This week’s guest commentary comes from Nathan Stevens of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario
Concern over animal welfare is a growing issue for both farmers and consumers. What isn’t clear at all is whether farmers and consumers are communicating well with each other on this matter. The CFFO recently invited Dr Mike Von Massow of the University of Guelph to share his thoughts and research into the place of animal welfare in the value chain.
Tim Horton’s has committed to fund research in animal welfare at the University of Guelph to develop a better understanding of the opportunities and barriers moving forward, as well as assessing the capacity for change. Dr. Von Massow is one of the lead researchers in this area.
The research has revealed that at least 60 percent of Canadians rate animal welfare a 5 or higher on a scale of 1-7, and a similar number agree that government should take a strong role in ensuring animal welfare. The results of the research point towards animal welfare as a secondary tier of importance to consumers behind must-haves such as price, freshness, taste and safety, but ahead of environmental factors, the brand name or whether it is organic or not. That means that it is a differentiating value that can set a product apart and thus an opportunity for businesses. Perhaps more importantly in the long-term, young people are far more concerned than the average consumer.
However, what is becoming clearer is that while consumers are concerned about the state of animal welfare, they really do not know a lot about the state of animal welfare. The majority of people are unclear about the state of the industry, and there is a strong sentiment that science cannot be the only determinant of what is right or wrong and that ethical considerations should be included in setting standards.
There is also a communications shortfall and misunderstandings. For example, only 25 percent of consumers say they don’t know the difference between free-range and free-run eggs, yet only 16 percent of people know that free run chickens do not have access to the outdoors. There is a disconnect between what consumers think they know and the reality of the situation, regardless of whether that situation is better or worse than their perception. From my perspective, industry is taking a grave risk marketing terms that are not clearly understood, and which have the danger of undermining confidence in farmers if consumers eventually conclude they are being deceived in some manner.
All of this points towards long-term change in animal welfare practices. What remains to be seen is if government will lead the way, whether the market will lead the way, or if there will be a combination of the two. From there, each industry will be facing the challenge of having the fiscal capacity to make adjustments to consumer, government and retailer demands.
The evolving issue of animal welfare will change farming practices in the long-term. Unfortunately, is seems clear that the two extremes of this discussion are engaged in monologues on the issue. Unfortunately, two monologues do not create a conversation. For the vast majority of consumers, this means that they cannot put together informed opinions on where to go on this important matter. It falls to farmers to educate consumers on the science behind animal welfare systems while considering consumer’s emotional reactions to how we care for our livestock.