Beating them to the punch
DES MOINES – No one ever said life was fair, especially when it comes to telling agriculture’s story.
Consider the Dr. Oz Show.
“While Dr. Oz hosts episodes like, ‘No to GMOs,’ his information is incredibly inaccurate,” said Damian Mason, the 2015 Iowa Pork Congress keynote speaker. “However, he has more than 2 million viewers.
“There are fewer real farmers in the United States than Dr. Oz has viewers.”
This program is far from the only source spreading misinformation about modern agriculture and food production, however.
Animal activist groups are focusing on a new tactic that goes beyond animal cruelty to link livestock production with climate change.
“They appeal strictly to emotion,” Mason said. “Their new message? If you eat meat, it’s because you hate the earth.”
Agriculture’s traditional responses to these attacks just aren’t cutting it anymore, he said.
Producers need to re-evaluate their methods for sharing ag’s winning story, said Mason, who is known for combining his sharp wit with his extensive knowledge of agriculture.
“We’re not good at fighting back and winning when our industry is attacked. We’re like the Washington Generals, who are best known for their spectacular losing streak in exhibition games against the Harlem Globetrotters.”
Winning ag’s public relations battle demands a new game plan, Mason said.
Think about animal activists who gained notoriety for throwing red paint on women wearing furs.
These same activists have never been known to go into a biker bar and throw paint on those wearing leather.
“Are we bikers or rich women in furs?” Mason asked.
Being a biker takes a fearless approach, he said For farmers, this requires a willingness to challenge and bust five big myths.
- Agriculture was pristine in the past. While many people think farming was wholesome, pure and pastoral in the days of Old McDonald’s Farm, agriculture was never this beautiful.
“Consumers have a distorted view of what agriculture was or should be,” said Mason, who grew up on an Indiana dairy farm.
- Small-scale agriculture is the best solution. While farmers’ markets and local foods have a place, they aren’t the exclusive answer to feeding a growing population.
This can be a tough reality for consumers to stomach, however. Mason recalled the time he took a tour of a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream plant where the company’s Karamel Sutra was being manufactured.
A lady on the tour was shocked and almost disgusted to learn that the caramel in the ice cream came from huge barrels rather than small, hand-crafted batches.
“Many of us in ag don’t realize just how far removed consumers are from the daily realities of food production,” Mason said.
- Science wins debates. Does the sun revolve around the Earth? A lot of people think so. A 2014 National Science Foundation report showed that one in four Americans could not correctly answer that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around.
“Do you really want to explain to these people how GMOs work?” Mason asked.
- Social media will help educate people about farming. Do a quick Google search and see how many links come up from “proper pig handling” versus “pig abuse.”
You’ll get a few hits on the first one and millions on the second one, Mason said.
“You’re telling me we’re going to educate people about pork production through social media? It’s not going to happen.”
- Messages about affordable food resonate. The cheap food argument is outdated, said Mason, who noted that Americans are willing to spend $13 billion a year on bottled water alone.
“That’s more money than the entire economy of Nicaragua,” Mason said. Also, about 15 percent of Americans don’t pay for food, based on the number of people receiving food and nutrition benefits through the farm bill.
Finding a better way
So what’s a farmer to do? Mason offers the following strategies:
- Adapt the National Rifle Association’s tactics. The NRA’s messages of freedom and choice resonate far beyond the group’s 3.5 million members to the 100 million gun owners in America.
“Gun owners don’t like to hear that people want to take away their guns,” Mason said. “What if we point out that animal activists are linking meat consumption to climate change and would like to take away your right to choose pork?”
- Challenge people to think. This is vital in an era when food has become a hot-button political issue.
Think about former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban sodas and other sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces.
“Ask people whether they think we need politicians dictating how much bacon they can eat?” Mason said. He encouraged producers to check out a new book, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” by Nina Teicholz.
“This refutes the health doctrines of the last 60 years on a scientific basis,” Mason said.
- Stop using science. While solid science is vital, don’t use it as your primary argument when talking to the masses.
“It doesn’t matter what the science says; it matters what people think,” Mason said.
- Realize that people are motivated by self-interest, emotion and feel-good stories.
“I think you need to provide humane-verified pork. Also promote bacon’s popularity and the fact that protein is cool again.
“As you answer your consumers, remember that pork has a great story to tell.”
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