That was the message Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer of the Center for Food Integrity, delivered recently to attendees at the American Farm Bureau Federation?s 89th annual meeting in New Orleans.
To reclaim this position, farmers and ranchers must continue to take care of their animals and preserve their freedom to operate and maintain successful animal agriculture here in the United States.
So how do farmers and ranchers do this?
To begin with, livestock producers must understand how consumers think and feel. Get inside their heads, if you will.
?Consumers consider farmers responsible for the humane treatment of farm animals,? Arnot said.
In a recent consumer survey, people rated animal well being higher than the care and well being of workers in the food system, Arnot said. It did not rank as high as food safety however.
It is not science, technical capacity or ability that drives trust, he said. Instead, it is whether consumers believe agriculture shares their ethics and values.
?We (agriculture) need to talk about our commitment to doing the right thing?our commitment to values and ethics not just science,? Arnot said. ?We are so strong in our science. We have lots of evidence to demonstrate we?re doing the right thing, but we rely too much on that language. We need to reengage the public on a value?s basis.?
The most important job ahead, according to Arnot, is to communicate in a way that helps people have trust in what we say and do. Too often livestock producers take for granted that rural neighbors know and understand who they are and what they do.
Arnot believes agriculture can no longer take this for granted. Agriculture continues to change and evolve, and still most of the people in the United States today are not involved in farming and ranching.
?Americans know very little about where their food comes from and what they want is ?permission to believe? that what we are doing is consistent with their values and ethics,? he said.
?Telling our story to consumers may move to the point where we have to show people what is taking place on our farms. Unfortunately, the perception is that when we don?t show them?we?re hiding something.?
That said, there clearly remain legitimate reasons, from disease prevention to biosecurity, not to allow unfettered access to farms and ranches.
Livestock production or animal agriculture in the most affluent country in the world is faced with special challenges and opportunities.
Among those challenges is that Americans spend such a small percentage of their income on food that they can demand food where they want it, when they want it, in the proportion they want it and produced in a humane way.
Many food stores and food retailers have announced implementation of third-party verification measures to ensure the animals from which food products are derived were treated humanely.
In the near future, customers will demand third-party verification and if it doesn?t exist, the store providing the food is not going to be credible with the public.
Arnot is convinced agriculture will win this battle for the hearts and minds of consumers.
Farmers and ranchers must remember whom they are trying to influence, he continued. Customers and consumers need to hear from livestock producers.
It is not productive for the agriculture community to attack the activist ag groups. Instead, agriculture must retake its rightful position as the people in charge of ensuring the humane treatment of animals.
?We need to inform people we share their concerns and we work hard every day to make sure our animals are treated fairly and humanely,? Arnot added.
?Follow that by sharing with them how we meet our obligations to the humane treatment of the animals on our farms.?
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.