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.

How Will We Produce Food Without The “Greedy Farmers?”

imageAn op-ed in the Times titled “Time to Cut Our Greedy Farmers Down to Size” (full article here) has my Twitter feed venting bile like a dyspeptic volcano. According to Ms Duncan, Brexit and consequent independence from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) means that “The vast majority of British people will benefit. That’s not just because the money that now goes into farmers pockets (in terms of subsidies) can go into the NHS instead, but also because Britons will pay lower food prices.” Cutting subsidies is seen as a positive because “…farming will shrink and land prices will fall” allowing housing to be provided where it’s desperately required. As one Twitter friend commented, I bet there’s millions longing to have the opportunity to move to a new housing estate halfway up a Welsh mountain.

It’s relatively easy to sit at a desk and earn a living using nothing but your brain and a laptop. Waitrose is fully-stocked with quinoa; the barista at your local Starbucks starts your skinny vanilla latte as soon as you walk in; and if your op-ed doesn’t get picked up by the broadsheets, well, there’s always another day. The maintenance costs for your business are low, there’s no need for specialised housing, feed, veterinary care or staff for your laptop, and a single unproductive day doesn’t have an immediate and knock-on effect on the viability of your business. Compare that to farming, where missing a difficult calving; not being able to harvest due to torrential rain or having two staff off sick could wipe out a week’s potential (potential being the operative word) profits and it’s less easy to sit and mock.

Do inefficient farms, propped up by subsidies exist? Yes. Could British agriculture exist without them? Absolutely. However, these don’t represent the majority of producers. Milk prices dropped by 15.1% in the past year – an average 3.64 pence per litre decrease. At present, costs of producing milk (25-33 pence per litre) outweigh the returns for most producers. Not surprisingly perhaps, AHDB data shows that the number of dairy producers in the UK has fallen from ~14,600 in 2005 to 9,538 in 2016 – a 35% decrease. A proportion of that can be allocated to natural wastage conferred by a combination of an aging farmer population and herds being consolidated into larger operations, but the frequency with which herd dispersal sales are advertised in the farming press is frightening. In an industry where farms are often supported or kept in existence by one or more owners having off-farm employment, the hackneyed image of rich farmers spending all their time shooting pheasants and barrelling around country lanes in brand-new 4x4s needs a sharp shock from a cattle prod.

Nobody yet can predict the full economic impacts of Brexit, though I predict we’ll going to have an even greater drop in dairy farm numbers by next year. However, the implication that we’re going to be returned to a sunny bucolic Britain where poppies bloom amongst the wheat, maize is forgone in favour of rewilding and farmers only graze one ewe per 50 acres is arrant nonsense. Yes, the countryside looked very different hundreds of years ago, but in 1900, when there were only 38 million people in the UK and the average lifespan was 47 years, it was easy to feed everybody (or rather those who had the income to buy food rather than poaching from estates) from an extensive, inefficient system.

Want cheaper food and don’t give a damn about British farmers? Be careful what you wish for, Ms Duncan. An island nation with an agricultural industry in decline is utterly reliant on food imports from overseas – is this really the (CAP) “independent” future that we want for our children?

Think You’re Brilliant? Don’t Just Say it, Prove it.

Feeding calfI recently had a long and rather tedious conversation with somebody who was trying to convince me that he was brilliant. I say tedious, because the conversation consisted of him telling me how brilliant he was, without actually providing any evidence of his brilliance, save for saying that “Smart people get how brilliant I am”. By definition, if I’m smart, I’m going to get it, right? Aha, he must be brilliant!

Call me picky, but if I am going to believe in somebody’s brilliance, I want examples, proof, something that I can relate to. Otherwise it just seems like a display of arrogant self-aggrandizement – a human peacock flaunting pretty feathers as a proxy for superiority.

Yet today it struck me that we often exhibit the same behaviors when explaining livestock production to the wider world. 98% of the population has no knowledge or understanding of animal agriculture. Does that mean they aren’t smart enough to understand how brilliant we are? After all, some would claim that “…some geek sitting in a cubicle in New York City never will understand animal husbandry and shouldn’t have (a) say (in livestock production)”* – therefore we don’t have to listen to their opinion.

Twitter geek quote
Regardless of whether or not they understand animal production, the consumer has a huge say in what we do every single day. If supermarket X decides they don’t want beef with from animals given implants because some consumers have concerns about hormones, implants could be effectively removed from cattle production in a matter of weeks. If a proposition is put forwards to ban dehorning, castration or tail docking, it could well pass, especially in more urban states. Precedents exist for both of these examples (Merck Animal Health’s voluntary withdrawal of Zilmax, grocery stores sourcing rbST-free milk and proposition 2 in California to ban battery cages for hens) – and once a precedent is set, other examples may follow.

So how does this relate to last week’s tedious conversation? Actions speak louder than words. Thousands of “we care for our livestock” quotes are instantly negated the moment a new animal rights video is released showing a downer cow or battered piglet. Just a single documented incidence of a manure spillage makes the “we care for the environment” quotes look like industry spin.

We have to be ahead of the curve, showing people what we do every single day – not just through words but through pictures and videos. Calving a cow at 3am, bottle-feeding a calf throughout the night, trudging through the snow to give hay to the in-calf heifers, making sure the manure lagoon is leak-free – these are all facets of livestock production that we have to share. If we just keep saying how brilliant we are without backing it up with evidence that resonates with the consumer, we’re talking to a brick wall. Because, as the saying goes, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

*edited for spelling and clarity