Nothing prevents farmers from keeping their dairy cows in stalls and laying hens in cages, or from using livestock growth hormones and antibiotics.
But, says the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity — a non-profit organization that promotes consumer confidence in the food system — that doesn’t mean they should.
“‘Can’ and ‘should’ aren’t the same question,” said Charlie Arnot.
“‘Should’ is a question about values and ethics; ‘can’ is a question about competency.”
Speaking at the 2012 Livestock Care Conference in Red Deer on Thursday, Arnot described how “should” is becoming increasingly important for ag producers.
Whereas farmers once sold into a supply chain consisting of processors and distributors, their products can now be traced through to grocery stores, restaurants and other branded buyers with a keen interest in how that food was produced.
And they have a lot to lose if those buyers and the public don’t trust their production practices, said Arnot.
“I really believe that trust is, without question, the most valuable asset that any organization has,” he said.
Without public trust, said Arnot, producers face the prospects of greater regulatory restrictions, or market-driven requirements.
And that could mean a loss of independence and freedom, and higher production costs.
He pointed to the current situation in Europe, where new laws governing the use of chicken enclosures have boosted egg costs by 75 per cent over the past six months.
“It’s the farmer who’s going to suffer, because EU egg farmers are going to be forced out of business.”
Arnot said farmers have in the past used science to justify their production techniques. But studies show that a far more effective way to build consumer trust is to demonstrate that farmers share their values and ethics when it comes to livestock care.
“So we’ve had the communication equation exactly backward in agriculture, because it’s not the science that’s going to drive trust, it’s the perception that we share the values and the ethics of our stakeholders and we’re committed to doing what’s right.”
Arnot suggested that farmers impress upon the public that they care about their livestock’s wellbeing, not because it’s good for their bottom line — which is the common message now — but because it’s the right thing to do.
They should formally adopt those values and principles, and communicate it via their websites and other means.
Arnot also said an effective production model must balance three considerations: that it’s ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable.
The Livestock Care Conference is organized annually by Alberta Farm Animal Care, a producer association that promotes the responsible and humane care of animals.