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I recently had the opportunity to attend the range beef cow symposium held in Fort Collins, CO. Many topics were discussed; sustainability, animal welfare, ranch profitability, new technology in beef production, environmental stewardship, and a number of other interesting and impactful topics. As I sat there listening, I wished the average consumer could have better access to this wealth of information. It was truly impressive to witness such a large body of beef producers and industry leaders discussing and sharing how to become more efficient and productive, better animal stewards, environmentally friendly, and sustainable.

The beef industry has realized increasingly over the last few years there are special interest groups, activists, and even political figures whose agenda is to bring down production agriculture. Their message spreads misinformation in hopes of inspiring frustration, fear, and guilt in consumers. People without access to sound information, or whose life and interests are far removed from agriculture and food production may be caught in the frustrating web of misinformation.

It is understandable, human nature is to mistrust what we do not know or understand. Consumers need to be able to trust that what they eat is safe. All consumers are very busy, often not knowing who to trust when it comes to deciding what to eat and what to feed their families.

People without access to sound information, or whose life and interests are far removed from agriculture and food production may be caught in the frustrating web of misinformation.

For many producers, it can be very frustrating to feel attacked, as if their efforts are misrepresented and misunderstood. To combat the lack of understanding and false information, production agricultural is responding by being more outspoken and transparent about production practices, giving a face and a story behind the beef, and taking a more proactive approach in joining the conversation with respect and understanding.

3As an industry, we have been largely reactive to animal welfare and food safety issues in the past, and that approach has led to confusion and mistrust. A more effective and proactive approach is necessary to share the unique and noble story of agriculture and its hard working families, and to regain consumer trust. Agriculture represents a small portion of the population; food producers do not always understand consumers and vice versa. Consumers want to know where their food is coming from, that it is safe, and are increasingly interested in how, and by whom, their food is produced. The agriculture industry has a shared responsibility in telling the story, increasing transparency, settling consumer fear, and putting misinformation to rest.

One keynote speaker at the symposium I recently attended was Michele Payn-Knoper, an advocate for food consumers and the agricultural industry. I learned a great deal listening to her as she discussed hot topics in food production agriculture, and how both consumers and beef producers can take part in effective conversation. Below are a few snippets from her book “No More Food Fights!” In her book, Payn-Knoper offers guidance for today’s dialogue surrounding food and food production. Half her book is written from the perspective of a food consumer and the other half is written from the perspective of food producers in an effort to bridge the gap. She suggests the key to a productive conversation is listening, building trust, and producers sharing stories that give consumers the information they want. This strategy helps consumers make informed decisions, feel less guilty, more assertive, and more satisfied in the grocery aisle.

“Food fights might seem entertaining, but there’s nothing funny about the fights taking place over food production. Resource limitations, animal welfare, and biotechnology are just a few issues cropping up to create confusion in the grocery store. Ultimately, both farmer and food buyers are making a personal choice.”

“If consumers want to learn more about their food, they should seek ways to connect with producers, who sometimes, aren’t’ very good at talking about themselves.”

“If you’re more a city person, than ask farmers about what they do and how they do it. They want you to know where your food comes from.”

“The most important thing is that you identify your own concerns about food, rather than believing what’s being told to you through the media, activist, or your friends. I will be the first to say there are bad apples out there, who don’t always do the right thing in caring for their farms, but the vast majority of farmers and ranchers are trying to do the right thing. Do you judge all teachers and doctors because of a few bad apples?”

“The worst rejection I’ve witnessed is turning food into the new politics and religion – topics not to be discussed in public. We all lose if food becomes that contentious.”

“If you believe agriculture needs a stronger voice for agriculture from those with their hands in the soil, I challenge you to move the conversation to a different level. Now, not tomorrow.”

I challenge consumers and producers alike to join the food conversation in a respectful and satisfying way. Consumers can recognize and seek out those producers trying to share pieces of their lives to create transparency and trust. Producers can also find ways to share the beef story effectively. There is more common ground than you may think. As much as we may not want to admit, we depend on each other, and we need each other. Transparency, respect, and understanding breed trust, and will make this conversation much more pleasant going forward.

Payn-Knoper, M. 2009. No More Food Fights. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing. Print