Imagine jury is patiently waiting to hear the

Imagine
yourself in a courtroom. The judge is sitting at his bench, a jury is patiently
waiting to hear the case, and the courtroom is full of interested parties and
on-lookers. The prosecutor rises and calls the defendant to the stand. He
begins with his line of questioning, “How many people does each U.S. farmer
feed?” the defendant confidently responds, “Each American farmer feeds 155
people, which is more than double the number we fed in 1970.” And how much do
Americans spend on their food today? “Americans spend less than 7% of their
disposable income on food, which is actually the lowest of any developed
country,” answers the defendant. The prosecutor continues in a more stern tone.
“but is it also true that you confine animals on “factory farms” and pump them
full of antibiotics and hormones? And wouldn’t you agree that producers are
more interested in profits than they are caring for animals and the
environment?

Ladies
and gentlemen, the agricultural industry is on trial and the verdict is yet to
be rendered. The question being asked is, “Can our industry be trusted?”

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Noted
leadership author, Stephen Covey suggests that trust is based on two
dimensions: character and competence. Character includes integrity, motive, and
intent. Competence includes capabilities, skills, and results. It seems
illogical to question the competence of the U.S. food industry – given its
track record of producing safe, affordable, and abundant food. I believe
consumer mistrust stems from consumers’ questions about our industry’s ethics,
motives, and production practices. Today, I’d like to explore several reasons
why some consumers lack trust in the agricultural industry and outline several steps
we can take to regain their trust.

I
believe that there are two primary causes of consumer mistrust in modern
agriculture. First, today’s consumers are three to four generations removed
from the farm and simply lack a basic understanding of how food is produced.
And second, there are activist organizations and for profit companies who are
cultivating mistrust among consumers about modern food production practices.

According
to the “Emerging Faith in Food Production” report, 67% of consumers think it’s
important to understand how their food is produced. Unfortunately, only 23% of
consumers surveyed consider themselves to have excellent knowledge of farming
and ranching. Since most consumers don’t have any personal agricultural
experience, their understanding of food production is limited to what they see
on TV or read while on the internet. Take biotechnology for example. You and I
may understand the damage weeds and insects can have on a crop. We also
understand how biotechnology and modern wee management has spurred the adoption
of no-till, which has reduced soil erosion in the US by 1 billion tons per
year. However, many activist organizations have referred to Genetically
Modified Organisms as “Franken Foods” and have planted a huge seed of doubt about
this technology in the minds of American consumers.

Secondly,
I believe consumers lack trust in today’s food system because activist group
sand food businesses have cultivated mistrust between consumers and producers.
The two most influential activists groups are PETA (People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals) and HSUS (Humane Society of the United States). These
organizations have focused their efforts on taking undercover videos of people
abusing livestock and then suing those videos to raise money and fund their
anti- animal agricultural agenda. In fact, according to an article in
Meatingplace Magazine, HSUS saw their revenues increase 31% between 2007 and
2011 thanks, in large part, to these videos.

But
it’s not just radical activist organizations that cultivate mistrust. Some very
successful food businesses are also fueling the fire against modern
agriculture. One example of this is Chipotle Mexican Food Grill.

Chipotle’s
marketing slogan has been “Food with Integrity”. They have spent millions of dollars
developing creative marketing campaigns criticizing how most food is raised and
grown here in American and fanning the flames of consumer fear around
antibiotics, GMO’s, and “factoy farms.” While slogans like “G-M-Over it”
generated plenty of free publicity for Chipotle, it also misled the public.
First of all it insinuated that GMO’s are dangerous and harmful – even though
16 major international science organizations, including the American Medical
Association, have concluded that there is no good reason to avoid consuming
current GMO’s. Secondly, their campaign led people to believe they were using
high fructose corn syrup produced from GMO corn and meat from animals who
consume GMO grains.

In
spite of the people and organizations that are attempting to cultivate
mistrust, I am confident we can begin rebuilding trust among our consumers with
three important strategies.

First
of all, we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “are we doing everything
we can to raise, and produce food responsibly?” We must constantly strive to
improve our production and management practices and we cannot tolerate and bad
actors.

Secondly,
we need to be willing to be more transparent. One of the way farmers and
ranchers are becoming more transparent is by capitalizing on the increased
interest in agro-tourism.

The
third way we can build consumer trust is by preparing ourselves to be better
advocated for our industry. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has a
program called Masters of Beef Advocacy. This program is an online educational
experience where producers’ learn how to communicate about the key issues of
beef production; there have already been more than 5,000beef producers who have
completeted this course.

Ladies
and Gentlemen, the agricultural industry in on trial, but the final decision
will not be handed down by a jury or judge. The ultimate verdict will come from
the court of public opinion. Have we taken all the necessary steps to improve
our own operations and manage them ethically and responsibly? Are we, as
agriculturalists, investing time to educate the public about where and how
their food is produced? When it comes to trust, we have to remember, it can’t
be legislated or mandated. It has to be earned. 

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