Public Says Only 1 in 3 Farmers Care for the Environment

by Kayla Sargent

As discussions about the environment, particularly agriculture’s impact on it, intensify the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) asked consumers “do farmers protect the environment?”  The results are in and only 30 percent of respondents strongly believe producers take good care of the environment, about 60 percent are unsure.

“They’re just not sure farmers are doing enough,” CFI’s Terri Moore said.

Polling a random crowd on the street, some of the answers paint a poor picture of the American farmer.

“I think they’re hurting our environment at an alarming rate.”

“I think they’re smarter about maximizing the use of land.  But no, because they don’t live on the land, they’re not careful with the stewardship of it.”

“It’s hard to protect the environment when there’s so much strain on them to produce so much food.”

“Those huge commercial farms – I don’t think they’re doing anything to protect the environment.”

“Some do, some don’t. I think it’s about 50/50.”

CFI has found that a recurring concern is the idea among consumers that “big is bad.”  Four out five respondents believe that small farms will put the publics’ interest ahead of those of the farm.  But that number is slashed in half when CFI asked about larger operations.

“As the size and scale of farming grow, the public doesn’t trust that large farms have the public’s best interests at heart,” Moore said.

She explained that many think profit and efficiencies outweigh the importance of human and environmental health on large scale operations.  However, the silver lining is that people tend to trust the farmer as an individual person.  In fact, CFI research has found that consumers trust farmers over dietitians, university scientists, state and federal regulators, and animal rights and environmental advocacy groups when it comes to food-related issues.

So the poor response about farmer’s role in the environment could potentially stem from the size concern and also the fact that agricultural producers are not involved in the conversation as much as they ought be.

“As the original stewards of the land, farmers should be smack dab in the middle of that conversation,” Moore said.  “They have an impressive story to tell.”

She said the number of producers actively engaging in the conversation, mainly online, is increasing, but it is still a small portion.

“By contrast, the price for silence has been high as critics of agriculture have energetically engaged to raise concerns in well-connected online networks,” Moore said.

She said every indication says these conversations will only intensify by multiples, as will the pressure on the agricultural industry to reduce its carbon footprint.  But, she pointed to some facts to back up the producers story.  Since the 1940s, dairy farmers have reduced the carbon footprint per gallon of milk produced by two thirds.  Swine producers are using 75 percent less land, 25 percent less water, and seven percent less energy to produce more pork than fifty years ago.  Wheat farmers have increased yields by more than 25 percent since 1980 while using 28 percent less land, reducing soil erosion by 47 percent, and using 12 percent less irrigation water.

These facts need to be aired, because CFI found that 65 percent of their respondents want to know more about agriculture and the public conversation is happening without producer input. This presents a “golden opportunity” for producers to engage, Moore said.

She encouraged producers to take advantage of public speaking opportunities if they become available.  She said it is helpful to pitch story ideas to media about seasonal production milestones like planting and harvest, then incorporate messages about sustainability.  Social media channels provide an outlet for photos or short videos about the operation.  It’s also important to engage in day-to-day conversations with others, not to tell them what farmers are doing, but to learn about their concerns so they can be addressed in a meaningful manner.

“Farmers have a trust halo.  Now is the time to leverage it to demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement, as pressure intensifies to achieve greater environmental outcomes more rapidly than ever before,” she concluded.


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