Lately, everywhere you turn the “green machine” is roaring its engine and affecting nearly every aspect of our business. What is it, you ask? Well it is my term for everything relating to the environment, animal welfare and food safety.
As you read this article, I am using my last doses of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). My cooperative’s customers have flexed their green muscle and demanded that milk come only from cows that have not been supplemented with rbST. Is this a food-safety issue? No. Do all of the consumers who shop in stores demand milk from non-treated cows? Probably not. In my humble opinion, I believe that businesses are looking for a “green” marketing edge so they can capitalize on the emotional sentiments of consumers.
Consumers today tend to have more disposable income. Add in the fact that the media and activist groups have flooded them with negative information about nearly every aspect of production agriculture and of the consequences of their excess consumption, and they want to contribute in some form or fashion. Savvy marketers have tapped into this sentiment. Unfortunately, the dairy industry has not done a good job of speaking up for itself. The plight of rbST is not due to a lack of safety testing, field trials, or product efficacy; it is due to consumers listening to groups that speak to their sentiments and of the dairy industry not speaking up.
I am not a promoter of rbST, but as a dairy farmer and veterinarian I want to have the RIGHT to use any and all products and procedures that are deemed safe and wholesome for my cows and for the consuming public. I do not want the people who drink my milk to have any concerns about food safety or animal welfare.
A rising tide
The poultry and swine industries are facing increased scrutiny concerning their management and husbandry practices. Activist groups tell anyone who will listen about the plight of chickens and pigs in modern agriculture. The swine and poultry industries have recognized the problem and are taking proactive steps to protect the future of their businesses. Their responses include improved animal-friendly housing and inspections by third-party companies to certify and validate their animal-welfare and environmental practices.
So, what does dairy have to lose? Rumensin, antibiotics, hormones, tail docking, dehorning, and calf hutches are all at risk given the current momentum of activist groups. If we don’t take heed of the negative light that others portray us in — and take steps to educate the public — then, we too, will find ourselves losing much more than rbST.
As an industry, we must get on board with the green machine or be run over by it. If we as producers want to maintain our right to conduct a profitable business, then we must address the green-marketing tactics used by retailers and misinformation used by activist groups. We must expose retailer’s attempts to profit from the green sentiments of consumers. We must learn how to disseminate useful and truthful information to consumers so that they can make informed purchasing decisions.
I recently listened to a nationally recognized radio program that was discussing organic versus conventional vegetables. The commentator indicated that organic vegetables were potentially more harmful if they were not properly washed prior to consumption. He indicated freshness and cleanliness were more important than whether it was organic or conventionally produced. I was amazed at his frankness and honesty in discussing these issues. We need more public commentary like this in the dairy industry.
Finally, we as an industry must not allow organic dairy to be distinguished as a more wholesome product; otherwise, the consumer will assume that conventionally produced dairy products are unsafe. We must develop educational programs that address consumer concerns. Perhaps this is something our checkoff dollars can help us do. But, even more importantly, we must all learn to speak up for our industry.
Paul Johnson is a veterinarian and dairy producer in Climax, Ga.