Communication key to intensive farming acceptance

Take-home message: Better communication is vital to public acceptance of more intensive farming systems

Talking to consumers more openly about the way livestock and meat is produced is critical to if the public is to understand and accept modern farming practices.

A survey of more than 2500 shoppers across Europe found the majority of people have misconceptions about the way animals are reared, with few really understanding what intensive production really entails. 

And with the public having limited opportunity to engage directly with farmers, there runs a risk of animal rights groups filling in the gaps in knowledge, prompting consumer backlash against livestock production, researchers behind the survey said.

Carried out by scientists at the University of Newcastle as part of the EU’s PROHEALTH project, the survey questioned shoppers across five countries - the UK, Finland, Germany, Poland and Spain - to find out their attitudes towards intensive livestock production.

The findings revealed that some people recognised that more intensive systems allowed meat to be produced more cheaply, ensured secure meat supplies, and brought some benefits to animals, such as protection from the weather.

However the survey responses also showed consumers were concerned that intensive systems were poor for animal welfare, as they believed they stopped animals from displaying natural behaviours and had lower standards of stockmanship. They also had misconceptions about how animals are produced, with many expressing concerns over the use of antibiotics as growth promoters - despite the survey explaining it is banned in the EU.

Beth Clarke, the lead scientist behind the project, said the results highlighted the disconnect between consumers and modern farm production - and the need for the sector to take a more proactive role in explaining modern agriculture.

“People don’t have the ability to visit farms, they don’t know people working in agriculture and that don’t know where their food comes from,” she said.

“For example, only a third of respondents thought they were purchasing pig products from more intensive systems, when market data shows the figure is much higher.”

To address the problem, Dr Clarke said it was vital the industry did more to provide accurate information to consumers about how intensive systems are run, as well as the good care and practices that are used in them.

“Putting information in the public demand can have have pitfalls and does have the potential to be misused by organisations.

“But it is important to ensure the industry’s voice is heard and that accurate and positive descriptions for the industry are made available for the public.

“Without it, there’s a real risk that the media or other organisation will fill those knowledge gaps with more emotive or factually inaccurate language, which could be incredible damaging.”

Beth Clark, Gavin B. Stewart, Luca .A  Panzone, Ilias Kyriazakis ,Jarkko K. Niemi, Terhi Latvala, Richard Tranter, Philip Jones and Lynn J. Frewer- ‘Consumer views on controlling production diseases in intensive production systems’