Telling our Ag Story
On Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend a conference for UNL and ISU Extension Educators regarding animal rights and animal welfare and the importance of how we tell our agricultural stories to a public increasingly disconnected from where their food comes from. I learned so much and wanted to share.
Dr. Candace Croney from The Ohio State University shared that animal welfare defined to most of us in production agriculture is stewardship-our animals are entrusted to us, use is acceptable, and we have the obligation to treat those animals humanely. She defined animal rights as animals have certain characteristics similar to humans (ex. mental capabilities) and thus have rights. Relationships with pets have become the new paradigm regarding how all animals should be treated. A key message driven home to me was we need to consider how we say our message. So often we position animal care as an economic issue instead of an ethical one. We say things like “We take care of our livestock because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t make any money”…so people focused on animal rights hear from that message the reason we care for animals is for profit…which leads to the next thought that if profit drops, care for the animals is potentially at risk. We instead need to address ethical issues and find ways to connect with the public meaningfully. Charlie Arnot from the Center for Food Integrity said it this way, “We need to first communicate ethics, then science, then economics”.
I also have been guilty of saying “we just need to provide more education about what we do”. But that again isn’t completely correct. While the science of why we do what we do is important to us, ethics are more important to the general public. In a survey from the Center for Food Integrity, when asked what factors influence confidence that food comes from humanely treated farm animals, the fact that the producer worked with a veterinarian ranked first in increasing their confidence, but the fact that what the producer did was science based ranked dead last. Instead of first going to science, begin with showing we’re interested in doing what’s right. For instance, tell the person thank you for his/her question and that you can tell he/she cares for animals as you do too. Then go on to explain why you do what you do to care for your animals rather than provide a data dump of scientific facts. Science can be mixed in, but show the ethics of what you do first. Go beyond the traditional “food, shelter, water” as that doesn’t resonate; it’s expected as that’s what we also provide to our pets. Train people who work for you and make sure they truly do care for the animals as you train them. Determine the message for your operation. The best part is this is free; with good people it just requires a change in commitment and being consistent with your message.
I also appreciated so much of what Trent Loos, Nebraska Rancher and host of “Loos Tales” radio show said. “The message we leave out is why we have animals and agriculture”. The vast majority of the public cares about reasonably priced, safe, healthy food for their families. Our message should be that “we convert animal resources into human resources such as food, fiber, pharmaceuticals, fuels, and products to improve human lives”. It’s a matter of changing our terminology and way of thinking. We shouldn’t say we “slaughter” animals in the U.S….instead “we respectfully harvest plants and animals.”
With the growing disconnect between the general public and where food comes from, we need to be ready to tell our story anytime/anywhere. I’ve often caught myself saying “it’s been busy” when asked how things have been going. I’ve been retraining myself to continue for 20-30 seconds explaining what I’ve been doing which usually sparks a conversation about something regarding agriculture. Part of my reason for this was to help people better understand Extension, but in doing this, I can also help people better understand production ag today. Whether it’s in the line at the grocery store, at church, at a ball game, or wherever, we all have the opportunity and responsibility to share with those around us our agricultural story because no one else can tell your story for you. As Trent Loos said in closing, “If it is to be, it’s up to me”.