Why Ag Needs Consumer Support

U.S. agriculture facing less government support, more regulations

With the farm bill debate about to bubble, I’m reminded of an uneasy conversation I once had with a Harvard Ag policy professor. We were talking about the social contract between farmer and consumer, and how that contract seems to be broken. He believed the disconnect between farmers and consumers was growing, and that it might come back to haunt agriculture in the form of heavy-handed regulations.

Further, he believed this was happening because farmers long ago sided with agribusiness and ignored the concerns of every day consumers.

“That decision may come back to haunt them,” he said.

Ouch.

Whether it was ever a conscious ‘decision’ is open for debate. But the fact remains, American farmers often find themselves battling an uphill fight against regulations – many of which consumers think are necessary. Too often we spout science and facts, when consumers don’t care about either. As farms grow larger and more complex, modern agriculture finds itself without the consumer in its corner.

I was reminded of this again in January at Green Week, Europe’s largest food and agriculture show held each year in Berlin. Protestors there were upset that millions of egg-laying hens were still kept in cages in some EU Member States, despite the fact that it was made illegal at the beginning of this year.

Henrik Baekstrom Lauritsen of Tican, Denmark’s second largest slaughterhouse, says increasing media focus and consumer pressure is leading to new animal welfare legislation in many European countries. According to our sister publication Feedstuffs, a new European Union directive lays down the law on pig welfare. Denmark operates with five levels of welfare, each with progressively stricter standards. At level five, the pigs get 3,800 square feet of outdoor living with huts for farrowing sows; during summer dry sows must be on grassland and during winter must be in groups with access to outdoor areas; roughage is required and after 2014, no castration will be allowed. These higher care standards, says Lauritsen, add between $4.15 to as much as $180.30 to per animal production costs.

Getting off easy

Compared to the EU, our livestock producers are getting off easy, but that could change quickly. Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) successfully drummed up consumer support for livestock housing changes in key livestock states over the past four years. Were those victories because consumers bought in to the emotional messages and pictures of animals in cages? Or was it because farmers just assumed consumers would agree with their science-over-emotion defense?

Whatever the reason, HSUS is winning the battle and is now pushing legislation through Congress that would ban cages in place of colony housing for egg-laying hens nationwide. The cost will be astronomical, but the country’s egg farmers have already conceded that it’s better to go along than fight. Is pork next?

In Europe, consumers seem to side with farmers more often than not. There is no biotech seed planted, for all practical purposes, because environmental groups still have consumers convinced there could be something unsafe about them. Antibiotics in livestock? Not in Europe.  European farmers want to abandon pig castration and de-beaking of poultry, and de-horning calves “should be avoided wherever possible,” says Gerd Sonnleitner, president of the German Farmers Association.

Regulations are one thing. Government support for farmers is another, and the Europeans seem to have that figured out as well. The European Union (EU) is reforming its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which includes $75 billion in government spending, mostly for direct payments to European producers.

Now, consumers in this country have raised hell over $5 billion in direct payments. They will likely get the axe here, but no such cuts are expected in the EU. From my talk with European journalists, it became clear that, despite Europe’s very real debt crisis, there seems to be no real consumer effort to cut farm spending in CAP, which accounts for 45% of the EU budget (by contrast the U.S. farm spending is less than 1% of U.S. federal budget).

When the entire continent is suffering from a major debt crisis, that’s a victory for European agriculture.

I have no doubt that such support is helped along by European taxpayers, who are tuned in with the farmers who feed them. Can we say the same is true in the United States?

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