Sustainability Kickstarts A Dialogue

November 25, 2015 12:00 PM
Sustainability Kickstarts A Dialogue

Survey finds common ground for farmer conversations about food

Ask a thousand people how they feel about sustainability, and you’ll probably get a thousand unique responses. For the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), that’s okay—they just want farmers in the conversation.

“We know impact on the environment is a frequent conversation when it comes to food production,” chair Nancy Kavazanjian says. “While farmers and ranchers are stewards of the land, we have not always been vocal voices in the environmental conversation, and we want that to change.”

The group recently wrapped up its consumer survey on farming, ranching and sustainability. It reveals opportunities for farmers and ranchers to engage in conversations about their sustainability practices. 

For example, a minority (47%) agreed “the way that most of today’s farming and ranching operations in the U.S. grow and raise food meets the standards of sustainability.” 

The Consensus Myth. The survey shows some common principles of sustainability as described by consumers. The four segments surveyed (millennial parents, millennial non-parents, “food connectors” and general consumers) all identified three key issues:

1. Raising and growing food that is safe to consume

2. Treatment of animals

3. Minimizing environmental impact of farming and ranching

All groups also agree sustainable agricultural practices should:

  • Improve human health through access to safe, nutritious food
  • Improve the environment around farming and ranching, including water, soil and habitat
  • Limit impact from potential pollution to water, air and soil

Consumers in the survey also want to hear about future environmental commitments rather than past accomplishments or having a multi-generational history, Kavazanjian points out.

“There are many stories about environmental stewardship to be told, and this research will help us guide our storytelling,” she says.

Consumers are undeniably more interested in how their food is grown. That might spook some, but Suzy Friedman, director of agricultural sustainability at the Environmental Defense Fund, says consumer interest is a net positive.

“It gives agriculture a chance to have a conversation,” Friedman says. “Farmers need to connect with them, and transparency is fundamental to that dialogue.”

Any sustainability conversation needs to recognize three things. First, sustainable ag has to feed the world. Second, it must protect or restore the environment. Third, it must be economically viable for farmers. “If the farmer can’t stay in business, that’s a huge problem,” she says. 

Technology Assists. The rise of precision agriculture and Big Data should help make sustainability a less painful discussion in the future, Friedman adds. That’s because farmers will be able to document performance of their operations even more closely, identify true best practices and make large-scale performance improvements. 

“It’s evolving really quickly,” Friedman says. “Consumer interest is going to keep pushing food companies and retailers to show how they’re making improvements. In the end, it’s about improving resilience at the farm gate.” 

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