Conversation about the environment is growing and so is the scrutiny applied to consumption of natural resources. If you think it’s intense now, hold on tight because every indication is pressure will intensify by multiples and agriculture will be pressed like never before to go farther faster in reducing its carbon footprint.
As the original stewards of the land, farmers should be smack dab in the middle of that conversation. They have an impressive story to tell. For example:
- Dairy farmers since the 1940s have reduced the carbon footprint of every gallon of milk by two-thirds.
- While the amount of pork produced has risen substantially over the last 50 years, producers are using 75 percent less land, 25 percent less water and seven percent less energy.
- Since 1980, U.S. wheat farmers have increased wheat yields by more than 25 percent and now produce the same amount of wheat on 28 percent less land, with 47 percent less soil erosion, using 12 percent less irrigation water.
Yet, the public dialogue is happening around them, about them, but largely without them. The number of producers actively engaging, particularly online, is growing, but remains relatively small. By contrast, the price for silence has been large, as critics of agriculture have energetically engaged to raise concerns in well-connected online networks.
Profit over Public Interest
The land and its gifts are the lifeblood of agriculture no matter the size and scale, the crop grown or the livestock raised. But many of those on the outside looking in aren’t particularly convinced.
Trust research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) shows that only 30 percent strongly agree with the following statement: “Do U.S. farmers take good care of the environment?” More than half – 60 percent – are ambivalent. They’re just not sure farmers are doing enough.
So, why are so many doubtful?
First, the “big is bad” bias is likely at play.
As the size and scale of farming grow, the public doesn’t trust that large farms have the public’s best interests at heart. Only one in five respondents believe small farms will put the farm’s interests ahead of the public good, but that number doubled when we asked about large farms. There’s a perception that profit is the overriding motive on large farms and that efficiencies simply make farmers more money at the expense of people and the planet.
The sentiment is heard in our CFI Street Talk series when we asked: “Do farmers protect the environment?”
“I think they’re hurting our environment at an alarming rate.”
“Some do, some don’t. I think it’s about 50/50.”
“It’s hard to protect the environment when there’s so much strain on them to produce so much food.”
“Those huge commercial farms – I don’t think they’re doing anything to protect the environment.”
Despite this bias, when we separate the farmer from the farm, it’s crystal clear that most Americans have a great deal of trust in farmers. In fact, the research shows that when it comes to food-related issues, farmers are trusted more than dietitians, university scientists, state and federal regulators and animal and environmental advocacy groups.
The Golden Opportunity
Agriculture has a golden opportunity to move the needle with the general public and those who influence conversations that impact agriculture’s future. In fact, a majority of respondents in our survey (65 percent) say they are hungry for information about agriculture.
So, how do farmers demonstrate that they’re continually finding ways to do things better – incorporating the latest technology to produce food in a way that sustains the environment for generations to come? By engaging, including:
- Taking advantage of local public speaking opportunities.
- Pitching stories to the media about seasonal milestones on the farm (planting, harvest, etc.) – and incorporating messages about environmental sustainability and the benefits of biotechnology.
- Engaging on social media channels by posting pictures with great captions and short videos created on your phone. The simpler the video, the more authentic.
- Taking advantage of Facebook Live to give “on-the-spot” reports about what’s happening on your farm.
- Engaging in those critical day-to-day conversations to better understand what’s important to your neighbors and community, and having meaningful dialogue.
- Sharing and liking others’ posts that convey agriculture’s values to broaden their reach.
Farmers have a trust halo. Now is the time to leverage it to demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement, as pressure intensifies to achieve greater environmental outcomes more rapidly than ever before. The public is listening. Critics of agriculture are talking. Monumental environmental mandates are on the horizon. Farmers can help shape future farm stewardship practices, but not from the sidelines.