Agriculture Raises a Collective Voice
Written by Mike Giles
(Reprinted with permission from Poultry Times)
Mike Giles is president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.
How often have you had conversations with colleagues and partners in other sectors of agriculture about how we need to do a better job of telling the amazing story of modern poultry production and agriculture in general? Maybe it was about the need to educate our youth, or perhaps it was about trying to reverse myths among consumers about how poultry and other food products are produced.
There appears to be a revolution happening that could have a dramatic impact on poultry producers and our partners in agricultural food production. I’m not talking about technological advances that will enable farmers and food producers to provide even safer and more healthy foods or ones that will allow us to continue to make efficiency improvements, which will make our poultry operations even more sustainable in the future — though these advancements are sure to happen in the coming years. I’m talking about the ways in which farmers and food producers respond to consumers’ insatiable curiosity about the food they purchase and feed to their families.
Conversations are happening at the dinner table, among neighbors and friends, and perhaps most significantly online in the social media space. Those who are critical of modern farming practices have been actively engaged in these conversations for some time, in many cases driving the discussions. There are millions of consumers though that simply have questions about the food they eat — where it was produced and how it was raised. As they should be, consumers are curious and are looking for answers. The question remains whether their questions will be answered by those who know the most about agriculture and food production, farmers and food processors, or whether they will be answered by critics with a bias against modern agricultural practices.
Farmers across the nation are stepping up to the challenge. There are farmers speaking out on Twitter with tens of thousands of followers. They are talking about their everyday activities associated with raising food and caring for animals, and at the same time they are demystifying what it means to be a family farmer for millions of those curious consumers.
Organizations such as the AgChat Foundation and the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) are among those facilitating these online discussions. The Alliance is a coalition of more than 50 national, regional, and state agricultural groups and their partners. The poultry industry is an active partner in this coalition through the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association and United Egg Producers. USFRA is billed as the first collaboration of such a wide range of groups gathered to lead a dialogue about how food is raised.
USFRA started by listening to people to learn what questions they have about how food is raised and what is most important to them as consumers. It turns out that some of the messages that we in agriculture have used for years, while true and important, might not be what consumers are most interested in. For example, 64 percent of consumers say that keeping food prices low is very important, but they also want to know that the food they feed their families is safe and healthy for them in the long term. On the other hand, they might be less interested in how U.S. agriculture creates jobs and is poised to feed a hungry world over the coming decades.
The poultry industry has a remarkable story to tell when it comes to providing affordable food. According to Dr. Mike Lacy, head of the Poultry Science Department at the University of Georgia, “Chicken and eggs sell today for about one-eighth of the cost they did in 1950, when you consider the value of the dollar in 1950. Taking into account the change in the value of the dollar, essentially, chicken today is selling for $4.90 less per pound and eggs $13.20 less per dozen. It is almost impossible to find another commodity that sells for the same price now as it did in the 1950s.” At the same time, the wide variety of poultry products available to consumers has never been safer or more beneficial to the long-term health of their families. These are two messages that are at the heart of what consumers say is important about the food they purchase and consume.
Environmental sustainability is another topic that consumers want to know more about. Large-scale agriculture is often painted as not being sustainable, whatever that means. Some say big is bad, and small or locally produced is good. For poultry producers, what is lost in the comparison are the tremendous gains in efficiencies that have occurred over the recent decades. Breeding programs initiated in the U.S. have provided specialized poultry breeds that produce more eggs and meat with less feed. In 1950, it took 10 weeks and more than 10 pounds of feed to grow a 3.2-pound broiler. Today, broiler growers produce a 5-pound chicken in about six weeks and only need a little more than 9 pounds of feed to do so. The poultry industry has also made strides in other areas such as conserving water and energy.
Large-scale agricultural production and “sustainable” aren’t mutually exclusive, but acknowledging that this is important to consumers and communicating our achievements in this area is the responsibility of these new agricultural voices. There are lively conversations happening online about how antibiotics are used, how livestock and poultry are cared for, and what is the difference between a “family farm” and a “factory farm.” The difference seems to be that agricultural voices are being heard in response to questions from typical consumers who want to know more about how food is raised in our nation.
It is no surprise that hard-working farmers and the innovative people in food processing believe that agriculture is underappreciated and that the positive messages about how food is produced aren’t getting through to consumers. At the same time, we can’t ignore USFRA’s survey result, which says that 42 percent of consumers believe that the U.S. is “on the wrong track” in the way we produce food.
Check out the site where USFRA is facilitating this discussion — www.fooddialogues.com — you will find the discussions to be interesting, and you might even find yourself diving into the conversation.