In my experience, it is rare for top executives of big companies to make statements that are insightful, inspirational, and realistic. Yet, that is just what Donnie Smith, CEO of Tyson Foods, said last week at the USPOULTRY’S 2012 Financial Management Seminar. His statement to his fellow poultry industry leaders clearly summarized the serious situation facing the poultry industry and all of agriculture. “The first one to the microphone controls the conversation,” Smith said. He stressed the need for food producers to better define the benefits of modern agricultural production to meet the needs of an increasing world demand for safe, abundant, and affordable food. He passionately challenged the audience to become engaged, noting that 5 million people die every year from undernourishment and, yet, that most consumers know little about food production or the benefits of modern agriculture. Smith further remarked, “Although different segments of agriculture may not agree on every issue, there are many issues we do agree on. We must sing with one voice as we teach the younger generation the benefits of modern agriculture practices.” What is especially amazing about this statement is that it comes from an industry that has been less than open with the media. This is somewhat understandable since firms like Tyson and other large food conglomerates have been favorite targets of the sensationalistic-seeking media who love to use food and food companies as subjects for one-sided scare stories. But several current situations serve as evidence that Smith is right.
The list of food retailers and restaurant chains that are phasing our pork produced using gestation stalls continues to grow. The movement to ban the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture has just about accomplished its goal. Legislation that would set federal mandates on how chickens should be raised is before Congress. The battle over “corn sugar” is raging in the media and in the courts. In all these cases, agriculture is on the defense, not the offense. The reason is because we were not “first to the microphone.” We have let others define the issues, establish the jargon, and control the conversation. Wouldn’t it be nice to be on the offense for once?
The way to do this is to find an issue that agriculture can claim, define, defend, and advocate: one in which food production plays a key role and in which US agriculture makes a significant and positive contribution. Then we need to be first up to the microphone and engage the media and the public in the discussion. One issue that springs to mind is world hunger. With world food demand forecast to grow significantly in the next few decades and since the US is the largest food producer in the world, we can have a big impact on world hunger. The only problem is that research has shown that most Americans don’t care about feeding the rest of the world. Oh sure, we will respond to a food crisis in some 3rd world nation, but survey after survey has shown that Americans do not consider feeding the world as a top policy priority for the US. While feeding the world is a serious issue and one that agriculture plays a key role, it is not one that will generate the kind of public attention that will allow agriculture to build its case for the benefits of modern agriculture.
One that holds more promise is one in which many groups in agriculture are already involved: domestic hunger. The current economic recession has brought food security in the US to the front page. Out of work Americans by the millions are turning to food pantries and signing up for food assistance programs. Millions of school students are eligible for free breakfasts and lunches. These things have not gone unnoticed by the media. This is an issue agriculture can take ownership of and thus share the importance of an affordable, safe, and abundant food supply. Many farm groups and organizations are already embracing this issue with programs that allow farmers to donate products to food banks and programs. These kinds of efforts need to be increased, organized, and – most of all – publicized.
As Mr. Smith pointed out, we need to be first to the microphone to start the conversation. Part of the conversation can revolve around SNAP, the federal food assistance program. SNAP, along with WIC and a host of other food and nutrition programs, account for about 70% of the USDA budget. While these federal programs have problems and in many ways need to be reformed, they represent the main way our country deals with food security here at home. The food security issue in the US can be a perfect issue for all segments of agriculture and agri-business to claim and make our own. It gives us a platform to make the case that modern crop and animal agriculture is necessary to provide the food supply needed for all Americans. It will, however, require more honesty, candor, openness, and transparency than farmers and big food companies are used to. Mr. Smith and his collogues will need to put action behind their words. The key to success is to be first to the microphone and to start the conversation.
by Gary Truitt