Food companies and retailers face tremendous pressure to respond to consumer expectations on issues like animal care, environmental protection and the healthfulness and safety of products. Farmers understand this because they too face tremendous pressure to meet the same consumer expectations. In fact, agriculture has always adapted in response to market preferences. The remarkable growth in organic agricultural production shows that farmers and ranchers will grow what consumers are willing to pay for, especially if it helps them become more profitable.
Companies often make quick decisions to differentiate their brands and products without fully evaluating the impacts of their policy changes. Often they put out announcements about changing their production practices—changes that might not take effect for many years but provide an immediate halo effect—after sales fall or when trying to overcome a public relations crisis concerning their products or practices. This happens more and more these days now that agricultural policy is being made by unelected corporate executives as much as it is by our unproductive Congress.
Of course companies listen to their customers, but they also need to think about their suppliers and the impact of their decisions. Too often the direction a company takes is based on misinformation and a broad misunderstanding of agriculture. The results: corporate sourcing standards that insist farmers and ranchers raise their crops and animals in ways that are less efficient, possibly less humane, and definitely less sustainable.
A recent example is Dannon’s move to non-GMO feed for its dairy cows. The company’s efforts were part of a commitment to sustainability, but the impact was a broad-based move away from biotechnology—meaning lower crop yields, more tilling of the soil and more use of insecticides and stronger herbicides than the ones widely used by farmers today. This amounts to less sustainability, not more.
Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups tried to meet with Dannon to help the company’s executives avoid making a mistake and understand why walking away from modern agricultural technology is not good for the company or its customers. We were turned down, so the groups sent Dannon a letter.
“Under the guise of providing consumers more choices,” the groups wrote, “your pledge would force farmers to abandon safe, sustainable farming practices that have enhanced farm productivity over the last 20 years while greatly reducing the carbon footprint of American agriculture.”
Dannon is not the first or only company to make such announcements without fully evaluating the impacts. Too many companies have barreled forward, rather than listening to farmers and ranchers who could have helped them make better decisions.
Now agriculture is speaking up and explaining our narrative. The voice of agriculture is being heard. We are engaging with food companies to help them see all of the on-the-ground consequences. When they do not listen, as with Dannon, we call out their actions for what they are. Often their actions are simply based on “fear-based marketing.”
Farmers and ranchers have a great story to tell on sustainability. The technologies we use are tested and proven safe and beneficial for farm productivity and the environment. The Field to Market survey shows the improvements farmers have achieved. From 1980 to 2011, U.S. rice production grew more than 50 percent, even as irrigation water used per acre dropped 25 percent. Cotton production had similar growth, while 46 percent less water for irrigation was used. The survey also shows similar results for soybeans and corn.
It is time for more food companies and their customers to hear about those results and learn about the true sustainability of modern agriculture.
When the Dannons of the corporate world do not listen, we turn up the volume.
Perry is a communications assistant at the American Farm Bureau Federation