Agriculture vs the Public (Part 1)

Written by Stephanie Coombes, Central Station editor

In 2015 and 2016 I attended Kansas State University, studying a Master of Science in Agricultural Education and Communication. As a part of my degree, I was required to undertake a research thesis.

It wasn’t difficult for me to choose a research topic. I’ve been a passionate “agvocate” (agricultural advocate) since 2012. Our industry has had a lot of “agvocates” – spurred on by the live export ban and subsequent continuous dialogue ever since about “social license”.

Here’s the thing though – while I love to advocate for agriculture, I see a lot of people doing it  poorly – to the point where it really frustrates me, and I think they are doing more harm than good for our industry.

The following is an excerpt from the literature review component of my Masters’ Thesis, “Discursive features of animal agriculture advocates”. I’m going to post it over a series of blogs (11 parts), and I sincerely hope this research challenges the way you think about communicating with the public about agriculture.

You can find the whole thesis here.

Find all 11 articles here.


Food is one of the few things that affects and connects all people regardless of their race, age, gender, socioeconomic status, or geographical location (Whitaker and Dyer, 2000); everyone interacts with food every day. Aside from providing nutrition essential to maintain life, food has deep roots with tradition, culture, social values, and beliefs (Murcott, 1982); food is deeply personal to many people. Everyone is a stakeholder of the agricultural and food production industry, and accordingly has a right to participate in conversations about food production.

In addition to being deeply personal to most people, food has many different meanings to different people. To some, it is a means to gain nutrition and maintain life, whereas for others it can impact their quality of life through dietary requirements. Food can fulfill not just physiological needs, but psychological ones too (Murcott, 1982). It is not surprising then that discussions about food production often become dynamic and contentious conversations. Conflicting viewpoints on how food is produced, including the use of science and technology, and the morality and ethics involved, have become dominant themes in such conversations. The animal agriculture industry is not immune to such discussions, from whether animals should be used by humans at all (i.e., animal rights), to specific practices and technologies used (e.g. intensive production, surgical procedures) (Croney, Apley, Capper, Mench & Priest, 2012).

While many people have opinions about animal agriculture, the same cannot be said for knowledge. Growing urbanization during the development of Western civilization through the past century has seen the number of people directly involved with agricultural production consistently decline (Satterthwaite, McGranahan & Tacoli, 2010). In the United States, the number of people working in agriculture declined from 41% in 1900 to less than 2% in 2007 (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2015).

A similar trend has been observed in other Western societies, such as Australia where the percent of the population involved in agriculture has declined from 14% in 1901 to around 1% in 2011 (National Farmers Federation, 2012). Furthermore, both countries have experienced increases in immigrant populations, with 12.9% of the United States population and 26% of the Australian population having been born overseas as of 2010 and 2011, respectively (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013; United States Census Bureau, 2012). Anecdotal evidence indicates that while most people used to have an extended family member or friend involved in agricultural production, this is no longer the case. A 2011 consumer survey (n=1,006) issued by Meat and Livestock Australia found that 59% of people under the age of 35 had never been to a sheep or cattle farm (Pollinate, 2011). Today, people are both geographically and generationally removed from agricultural production.

As the public continues to become geographically and generationally removed from agriculture and food production, interest in the industry is growing. One study found that two thirds of people under the age of 35 have little to no understanding of the red meat industry, but 58% wanted to know more about how beef and lamb are produced (Pollinate, 2011). The growing interest in food production can be seen in the popularity of food-themed entertainment such as festivals, websites, and television shows. The “Food Network” television network even has programming in more than 150 countries, including 24-hour networks in several countries (, 2016). Although the growing interest is encouraging, with farmers ranking as the 5thmost trusted professional group in the United States (GFK Verein, 2014), a visible disconnect still remains between the wider public and the agricultural sector.

In the past, specific incidents relating to farm animal welfare have sparked public debates, and the frequency of incidents and subsequent conversations appears to be increasing (Potard, 2015). The growing prevalence of food safety, environmental, and animal welfare concerns are leading to a number of today’s consumers becoming increasingly conscious about their food and fiber choices (Appleby, 1999; Pollan, 2006).

More people are expressing concerns about agricultural issues such as farm animal welfare and are demanding more sustainable ways of livestock farming (Boogaard, Bock, Oosting & Wiskerke, 2011b). Intensive livestock farming, chemical use, and invasive surgical procedures without pain relief are among the top issues. These concerns and ensuing conversations are taking place in predominantly western societies (Seamer, 1998), where prosperity has led to food supply exceeding demand, and as such has created demand-driven economies where meeting consumers’ preferences is the key goal of exchange (Vanhonacker, Verbeke, Van Poucke & Tuyttens, 2007). These preferences are increasingly being influenced by post-materialistic values such as animal welfare (Vanhonacker et al., 2007). This is true for many parts of the United States, where economic and physical security are not of major concern (Inglehart, 2000).

Critical perceptions of, confusion surrounding, and conversations about animal agriculture and farm animal welfare have been driven by the frequent use of the term “factory farming” in public discourse over the past half century (Fraser, 2001b; Potard, 2015). The term “factory farming” was coined in 1964 by Ruth Harrison in her book Animal Machines (Harrison, 1964), which documented production animal husbandry practices such as dehorning, castration, and beak trimming, and suggested that modern agriculture was “irresponsible, unsustainable, unpalatable, and unsafe” (Croney et al., 2012 p. 1570).

The book had a major impact on the awareness of intensive animal production among the British public and led to the British government commissioning the first report into the welfare of intensively farmed animals, commonly referred to as the Brambell Report (Brambell, 1965). Following the report, the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee was created to monitor the animal agriculture industry (replaced by the Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979, which was replaced by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee in 2011). The Brambell Report developed the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, a set of standards that has since been adopted internationally.

Since the release of Animal Machines, interest groups in support of, and against, animal agriculture have been advocating their position on animal production and animal welfare to the wider public, but no clear authoritative voice has been established (Potard, 2015). Organizations opposing the industry have engaged various tactics to elicit public support against husbandry practices, production systems, and the industry as a whole (Munro, 2005). Consequently, the animal agriculture industry has on occasion altered its operating practices, or at least committed to doing so, to appease organizational complaints and public concerns.

In 2004, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called on the Australian Wool Industry (AWI) to immediately ban the practice of mulesing, a surgical procedure which removes wool-bearing skin from the tail and breech area of lambs to prevent fly strike (Lee & Fisher, 2007). The procedure was at the time commonly performed without pain relief. In response to PETA’s campaign, which threatened an international boycott of Australian wool should mulesing continue, the AWI publicly committed to phasing out the practice by 2010 (McLachlan & Pietsch, 2005). While considerable achievements have been made in genetics, pain relief, andnew technology, this target has not been met and the practice still exists in 2016, though at a lower prevalence.

On other occasions, changes to industry operating conditions have been driven through government policy and regulatory framework. In 2008, voters in California, United States, voted in support of the California Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (Proposition 2), a bill that called for changes to legislation, specifically that egg-laying hens, calves, and pigs have enough room to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs (Lovvorn & Perry, 2008). The legislation effectively outlawed the use of battery cages, and the sale of eggs produced in battery cages from other states also was prohibited.

Market decisions by the food and retail sectors also have resulted in significant changes to the animal agriculture industry; most recently fast-food chain McDonalds committed to phasing out the use of eggs produced from caged hens in its USA and Canada stores during the next decade (McDonalds, 2015). McDonalds purchases more than 2 billion eggs annually in the USA (McDonalds, 2015); 99.8 billion eggs were produced in the USA in 2014 (USDA, 2015). A shift to cage free eggs was not the first time McDonalds had committed to changing its purchasing choices; earlier in 2015 McDonalds announced plans to “only source chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine by 2017 and to offer milk jugs of low-fat white milk and fat-free chocolate milk from cows that have not been treated with rBST, an artificial growth hormone,” citing that “animal welfare has always been important to us and our customers” (McDonalds, 2015, para. 5).

Whether driven by industry, government, or market, animal welfare assurance has become a key deliverable of the industry expected by the public. The format, requirements, and accountability of different programs are highly variable not only between countries, but amongst different industries within countries (Fraser, 2006). Requirements to meet physiological indicators of welfare as indicated by health and growth are supported by scientific evidence, while those addressing pain, stress, and psychological indicators of welfare have less scientific evidence to support the sometimes significant changes to existing practices required, but are becoming increasingly popular with the public (Fraser, 2006). A recent report from the Australian Farm Institute stated:

“…there is a growing risk that fragmented and opposing views on the matter (of farm animal welfare) will influence policies in unpredictable ways, and that this will result in Australian livestock industries being rendered uncompetitive, while at the same time resulting in little real improvement in farm animal welfare standards.” (Potard, 2015 p.1).”

Though written in reference to Australia, this concept also is applicable to the United States, where the majority of changes to animal agriculture are being driven by forces outside of the industry rather than being initiated from within the industry.

As the disconnect between consumers and the food production industry has grown throughout the past century, so too has the importance of agricultural communication. The field was initially developed to extend technical information from scientists, as well as practical information, to farmers (Boone, Meisenbach, & Tucker, 2000). However, community engagement and education have become major focus areas of the field as multiple segments of the industry have become targets for public debates, including the use of genetic modification technology, water use, land rights, and environmental damage/protection issues.

Traditionally information about animal agriculture extended to the public came from uncontested authoritative figures such as scientists and academics, with extension organizations linked to tertiary institutions being the main location for information dissemination (Boone et al., 2000). Over time, industry lobby groups, organizations, and businesses have created roles for communication staff to focus on community engagement. In recent years, a new major group of communicators has entered the agricultural communication space; farmers, ranchers, industry employees, and those in support of the industry, are commonly referred to as “agricultural advocates” and “agvocates” (Agriculture More Than Ever, 2016).

The increase in agricultural advocates can be partially attributed to the advent and growth of social media (Myers, Irlbeck, Graybill-Leonard & Doefert, 2011). Historically, information was transferred to the public through mass communication, whereas social media has allowed the creation of masses of communicators. Where mass communication allows for messaging to be controlled by authoritative figures in terms of the agenda set and framing of issues (McCombs, 2004), social media on the other hand is unregulated. In the past, conversations about animal agriculture primarily took place between the animal agriculture industry and other organizations, which relied upon the media to share their message to the wider public who could not easily participate in the conversation.

Today, anyone with means to access the internet can share their message with the world and become more participatory in public discussions (Anderson-Wilk, 2009). Consequently, there has been a proliferation of voices engaging in conversations about animal agriculture, ranging on a continuum of those in support of the industry to those opposed to it. Individuals can take political, scientific, commercial, and ethical positions on a single issue (Cook, 2004) which has resulted in different participants having different ways of speaking about the same topic; different groups use different discourses depending on what position they are taking on the issue. A heteroglossia of conflicting discourses can create confusion and misunderstandings (Cook, 2004) and lead to conflict when social goods are at stake (Gee, 2011).