Why We Must Lead With Our Values

shared values
Image Source: The Center for Food Integrity

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.


How to Communicate with Consumers about Animal Agriculture


Current consumer research by the Center for Food Integrity indicates that most consumers today have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs, as long as the animals that provide that food are treated decently and humanely. That said, only 25% of those consumers agree that livestock animals are in fact humanely treated. Concisely stated, this marks the “gap” of full consumer understanding and acceptable of modern livestock production.

Recently I had the opportunity to hear a consumer panel offer their opinions and concerns about the livestock animals that provide the protein to help sustain so many of us. On one hand, the panelists didn’t say that much new, or surprising. They all wanted affordable, safe, locally produced, fresh and minimally processed food. They expressed gratitude for the wealth of purchase options in today’s food marketplace, and acknowledged that, in many war-torn parts of the world, people have to stand in line for hours just to get daily rations of bread, or rice.

Here is struck me in their comments, though. They all wanted to know which production systems were “right” in enhancing food safety, animal care and environmental protection, while still being affordable for the farmer. They admitted confusion about what “organic” and “natural” really meant, and did not quite know who to turn to for the correct answers. But they wanted to believe, and place their trust in, “the people in the know,” meaning the farmers. They just weren’t sure that they could. One panelist said that, when groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) rant about alleged animal cruelty, he doesn’t believe them. While he wants to believe farmers, he wants to “be assured that their intentions are pure.”

The agriculturalists in the audience stressed that one production system is not necessarily superior to another. “There is no one single way to farm,” one animal scientist said. In animal housing, stalls are not inherently bad, and pens are not necessary the best way to go. All housing systems have scientific, economic, and environmental tradeoffs. Whether the animal has enough space to turn around does not always improve an animal’s well being. And, the label “Humanely Raised” on the package can be very misleading if we don’t have a common definition of what that really means.

While all of those points are true, they weren’t the main message the consumers wanted – or needed – to hear. More importantly, they hoped for some reassurance that, while acknowledging that farmers must take into account many factors in making production decisions, animal comfort and well being remain paramount. The consumers left the room still feeling a bit confused — except for the sense that the farmers and agriculturalists in the room really cared about doing things right. And maybe that was the best the livestock community could accomplish in their time together.

Unfortunately, most farmers do not have the opportunity to talk directly with consumers. Instead, food marketers – and their package labels – do most of talking for them. But, we must find more occasions to have these conversations, because this is where the communications war for the hearts and minds of consumers will be won or lost.

Here are some action steps you can take:

1) Clarify in your own mind what “humanely raised” means to you. Be specific in your description, and, where possible, list personal examples.

2) Practice having conversations with consumers. Listen first, to find out THEIR values, along with their overall impression of modern livestock production.

3) Gather a list of reliable online information resources to give them, in case they want to follow up in their search for correct information. Remember, the goal here is NOT to convince them that you are right. Rather, it’s offering them your informed, compassionate opinion, to help them form their own conclusions. Here is a starter list:

Why I’m Telling Agriculture’s Story

david pelzer on farm

I have worked in agricultural communications for most of my professional career – well over 35 years. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that we still have a lot to learn when it comes to communicating with the public about modern production agriculture, and where our food comes from.

In those 35 years, I’ve gained a lot of experience as an agricultural journalist, an industry communications specialist for agricultural organizations, and a communications trainer for farmers, veterinarians, food safety experts, dietitians and communicators, among others.

On the positive side, agriculture has a wealth of wonderful people who are committed to telling agriculture’s story. A major reason I gravitated toward agriculture as a profession is that, by and large, farmers (and those who work for them) are hard-working, dedicated and sincere in their love of the land and the food that comes from it. Today’s farmers are a marvel, as they must be skilled not just at farming the land, but also in science, engineering, accounting, computer technology and overall business management. Yet, in today’s world, farmers and other agriculturalists need additional critical skills– effective communications and public relations.

Here’s the rub. Most people today have never been on a farm, and don’t fully understand or appreciate what it takes to have a safe, affordable food supply. Because they don’t personally know a farmer, they don’t have a foundation of trust to rely on when they hear conflicting information about whether today’s food supply is safe and healthy for their families, or whether it is socially responsible for the planet. Without that foundation of trust, people do not necessarily believe the supporting scientific evidence agriculturalists bring forth to attempt to “prove” that farmers and others are doing things right.

A fundamental approach in our communications training is that, in order to communicate successfully with people outside of agriculture, we must start by establishing common ground based on shared values.

Years ago, I accompanied a group of people in an Illinois agricultural leadership program to the office of Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago. I went into the meeting thinking it would be a real struggle for the mayor to connect with these folks in any more than a superficial way. Harold Washington was the head of a major U.S. city, and the agriculturalists were all from rural parts of Illinois. The mayor started by relating how his visits to his grandparents’ farm gave him a love of the land and the soil; he also talked about his experiences working as a teenager in a Chicago meatpacking plant. Mayor Washington connected with this group on an emotional level by establishing a common bond. The resulting discussion was both entertaining and informative. Issues such as the urban-rural challenge of getting enough safe and nutritious food to hungry people in the cities remained unresolved, but the group was able to discuss this from a framework of shared values.

This is what we must do in order to re-establish trust in our food system, and to show that farmers and others in agriculture are socially responsible. We must first seek to understand, in order to be understood.

While that may sound like a lofty goal, it’s not that hard to get started. Step One is understanding why traditional ways of communicating with consumers about agriculture (“just educate them”) are no longer effective, and why we need to communicate in a new way. With that as a foundation, we can build a new way of communicating that not only will improve public understanding and appreciation of today’s agriculture, but also help us in communicating with our employees, colleagues and family members. These principles, practiced daily, can form help provide immediate, more effective results. This will have an impact on your interpersonal communications, community relations, media relations and social media presence.

This work involves building a values-based “core story” that will help you in relating one-on-one with non-agricultural audiences, conducting media interviews, and building your “brand” on social media. It can also entail preparing yourself for communicating effectively in responding to difficult questions, and in crisis situations. We will deal with these topics in subsequent posts.