Consumers want sustainably produced food, better animal welfare standards, reduced drug use and lower food costs
Michael Raine reports from the EuroTier livestock show in Hannover, Germany.
Consumers in the developed world are exerting pressure on livestock producers to reduce their impact on the environment, cut drug use in production and introduce sometimes questionable husbandry practices.
At the same time, producers find themselves with low commodity prices, poor operating margins and increasing long-term demand.
Consumer sentiment about animal agriculture in the western world is largely based on popular media messages about poor animal environments, wasted resources and pollution from manure and field input runoff.
The world’s largest livestock event, EuroTier in Hannover, Germany, has chosen to focus on these issues, addressing both the realities and the misperceptions.
“We are seeing, internationally, social influence on animal husbandry is getting stronger and all manner of different demands on farmers are being made by the broader society,” said Reinhard Grandke, chief executive officer of the German Agricultural Society (DLG), a large farmer co-operative.
“Animal welfare isn’t easily seen (by the public).”
He said more stringent legal, economic and social framework conditions are burdening professional livestock producers with new and rising costs of production.
“Society is increasingly criticizing modern animal production methods,” Grandke said ahead of the opening of the EuroTier farming event that DLG owns.
“That is why farmers need new concepts and (tools) to make their farmers more viable in these changing conditions.”
Siegfried Moder, who heads up the German veterinary association, said commercial animal agriculture could be in trouble in the next decade unless changes are made to agricultural practices.
“The public don’t see the progress we are making,” he said.
“It is sort of a (public) mudslinging battle (in the media), and farmers and industry are losing.”
He said it isn’t enough for farmers to be producing healthy foods that consumers want. Consumers also want animals raised in ways they find acceptable, even when they aren’t good for the livestock.
German farmer Simon Sedlmair recently invested heavily in a new dairy barn system from Swedish maker DeLaval.
He said he did so to ensure his children could farm with him but also so that the farm would be seen as sustainable by the marketplace of the future.
He said producers need to consider many factors, but they can’t ignore the consumer when they build today.
Seventy-six percent of Germans say they want improved animal welfare standards.
“Whether they know what that means or whether they want to pay for it are another matter,” said German Agriculture Secretary Maria Flachsbarth.
She said the federal agriculture department has been trying to counter the legislative proposals of the environment department.
“We don’t just approve everything they ask for with reductions in carbon footprint and ammonia emissions, but we can’t pretend they don’t exist,” she said through a translator. “We need to encourage farmers to use new technologies, but it has to be practical and economically affordable.”
DLG president Carl-Albrecht Bartmer said consumers don’t always know what they want when it comes animal husbandry rules.
“Get a pig with a long, badly bitten tail to tell you about why tails are (docked). Practices have to be right for farmed animals,” he said.
“At the same time, as farmers we have to take a hard look at ourselves when it comes to the concentrations of animals, nutrient loads on the environment and the use of drugs (antibiotics).”
Germany has dramatically reduced its use of antibiotics in livestock over the past five years, reducing medication sales from 1,700 tonnes to 800. Reduction in the European Union has been 12 percent.
Moder said through a translator that two percent of multi-antibiotic resistant human infections that cause death are related to veterinary drugs.
However, there is still room to further reduce use with mandatory, annual veterinary herd inspections and the potential that creates to improve farm practices.
He said the new costs associated with this would be offset by new revenue and reduced costs for producers based on herd health im-provements, including longer productive lives, greater rates of gain and fewer losses.
Flachsbarth’s department is considering a variety of legislative initiatives and is introducing a voluntary domestic food production labelling program for farmers who are following sustainability programs. She said she hopes consumers will pay more for livestock products that are raised to meet the yet-to-be established protocols.
Bartmer said modern farmers “need to stop smiling knowingly” when consumers raise what notions about food production.
“We need to use that knowledge we do have to address consumer concerns and explain our practices well,” he said.
He said the theme of this year’s EuroTier event is based on finding solutions that farmers can use to improve their margins while reducing the negative impacts on the world around them while increasing capacity to meet global food needs.
“No small challenge,” he said.