The Animal Agriculture Alliance’s 2021 Virtual Stakeholders Summit, themed “Obstacles to Opportunities,” equipped farm and food stakeholders with the tools needed to turn the obstacles of 2020 into opportunities for the decades to come. The 2021 event, held primarily May 5 and 6, was the largest to date attracting 594 registered attendees. A full report of highlights and takeaways was recently released.
Kicking off the main event, Timothy Caulfield, professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta, discussed the spread of misinformation and how to effectively debunk myths.
“Misinformation is being normalized, which means that it’s having a greater impact on people’s lives,” said Caulfield. He stated misinformation campaigns are often used to incite fear to sell certain narratives or products but debunking false information can be effective and have an impact, especially coming from an expert on the subject. “You can be direct while correcting [misinformation], but I still think you want to have a tone that engages the community and that allows that ongoing conversation.”
The next two panels focused on consumer behaviors, purchasing habits and trends. Speakers affirmed that animal products are not going away and as incomes rise, so does the demand for premium animal proteins. When it comes to nutrition, registered dietitian Kim Kirchherr recommended, “Think about value and values… What are people getting for the dollars that they’re spending and the calories they’re eating?”
Panelists also shared that the concept of a “healthy diet” is changing. “Traditionally, ‘healthy’ was based on nutrient content and informed by experts. Increasingly, consumers are viewing ‘healthy’ in a different way, with demands for clean labels and greater transparency,” said Rachel Kopay of RJK Consulting.
Frank Mitloehner, PhD, professor and director of the CLEAR Center at the University of California, Davis wrapped up day one of the Virtual Summit sharing animal agriculture’s important role in reaching climate neutrality. Dr. Mitloehner stated that methane is often villainized in media and climate discussions but should be reconsidered since it’s a short-lived climate pollutant that is produced and destroyed at almost equal rates, limiting its impact on the environment. Dr. Mitloehner concluded, “We should confirm to a public that largely is in favor of [animal] products that these products are produced in a responsible way.”
Keynote speakers Jared Achen and Katie Olthoff, co-founders of ChopLocal, an online marketplace dubbed the “Etsy of meat,” opened day two of the Virtual Summit sharing how they were able to pivot during the pandemic and turn an obstacle into an opportunity. They noticed when grocery store shelves were emptier at the onset of the pandemic consumers were increasingly purchasing meat online, so they found a way to connect farmers and processors directly to consumers.
“I felt like I had operated in the status quo for so long, and it took a disruption in the market to make me look at alternatives and what can we change to get better and serve our consumers,” said Achen.
Olthoff, recognizing the importance of both conventional and niche agriculture in providing consumers with a variety of products to choose from, added, “One of the first decisions that we made as partners was that we would not allow any disparaging marketing to occur on our platform,”
The next two panels focused on current trends in the animal rights movement and legal challenges activist groups may pose. Speakers noted that COVID-19 had very little impact on activism as many activists had more time on their hands to devote to activism. John Sancenito, president of INA, Inc. stressed the importance of being prepared for potential activist activity, stating, “Take a good look at your farm and think about it the way the activists would think about it. So, how would you attack your own farm? What are your own vulnerabilities?”
In the event of a crisis situation, Nancy Daigneault of On Point Communications noted, “Reporters are always looking for the most emotional type story possible. If it's conflict and controversy, and if it's emotional, that is the story.” She said it’s important to never minimize the situation, especially if there are visuals telling the story. Instead, commit to addressing the issue. Michelle Pardo, partner at Duane Morris LLP encouraged farms and facilities to “do what you say that you’re going to do in your policies and your operating procedures and in your marketing and advertising.”
The closing session of the 2021 Virtual Summit featured three farmers and a veterinarian sharing how to elevate the voices of farmers in dialogues surrounding food and agriculture.
Brandi Buzzard, also known on social media as “Buzzard’s Beat,” encouraged the agriculture community to be initiate conversations about specific issues instead of merely criticizing false and negative information. “How likely are we going to be invited to the table if we’re just ticked off farmers and ranchers?” she asked.
Speakers also highlighted the importance of responding objectively and politely to negative comments and not getting carried away with passion and aggressive emotions.
“Be a person that someone else wants to go to, to ask questions or learn more about food and agriculture,” said Markie Hageman, a beginning beef rancher and founder of Girls Eat Beef Too. For those nervous or discouraged to share their stories with the general public, farmer and blogger Jennifer Osterholt offered this encouragement: “You can learn. You can do it. You’ve just got to keep going.”
The 2022 Summit is set for May 11-12 at the InterContinental Kansas City at the Plaza Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri.