Consumer perceptions will determine ag practices |

Consumer perceptions will determine ag practices

Amanda Radke
for Tri-State Livestock News

Today’s consumers are defining how farmers and ranchers do business. Consumer demands, public perceptions and societal shifts are impacting animal welfare and animal rights. Candace Croney, associate professor of animal sciences from Purdue University, spoke at the 2012 Animal Welfare Symposium on Aug. 9, 2012 at the University of Arkansas.

“What we are seeing is that more and more people are concerned about animal welfare issues,” said Croney, who shared a roundup of statistics to prove her point.

• A survey showed that 64 percent of people support “passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals.”

• In order to qualify as “ethical food,” animals should be treated humanely, say 91 percent of people.

• 73 percent of women and 65 percent of men have more confidence in food sold in grocery stores that actively support ethical and sustainable farming practices.

• Half of all those polled believe animal care is important when deciding which food to buy, which brands to choose and where to shop.

• Another 64 percent believe that farmers and food companies put their own profits ahead of treating animals humanely.

• 40 percent of people believe ethical and moral considerations should be primarily used to determine how to treat farm animals.

• A whopping 81 percent believe animals and humans have the same ability to feel pain.

• 75 percent of people surveyed would vote for a law that would require farmers to treat animals more humanely.

“What we are finding, if you look at the patterns in the data sets, is that there are areas of disconnect between animal agriculture and consumers,” explained Croney. “The definition of animal welfare is different between consumers and farmers. Farmers view welfare as meeting animals’ basic needs for food, water and shelter, while consumers define animal welfare in terms of letting the animals live natural lives and giving them quick, painless and humane deaths.”

So, what do consumers really want? “Consumers want cheap food, safe food and food that tastes good, and that’s exactly what producers do. So, why do we have an issue?” she asked.

Croney says agriculture needs to do a better job of addressing the issues. When consumers ask about animal housing, agriculture responds with messages of nutrition, affordability, food access and the economics of standard methods.

“We are speaking Greek, and they are speaking Spanish,” she added. “When we don’t answer their questions, it makes a lot of folks really mad. We have a perfect storm culminating for U.S. agriculture. If society believes the industry isn’t self-regulating, they will take steps to do it for us. We need to emphasize animal welfare as a key component of ethical, sustainable agriculture. We must take care of people, animals and the environment.”

In a nutshell, Croney said agriculture has to do a better job of simply answering consumer questions, meeting them in the middle and ultimately taking a close look at standard practices.

“Does standard practice automatically make it right? Just because you can do it, does that mean you should?” asked Croney. “There have been major societal changes. There is a growing disconnect with production agriculture. There are major movements to get closer to your food; that’s why there is a growing number of urban farmers. Consumers feel there is insufficient protection to farm animals, and there is an increased trust in animal protection groups.”

The implications, according to Croney, will be increased integration as small farmers go out of business, additional restrictive federal legislation and regulations and off-shoring of food production.

“If society believes the agriculture industry is not self-regulating, society will take steps to do it for us,” she said. “If we don’t deal with these issues and if we stay on the defense, we are going to struggle in the future.”

Croney said producers need to reach out and develop relationships with consumers to bridge the gap to earn their trust once again.