Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


2018 Banff Pork Seminar

Steve Savage: Unprecedented unity, creativity needed to shape agriculture

Date posted: January 11, 2018

Dr. Steve Savage

Global food and fiber production gets high marks for performance over the past several decades but it has some significant challenges ahead never before faced in history. If it is going to succeed in the future it is going to have to work in unprecedented unity and creative strategies.

That was the message technology consultant and writer Steve Savage had to delegates to the 2018 Banff Pork Seminar, in Banff, Alta. Savage counts many leading companies among his clients and his writing is featured in leading publications such as Forbes Magazine.

Particularly positive for agriculture, he says, is that for the most part that production increase comes from per animal or per acre production increases rather than increasing the production area. While there are still definite limitations for developing countries the developed world enjoys an abundant, diverse and safe food supply that exceeds all historical precedents.

Social license

Savage says major challenges are on the social license. That concept focuses on how societal pressures, permissions and perceptions influence the ability of an industry to succeed.

Agriculture's small population base reduces influence. There is declining overall investment in research and development. There is little appreciation of the historical value of science-based regulation, and regulation is influenced by politics and lack of harmonization.

There is widespread mistrust of the food system fueled by long-term marketing campaigns by industry segments or categories of technical rejection such as "No GMOs". Brand sensitive downstream food industry players are unwilling to support legitimate technology opportunities that are beneficial to producers and use their market leverage to protect brands and pursue market differentiation goals that conflict with options desirable for upstream players.

Some of those players use aggressive negative, often inaccurate descriptions of their competitors. They often supply funding for NGO groups that aggressively attack mainstream agriculture.

On top of that there are significant barriers to defense of social license. Disinformation by various groups such as ideologically-motivated activists representing extreme wings of environmental and animal rights movements.

Food demons and magical options have replaced considered analysis. Internet driven information has undermined trust in traditional authorities has people selecting information that only fits their Food marketing has companies looking for product differentiation making implied or actual safety or ethical claims. And agriculture has developed silos rather than working together.


In spite of these challenges, threats and barriers there are real opportunities that need to be pursued by the diverse and critical industry upon which society depends for its food. Savage classifies those opportunities as "communications, confrontation and competition."

Communication opportunities. In recent years more and more members of the farming community have stepped up as "agvocates" by writing blogs, posting pictures and videos, being active on social media and speaking. Farm tours, ag tourism, ag in the classroom outreaches and various forms of direct marketing which give the consumer the opportunity to have some interaction with those who grow their food. There have also been a growing number of science and technology communication efforts involving academics, industry groups and individuals.

"These efforts to humanize the food production system are extremely useful for dispelling myths about 'industrial agriculture' and for generating more sympathy for grower needs," says Savage.

Confrontational strategies. The broader ag community, sympathetic skeptics, educators and the like, have also undertaken some more direct "myth busting" challenges to disinformation using humor, statistics, satire and the like.

Some companies have incorporated these approaches into their marketing. Other spokespeople have used editorial platforms in the mainstream press to call out examples of lies and deceptions. Other forms of pushback could be considered such as setting up and independent certification system that would steer consumers to products which don't involve misleading marketing.

One possibility would be a sort of a resource through which consumers could use to check the validity of marketing claims. Another would be to imitate the successful activist strategy of putting pressure on companies that are pursuing marketing strategies that translate into unreasonable demands or limitations of the actual producer community.

Competitive options. In recent years there have been a number of multi-stakeholder efforts to develop criteria and metrics for sustainability in agricultural systems. In theory these could have led to rational, science-based standards that could then be used to encourage best-practices by producers and signal consumers how they might "spend their food dollars" in a way which is socially and environmentally responsible.

The ideal of a consensus, "sustainable" certification has proven elusive.

One option might be for grower or basic producers to organize their own standard setting that reflects solid scientific input and also a rational understanding of economics and logistics for their specific sector. For instance, a baseline standard has been developed in the broiler chicken industry and could potentially be "branded" through a coordinated effort.

Another possibility would be for producers of multiple crops and animal products to develop their own alternative to organic.

Many conventional crop and animal producers have adopted organic to gain a price premium or price stability, says Savage. While this is understandable, he goal of maintaining the long-term social license of agriculture is not well served by supporting a segment where some players essentially makes a false promise to consumers which makes them doubt the integrity of their mainstream option.

The grower/producer part of the value chain is not being adequately protected by public agencies that could have jurisdiction over food labeling claims. It is also clear that the downstream food companies and retailers have a vested interest in maintaining and increasing the presence of up-sell categories whether or not they represent any true advantage for the consumers. Even within commercial entities that include basic producers, the marketing side of the organization can be motivated to advance claims such as "non-GMO" that are not meaningful but which can be counterproductive for those who actually do the food production.

Unity, creativity needed

If current marketing trends continue, producers will risk losing the technologies they need and other erosions of their social license, says Savage.

The agricultural sector is highly divided by commodity and geography, and to a large extent it is made up of entities that compete with one another. If this sector is going to address the threats to its social license it is going to have to work together.