Defined by critics, big ag restarts conversation
Okawville, Ill. • Add one more item to the list of chores that Larry Hasheider has to do on his 1,700-acre farm: defending his business to the American public.
There's a lot of conversation about traditional agriculture recently, and much of it is critical. Think genetically modified crops, overuse of hormones and antibiotics, inhumane treatment of animals and over-processed foods.
This explosion of talk about food — some based on fact, some based on fiction — has already transformed the marketplace. Slow to respond and often defensive, farmers and others in agribusiness have for several years let critics define the public debate and influence consumers. Now, the industry is trying to push farmers and businesses to fight back, connecting with those consumers through social media and outreach that many in agriculture have traditionally shunned.
"We as farmers now have another role in addition to being farmers," Hasheider says as he takes a break from harvesting his corn crop. "It's something you have to evolve into."
In addition to corn, Hasheider grows soybeans, wheat and alfalfa on the farm nestled in the heart of Illinois corn country. He cares for 130 dairy cows, 500 beef cattle and 30,000 hogs. And now, he's giving tours of his farm, something he says he never would have done 20 years ago.
"We didn't think anyone would be interested in what we were doing," he says.
Like a lot of other farmers, Hasheider was wrong.
Take the issue of genetically modified foods. There has been little scientific evidence to prove that foods grown from engineered seeds are less safe than their conventional counterparts, but consumer concerns and fears — many perpetuated through social media and the Internet — have forced the issue. A campaign to require labeling of modified ingredients on food packages has steadily gained attention, and some retailers have vowed not to sell them at all.
Makers of the engineered seeds and the farmers and retailers who use them stayed largely silent, even as critics put forth a simple, persuasive argument: Consumers have a right to know if they are eating genetically modified foods.
Modified seeds are now used to grow almost all of the nation's corn and soybean crops, most of which are turned into animal feed.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a well-known critic of food companies and artificial and unhealthy ingredients in foods, has not opposed genetically modified foods, on the basis that there's no evidence they are harmful.
Still, director Michael Jacobson says, the issue has taken on a life of its own to the general public.
Companies like Monsanto Corp. "try to argue back with facts, but emotions often trump facts," Jacobson says. "They are faced with a situation where critics have an emotional argument, a fear of the unknown."
Perhaps no one understands this dynamic better than Robert Fraley, who was one of the first scientists to genetically modify seeds and now is executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto. He says the company was late to the public relations game as critics worked to vilify it, even holding marches on city streets to protest Monsanto by name.
Fraley says he has spent "more than a few nights" thinking about the company's image problem. He says Monsanto always thought of itself as the first step in the chain and has traditionally dealt more with farmers than consumers.
About a year ago, in an attempt to dispel some of the criticism, the company started addressing critics directly and answering questions through social media and consumer outreach. The company is also reaching out to nutritionists and doctors, people whom consumers may consult. Fraley is personally tweeting — and, like Hasheider, he says it's something he never would have thought about doing just a few years ago.
"We were just absent in that dialogue, and therefore a lot of the urban legends just got amplified without any kind of logical balance or rebuttal," Fraley says of the criticism.
At a recent conference of meat producers, David Wescott, director of digital strategy at APCO Worldwide, told ranchers they needed to do a better job connecting with — and listening to — mothers, who often communicate on social media about food and make many of the household purchasing decisions.