I once attended an agricultural meeting that was billed as a dialogue between Midwestern agriculturalists and Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a leading animal rights group. Pacelle, who was dressed as usual in a spiffy business suit and tie, presented himself as cool, calm and collected in speaking of his dedication to enhancing animal welfare across the United States. He said that the changes his organization was seeking in livestock animal welfare policy were actually supported by many agriculturalists. His message was that it would be good for this group to climb aboard the animal welfare reform train, rather than stand on the tracks and get run over.
During the conversation that followed, one Illinois soybean farmer stood up to complain that the measures HSUS was advocating could drive many livestock and crop farmers out of business. And, if that happened, how were people going to get an ample supply of affordable food in the future? Pacelle retorted, “What you don’t understand is that we’ve now got the hearts and minds of middle America.”
While that statement is highly debatable, the point is that the current struggles involving social responsibility around food start with emotions, not facts. Animal rights groups are well aware of this, as anyone can tell by watching the gut-wrenching videos they produce. (“Will anyone in the room who is actually SUPPORTS animal abuse please stand up?”) Some livestock people have responded by arguing that some videos have been setups by the activists themselves, or that the practices shown are made to look worse than they really are, or that the reforms being pushed for are too unwieldy, and will result in higher food costs. While these counter arguments may be true, they miss the main point.
Many consumers today are saying that they do not want to be part of a system where animals are mistreated in any way, just in order for them to have affordable food. Increasingly, they are making food purchasing decisions from this value-based standpoint, not from any “rational” presentation of facts about modern food production.
Food purchasing decisions traditionally have been driven mainly by taste, affordability, safety, and, to a lesser extent, health and nutrition needs. Today, health and wellness concerns are becoming an increasingly important driver. And, other considerations are taking hold, including desire for “locally produced” and “sustainable,” code for produced in a socially responsible way.
In order to effectively counter groups such as HSUS, and to capture (or re-capture) middle America, we must “get emotional” with today’s consumers. Current research by The Center for Food Integrity (an agricultural coalition devoted to bridging gaps in consumer trust) indicates that most people are willing to continue eating milk and eggs if they believe livestock animals are treated in a humane way. But the conversation with consumers must start by reiterating our values in humane animal treatment.
For anyone concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, the impact of livestock production on the environment is becoming a more important consideration. Frank Mitloehner, an air quality specialist at the University of California – Davis, has compiled compelling evidence pointing out that anyone wanting to help lower greenhouse gas emissions can make a far greater impact by changing to energy efficient lightbulbs in their home than by lowering their consumption of meat.
But food purchasing decisions, like other important decisions in our lives, are made not by the “rational” neocortex part of our brain, but by the “emotional” part of our brain, the limbic system. While scientists can amass an impressive array of facts and statistics to support the argument for continued meat consumption, people make their consumption decisions on an emotional level, not a rational one. The facts and statistics merely help to support the emotional decision they have already made.
This is yet another reason why it is essential to lead with our values in conversing with today’s consumers. We must connect with them on an emotional level, to show that our values are closer to theirs than the values of those who hope to convert consumers to veganism.