Takeaways From the 2021 Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit

Stefanie Taillon, Assistant Director

Virginia Farm Bureau is a member of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a national organization dedicated to bridging the communication gap between farm and food communities. Each year, the Alliance hosts a Stakeholders Summit, which is a fantastic opportunity to interact with a wide variety of people involved in the livestock industry, from farmers to scientists to nutritionists, and learn about the latest developments in all things animal agriculture. For the past two years, the event has been virtual, but still informative and engaging. Here are some of my takeaways from the presentations and discussions at this year’s conference:

  1. Animal agriculture has learned a lot about communication over the years. Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal biotechnology and genomics expert from the University of California, Davis, shared that 37% of U.S. adults believe GMOs are safe to eat compared to 88% of scientists and reminded us that fears are difficult to address using logic and reason. While it’s frustrating to see some groups use the “FUD” tactic (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) against us, we as an industry can do better than that. Animal agriculture has a positive and compelling story to tell if we share it early, before the narrative is shaped for us, and in a creative manner. There’s not just “one” way to communicate information. To increase transparency for customers, Smithfield Foods created an ingredient glossary to explain what exactly those unknown ingredients on the back of the package are used for. Corteva Agriscience focuses on “putting agriculture’s voice in unexpected places”, such as partnering with the BBC on their Follow the Food series. Filament, an animal agriculture marketing company, goes to great lengths to make sure all the graphics they create accurately represent farming realities—even making sure a hay icon looks like alfalfa and not straw!
  1. Agriculture is playing a huge role in developing solutions to climate issues. From the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance to the groundbreaking research being done at the CLEAR Center at UC Davis, animal agriculture is doing its part to lessen its environmental impact, which has often been exaggerated by misleading statistics. The CLEAR Center shares that, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture’s statistical database, total direct greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. livestock have declined 11.3 percent since 1961, while livestock production has more than doubled. In California, dairy manure digesters have allowed the dairy industry to reduce methane emissions by 25%.  In addition to developing the research and technology to make this happen, a big key to success is making sure we’re working with the correct science and data. For example, Dr. Frank Mitloehner (who goes by @GHGGuru on Twitter for a reason!) is showing why we should rethink methane. For a clear and informative explanation of “Eating less Meat won’t save the Planet–Here’s Why”, I also highly recommend watching this video.
  2. Virtual engagement is here to stay. There’s no doubt that we’re all eager to get back to seeing each other in person, but it became clear during the pandemic that there are some aspects of “virtual life” that are actually beneficial. Virtual farm tours and webinars allowed agriculture to reach a new audience during a time when they were hungry for online learning opportunities. Virtual farm tours offered by the American Dairy Association North East have reached 3.5 million viewers to date–that’s a lot of people who may not otherwise have had a chance to see a farm!
  3. The pandemic has changed how people shop for food. According to Chris DuBois of data analytics company IRI, 81% of online grocery shoppers expect to continue online shopping more or about the same even after they are vaccinated or restrictions are lifted. In addition, the supply chain issues of 2020 certainly had people thinking more about where their food comes from. Combine these two shifts, and there may be opportunities to get creative and meet people where they are. Chop Local, a self-described “Etsy of Meat”, has created an online marketplace to allow customers to buy directly from farmers and butcher shops from the comfort of their homes. In addition, a lack of restaurant dining created more “confident cooks” and “cooking enthusiasts” who are driving increased grocery sales and are willing to experiment with different types of meat and seafood.
  4. Preparation is the number one tool you have to protect your farm from animal rights activists. No one wants to become a target of an anti-animal agriculture agenda, but unfortunately, activist activity is a reality. According to John Sancenito of security firm INA, the U.S. can expect to see protests increase as COVID-19 restrictions decrease, as well a focus on linking agriculture to climate change and public health issues. To keep your farm safe, have a good plan, fencing, signage, cameras, and lighting in place. These small investments can save you a lot of headaches in the long run. It’s also important to build a good working relationship with local law enforcement prior to any issues. If you’re thinking about exploring virtual engagement, be sure to take precautions such as hosting events in webinar mode, enabling Facebook security features, and requiring registration.

Feel free to reach out to me at 804-363-9505 or stefanie.taillon@vafb.com if you would like additional information or resources on any of these topics or just want to chat about them!

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