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Analysis: Lessons behind the headlines

Agriculture needs to read the signals and continue to step up its game in communicating and building relationships with stakeholders, says UBC's Dr. Dan Weary

Posted: May 8, 2013


Dan Weary is associate dean and professor with the University of British Columbia Animal Welfare Program. He is also an NSERC Industrial Research Chair in animal welfare.

What do the actions by grocers and other retail players mean for livestock producers and their industry?

For starters, the implications of these moves go far beyond the specific issue of gestations stalls for sows, says Dr. Dan Weary of the University of British Columbia's Animal Welfare Program.

"People working in animal agriculture need to realize that this story affects their industry," says Weary. "This touches everyone. It's a broader reflection of the general public becoming more interested in where their food comes from and more willing to speak out when practices fail to live up to their expectations. Retailers are hearing this message from their clients, and changing their buying practices to meet this demand. This is the new reality farm animal agriculture today."

New world of expectations

Part of the dynamic is the clash between the pastoral image of agriculture we see on the side of the milk carton, and the realities of modern production systems, says Weary, a Professor and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare. "When people find out that standard practices – like the use of stalls for pregnant sows – do not correspond to their vision for how these animals are reared, they begin to lose trust in agriculture and demand quality assurance programs from the retailer."

Over the past decades as farm numbers have declined, fewer people have any direct link with farm animals or the people who care for them. Producers have come to see the processor as their client, further eroding the natural lines of communication between famers and the public and leading to the current gap in what producers and the public consider to be appropriate living conditions for farm animals. The challenge now is to foster methods of engagement between producers and the public, allowing the public to learn from farmers why they use the practices they use, and allowing producers to hear and respond to the concerns on the public. The onus is now on animal agriculture to explain its approaches, foster understanding and align practices with the expectations of consumers, says Weary.

"The grocers' announcement shows the development of a feedback mechanisms from the consumer to the producer with the retailer in the middle. Consumers are telling their grocers about their expectations, and the grocers are letting their suppliers know what types of product that they are going to support."

The bottom line is pretty clear, he says. "When the public learns about practices like the use of gestation stalls, their trust in animal agriculture erodes – as this erosion continues the public will increasingly look to others, such as retailers, to provide assurance that their standards are being met.

"Reversing this trend will not be easy, but an important place to start is with greater efforts to engage with broader society - people need to know and understand how we are caring for farm animals, and know that we understand their expectations. Such engagement is required if we are to begin rebuilding trust in agriculture. It is this trust that will give producers a stronger voice in developing solutions that work well for both the farm and the animals they care for."

Filling the gap in understanding

"Engagement will mean different things to different people. For some it is a simple as talking with non-farmer neighbours, for others it may mean opening your farm to school groups and hosting open houses, for the more tech savvy it may include live video from the farm and writing blogs and tweets. But regardless it has to mean that we spend at least as much time listening as we do speaking. Gone are the days when we thought we could resolve these issues simply by 'educating the public'.

Listening to the public can help the industry find opportunities for successful change, he says. "If we open those doors, have those conversations and start taking constructive steps, it gives us much more opportunity to do things right. We can ensure that the system we create really do work better for production, for animal care, and hold up well in the public eye."


Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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