Big, Small, Local, Artisan… Why We Need to Kick the Food and Farming Label Habit

coffe-water-and-brownieLet’s think about marketing labels. The coffee I’m currently drinking is a new premium blend with fruity notes and hints of lemongrass, the tasting notes so extensive that I was tempted to swill it around and pretend it was a glass of vintage Malbec before the first sip (except I knew I’d end up with a caffeinated tsunami flooding my Mac). The walls of this coffee shop are plastered with buzzwords including “delicious”, “lovers” and  “changing lives”. Everything is carefully stage-managed to make me feel that I’ve wisely invested my £2.50 on a cup of branded coffee. Is this coffee more caffeine-laden than the equivalent free-cup-with-a-loyalty-card from Waitrose? Can I detect the top notes of passion fruit? Does it use less water than freeze-dried instant coffee? Will I leap tall buildings with a single bound after drinking it? Absolutely not. Yet the marketing involved makes me feel good about my choice of coffee chain and beverage, without providing any factual information to facilitate my decision.

Like it or not, marketing labels are ubiquitous, exclusive and bipolar. Black and white. Yes or no. Good or bad. Even in the scientific world, where we’re renowned for caveats and “Under this specific set of conditions we saw a significant difference in X although that can’t always extrapolate to Y….” answers to questions, media coverage of scientific research is becoming binomial. Food X will kill you. Eat food Y and you won’t get cancer. Shades of grey have ceased to exist.

Back in September 2016, Jayson Lusk published an excellent piece in the NY Times explaining the importance of technology use on modern, large-scale farms. The only issue (for me) was the title: “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment”. The supposition being, of course, that we have to dispel the myth that “industrial” farms are environmentally-undesirable. Yet using terms like “industrial” have deeper connotations – if a large farm is industrial, is a small farm artisan? If a dairy herd containing 100 cows is a “factory farm” (regardless of familial ownership or management), is the one that contains 99 cows a small, vibrant, local business? Is a farmer who is passionate about pasture management, reducing nutrient run-off and promoting biodiversity a saviour of the planet, regardless of whether he/she produces enough beef to feed one family or 5,000 families (approximately 1,700 cow herd) per year? There are as many farming systems worldwide as there are farmers – trying to apply broad categories (“big vs. small” “factory vs. humane” “grass-fed vs. grain-fed”) tells us absolutely nothing about the management practices, animal welfare, environmental sustainability and social responsibility of a particular farm.

Perhaps it’s time to take a evidence-based approach. The consumer absolutely has a right to choose products from agricultural systems that they prefer, yet this needs to be provided via factual, quantifiable information rather than marketing buzzwords. Being told that a piece of pork pie is “artisan” or that Supermarket X’s beef mince costs 20 p/kg less does not facilitate informed decision-making.

If we assume that all other factors (including price) relating to food purchase are equal:

  • Eggs from Farm X are ranked 9.5/10 on supporting the local community
  • Eggs from Farm Y have an animal welfare rating 10% higher than average
  • Eggs from Farm Z eggs have a carbon footprint 25% lower than average

I wonder how many consumers choosing eggs based on measurable performance outcomes would be supporting a different production system than the one that they perceive to be best? We (as an agricultural industry as well as in the role that we all play as consumers) need factual information on labels rather than marketing buzzwords.

We would also have a better understanding of the issues that really are important to the consumer. I was recently asked whether I was concerned about antibiotic use in livestock. The obvious answer was “Yes”… yet my main concern was the challenge of eliminating the use of medically-important antibiotics (while maintaining access to veterinary antibiotics that have no impact on human medicine), reducing antimicrobial resistance and improving the health and welfare of global livestock populations through alternative technologies and management practices. Not surprisingly, my answer didn’t fit with the assumed “I’m concerned because everybody knows that farmers massively overuse antibiotics as a panacea for poor management” rationale.

Recent data from a global charity suggests that almost 90% of Indian consumers are deeply concerned about cattle health and welfare on dairy farms. Great. Does this mean they’d pay more for milk to improve dairy cow welfare? That they were given factual information about dairy production? That they understand the relative environmental impacts, cattle health issues and social impacts of various dairy systems? All unlikely. We face a number of challenges within agriculture – notably the need to produce enough safe, affordable food to feed the growing population, whilst using fewer resources and with a lower environmental impact. We cannot and should not expect to make informed decisions on food choices based on marketing buzzwords – it’s time to stop differentiating on farm size or system and examine real farm impacts.

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We Consume, Therefore We Are?

banned-consumerI consume, you consume, he, she or it consumes. Whether we’re buying a coffee, a bacon sandwich or a new iPad, we are consumers of goods and services every single day. Indeed, as you read this, you are consuming electrical energy, internet data and/or printer ink and paper. Aside from the very few within our society who are genuinely self-sufficient, we are all consumers – a word that should not carry negative connotations. In a world where most of us consider that we need more than a jute sack and some potatoes dug straight from the earth, we consume, therefore we are. There’s a growing movement towards consuming less (food, resources, luxury goods), yet this doesn’t mean that consumption is a negative attribute.

However, some state that using the word “consumer” creates a divisive “us and them” situation within food production, where the agricultural industry is pitted against consumers in a battle for supremacy. Proposed alternatives to consumer include “customer”, “client” or, according to one tweet addressing this topic, “just call ‘em people, we’re all people”. There’s no doubt that we’re all people, but is this just ignoring the real issue in favour of a panacea?

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I freely admit that I know nothing whatsoever about car manufacture. Would I be insulted by a marketing campaign from Toyota or Ford where they tried to better inform the consumer about the various ways that vehicles are made? Not in the slightest. I have a car, I am a consumer of vehicular goods, but (and this is where the semantics come into play) I am not a “customer” of either Toyota or Ford (proud Vauxhall owner). If I suspect that the car industry is full of evil overlords intent on exploiting child labour, destroying safe water supplies and inflating the price of replacement windscreen wipers, am I going to be mollified by being called a customer, client or person? No. Similarly, somebody who believes that dairy farmers rape and murder their animals or that large-scale agriculture is inherently undesirable is not going to change their views because they’re called a person rather than a consumer.

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I have some friends within agriculture who genuinely believe that the consumer is their enemy. They consider that they should not have to change any facet of their farming system in order to fit with market demand, but that the ignorant (their words, not mine) need educating so that they can accept farming practices. Would changing the word consumer to customer, client or person facilitate a more diverse and accepting outlook from these producers? I think it’s highly unlikely.

It’s time to address the issues that matter. Why do we have such a disconnect between the consumer and the agricultural industry? How can we reach out to urban communities and help people to understand what happens on farms and ranches? How do we regain consumer trust where it has been lost, and enhance it where we already have a good reputation? Not easy questions to answer, but far more important to the future of food production than simply changing terminology. Without shared values and positive conversations, we cannot hope to enrich consumer opinions about agriculture – it’s time to start the conversation rather than hiding behind buzzwords and marketing hype.