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Why agriculture is losing the moral argument

Reprinted from Missouri Beef Cattlemen, November 2010

How will you answer the one, simple question we’re all going to face: Is this right?

A pig farmer here in Missouri believes last year he accidentally exposed his operation to the disease PRRS – a reproductive syndrome as devastating to pig farms as BVD can be to a cow/calf herd – when his workers rescuing pigs from an overturned potbelly brought the survivors onto the farm for first-aid and temporary housing. In tracking through the contaminated trailer and back into the biosecure farm, they likely infected the unit, ultimately costing him more than $3 million. Why did this experienced, intelligent manager give his blessing to something so obviously perilous to the bottom line – even the family farm’s very survival?

“What else could we do?” he told me, matter-of-fact. “For the animals’ sakes it was the only right thing to do.”

Agriculture’s missing the best response by neglecting the one, simple question consumers want to hear you answer

Beef production, animal agriculture and American farming are today engaged in a great national quest to discover the “common messaging” and “strategic communication position” and “accountability metrics” that can sell skittish consumers on believing we’re healthy, sustainable and trustworthy. From stamps and seals certifying our science and integrity, to actors and college kids speaking to video cameras from the back of a horse or the seat of a plastic tractor, it’s assuming every form, from cliché to plain weird.

But I fear agriculture’s missing the best answer – and about to waste a whole bunch of money chasing it – by neglecting the one, simple question consumers want to hear you answer.

The New Morality of Food

What’s difficult for traditional agriculture to see these days is that you have become a symbol. The modern, profit-driven farming you represent has become useful metaphor to argue bigger questions of society, politics, culture and religion. Contaminated hens eggs and overfat schoolkids have become but easy shorthand, solid stepping stones into boggier moral territory like wealth inequality and balancing parental freedom vs. institutional authority. Meanwhile, agriculture keeps answering its critics by arguing pathogen loads and juvenile caloric balance, completely missing the point. It’s as if we insisted on talking about the marbling in the beef while our critics are attacking the packaging it comes in. We have to shift our thinking to begin understanding what our critics really object to before we can develop a meaningful answer, let alone craft the message and pick the messengers.

At Food-Chain Communications, a Missouri company devoted to helping everybody up and down the food chain better understand what each stakeholder does (and doesn’t), we brought together a panel of scholars – traditional and non-traditional – to hash out some of these questions. Here’s some of what we learned:

  • Every food chain decision is now going to be viewed through a moral prism. That requires a moral defense. Yesterday’s seemingly innocent question of animal handling or crop rotation will tomorrow be gauged by its perceived impact on social justice, community integrity, individual freedom (human and non-human), sensitivity to culture diversity and environmental footprint. “Good food” is no longer defined only by nutrition and cleanliness, but by its moral goodness…or evil.
  • Their mission is to divide. Small farm vs. factory farm, grass-fed vs. grain-fed, Christian vs. atheist, supermarket vs. farmers market – the Devil divides, no matter his form. Until everyone in agriculture can articulate what is ethically right in the tools you select to feed the world, you risk falling back on defenses that rely only upon pointing out what’s wrong with the other guy. Ultimately, it will diminish us all.
  • Farmers must reclaim their authority based not on science and economics, but on their ethics and morality. When did we grow so hesitant to talk about the moral purity of American agriculture, a purity that finds symbol in the white of the 4-H flag which I – and likely you – grew up pledging ourselves to? Who among our critics even dares use that kind of value-laden language anymore? Yet the farmer’s virtue remains his greatest defense. U.S. farmers enjoy a long ancestral ethical heritage, from Jefferson’s Yeoman Farmer to the unsung World War II farmer-hero who fed a desolated world on the mend.

Do we really believe consumers will be relieved to hear scientific welfare audits prove only 2.9 percent of feeders limp off the trailer bleeding, panting or calving rather than an unacceptable 3 percent?

We need a new agricultural apologia. Agriculture needs an apologetics in the classic sense – not of being sorry, but of being morally defensible. Not only must we find our way back to farming’s pure moral heritage, but we must openly embrace it, celebrate it, without fear, and without succumbing to the temptation to couch it in the more comfortable clothing of economics, science, utility and practicality. Do we really believe consumers will be relieved to hear our scientific welfare audits prove loading ramps are angled at 20 degrees rather than 30? Or that only 2.9 percent of our feeder calves limp off the trailer bleeding, panting or calving rather than an unacceptable 3 percent? Accusations of moral wrong can only be defeated (not appeased) by defenses of moral right. It’s another lesson I learned in 4-H so many years ago: What matters is not what we know, it’s what we believe.

It goes deeper than simple messaging and PR strategizing. It has to be rooted in an intelligent study of ethics and grounded in a felt understanding — like the Missouri pig farmer who chose to do the right thing at high cost—of what’s right in what you do.

When you can answer that one simple question consumers want to ask — Is this right? — you won’t have to talk about it. They’ll do it for us.


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