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Perspective:
Industry Issues

Are activists eroding the greatness of American agriculture?

Connie Tipton

Connie Tipton is president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association. She contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

During this tumultuous political campaign season, I’m feeling a need to embrace things that make me proud to be an American and that speak to the “greatness” of our country. Unfortunately, some of these things are being threatened or eroded by efforts to turn us all into fearmongers.

Who can deny the greatness of American agriculture and food production? It is unparalleled worldwide in innovation and advancements in farm practices and food production that give us low cost and high value with positive impacts on animal health and the environment. And yet, our food system and modern farming techniques are coming under attack at an alarming and increasing rate.

America is a diverse country (which is pretty obvious listening to the election rhetoric), and there’s plenty of room for diversification to meet consumers’ wants and needs, so the industry has embraced the development of things like USDA-certified organic products and plenty of other methods of product differentiation. But it seems that consumers are increasingly confused by messages on or about products that call into question the modern practices and technologies that have clearly contributed to the dominance of American agriculture. Look at the European Union, where many production technologies have been kept out of the marketplace because of a lack of consumer understanding and acceptance.

Here’s my question: Are we slowly, by default, turning into Europe in terms of our approach to agriculture and food production systems? I hope not.

Ever-improving farm practices, along with new technologies and equipment, have helped U.S. agriculture lead the way in feeding the world without taking more and more land or resources to do so. And the U.S. dairy industry has been right there with dramatic milk productivity increases without commensurate increases in cow numbers. This capability to meet consumption demands with more productive and sustainable farms makes U.S. farms a model for farms around the world. We must not let this model be destroyed by unfounded fears of technology and lack of awareness and education about safe, modern and sustainable food production techniques.

In fact, the greatest opportunity to reduce the environmental footprint of milk production is on the farm, where 72 percent of the carbon footprint is created even before the milk leaves the farm, according to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Every time the world adds a cow to the population, we increase the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as water and land required to keep those cows alive. That doesn’t include the increase in feed needed for milk production. Our modern farming techniques can make a positive difference while providing proper animal care and healthy products.

And it’s not just consumers doing the questioning. Chipotle recently took on the dairy industry in a public manner by printing a provocative message on its soda cups, starting with:

“When we think of dairy cows, most of us picture a vast countryside, rolling hills and cows happily grazing about. Sadly, most cows in the U.S. spend their days on concrete without access to pasture. In fact, they rarely go outside in general, making their chances of seeing a double rainbow pretty much impossible.”

Perhaps a change in the consumer vernacular for modern dairy production is warranted, similar to the seafood industry’s solution of using “farm raised” versus “wild caught” labels. The clarification of production methods in the seafood industry came as part of a country-of-origin labeling initiative on Capitol Hill about 15 years ago when the Alaskan salmon industry wanted consumers to understand the difference between wild and farmed fish. Apparently this has led to greater consumption of both types — and that’s a pretty great result.

For dairy this labeling approach might look something like “new age farm standards” with all approved modern farm-level practices versus “heritage farm standards” that includes organic and other historically acceptable farm-level practices. This may not be the right breakdown or system, but we need some clear definitions to help consumers understand the choices they are making and the implications of those choices, which are both safe and healthy, so our U.S. competitive advantage in dairy won’t simply slip away.

I’m floating this idea not as an agenda item adopted by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) to pursue or promote but to get some dialogue around the issue. I know there are many much smarter than I who will have ideas and opinions on the subject, and I welcome hearing from you.

The U.S. dairy industry has advanced significantly during my 35-year tenure with IDFA, and it’s evolving into a remarkable, innovative industry with plenty of upside potential. As the industry faces increased social media pressure and consumer ignorance about modern agriculture innovation and technologies, we must find ways to define our own destiny and continue to build on our successes. That can only happen with new ways to educate consumers about the greatness of our American dairy industry in farming and food production. My campaign slogan is “Let’s keep American agriculture and food production great!”

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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