AFIA’s director of quality, animal food safety and education, shared how the animal feed industry does its part to improve feeding of animals on farms to reduce waste, from using co- and by-products to both provide animal nutrition and close the food cycle, to developing ingredients that provide for better nutrient uptake in animals, to working with farmers to adjust feeding equipment so less is wasted.
“Sustainability is not always complicated,” said Davis. “But where the feed industry could use support is from the Food and Drug Administration in modernizing its regulatory processes to ensure that feed additives with environmental benefit claims can be brought to market more expeditiously.”
The main thing food and agriculture companies should be doing in the sustainability realm right now is showing “progress over perfection,” said Christina Lood, senior director of innovation and sustainability communications at Zoetis. “Stakeholders in general will appreciate transparency and progress [on companies’ sustainability programs] instead of having everything perfect right away.”
The fact of the matter is, “agriculture is a shining star as a carbon solution” and we have the ability to meet consumers where they are, which will be even more critical in the future as food choices become more tailored to individuals (e.g., genetically tailored solutions, personalized nutrition, personalized carbon scores).