The Animal Agriculture Alliance’s 2021 Virtual Stakeholders Summit preconference webinars, sponsored by Protect the Harvest, wrapped up May 4 and included sessions highlighting ways to connect with companies sharing misinformation, updates on the political climate, and tips for virtual influencer and stakeholder engagement. The 2021 Virtual Summit, themed “Obstacles to Opportunities,” officially kicks off today and continues through tomorrow afternoon. If you missed registering for the event, you can still follow along with the live Twitter coverage sponsored by National Biodiesel Board using #AAA21.

Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, animal genomics and biotechnology specialist at the University of California, Davis, kicked off the preconference webinar series sharing what we can learn from past science communication failures when it comes to addressing consumer concerns about food. She shared that there is a need to feed more people while decreasing animal agriculture’s impact on the environment – but the acceptance of advancements in food and technology needs to be communicated well to be accepted by consumers. She noted that food technology is often accepted in alternative proteins but not in traditional meat due to how the products are viewed and promoted. Traditional meat is seen as “a big boogeyman that’s trying to take over the world,” and alternative proteins are viewed as a “savior.” Dr. Van Eenennaam highlighted the importance of being positive toward all types of agriculture and food production as attacking certain methods only incites fear and uncertainty in the food supply. This fear is not only an issue for those trying to market their products but also a food security issue because it hurts the agriculture community’s ability to produce more food while using fewer resources to meet the demands of a growing population.

In another session, Michelle Miller, also known as The Farm Babe on social media, detailed her experience working with companies like Burger King to address misinformation and negative food marketing campaigns. Following the release of a well-intentioned but misinformed Burger King ad criticizing the impact cattle have on the environment, Miller reached out to their chief marketing officer via social media to connect and engage on the topic. Several farm tours later, Burger King released a new video detailing their experience and takeaways from visiting the farms and learning more about what farmers and ranchers are doing to care for the environment. Miller says social media provides great opportunities to reach consumers, but it also poses new problems. What happens when the information you get online is not accurate? Miller says, “We can't just read something at face value. We have to question everything because anybody can say whatever they want online.” She also noted that there are many opportunities outside of social media to have conversations about food and agriculture within the local community. No matter how you choose to engage, it’s important that all involved in agriculture come to the table. “When we come together, we can move mountains,” said Miller.

When it comes to engaging influencers and stakeholders virtually, speakers shared how they were able to adapt conferences, events, and learning opportunities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic to meet and connect with people in their homes. Emma Andrew-Swarthout of American Dairy Association Northeast said as long as participants are “all gathered around the same activity… they can still have that same connectedness.” Terri Moore of American Farm Bureau Federation added that including engagement opportunities is vital in the virtual world, especially trying to combat Zoom fatigue. “People love to be engaged. They don’t want to sit and watch,” said Moore. Looking forward, speakers were in agreement that in-person events and activities are preferred but virtual options will still be necessary as we navigate the “new normal.” Mike Ioakimedes of the Solano County Fair Association in California added no one has a playbook for where we are right now, so we just need to give it our best effort.

Executives at various food and agriculture companies shared what their respective organizations are doing to support the animal agriculture community in bridging the communication gap between farm and fork. Megan Hayes of Filament said it’s important for companies to realize they are advocating for agriculture in their every day materials whether they realize it or not, adding “animal activists are reading the same publications that we’re using to educate and communicate to our own industries.” Panelists echoed her sentiment that agriculture companies should pay attention to what is seen by the general public because it impacts the way the agriculture community is perceived. Emily Johannes of Nestle and moderator Jane Hilstrom of Filament both noted that the most important part of engaging with consumers is ensuring they connect with your message. Stewart Leeth of Smithfield added, “There’s strength in numbers, so the more people that talk and the more people that vocalize what they’re doing every day in the social media world, the better.” When it comes to addressing contentious issues, Sharyl Sauer of Corteva Agriscience asked, “Would you rather have the conversation in your backyard where you participate, or would you rather have the conversation happen across the street where you can’t participate?”

Insights into the first months of the Biden Administration and the political climate in statehouses around the country were discussed by policy experts Christian Richter of The Policy Group, Elizabeth Rumley of the National Agricultural Law Center, and moderator Nick Giordano of the National Pork Producers Council in a session sponsored by NPPC. Key issues of importance at the federal level mentioned include labor, food system sustainability, and trade. On the sustainability front, Richter said, “Animal ag has a good story to tell and is telling that story early enough to make a difference in environmental matters.” Richter shared that climate discussions has been and will continue to be a huge topic under the Biden Administration, noting that “agriculture overall is being acknowledged.” At the state level, Rumley shared that the largest issues for animal agriculture include farm animal housing, processing, right-to-farm initiatives, and ballot proposals. Rumley noted that ballot initiatives mandating practices in animal agriculture are frequently used by activist groups as an incremental step to proposing stricter legislation or initiatives. She added, “pay attention to what’s happening in other states because it’s a lot easier to take it to another state” if legislation or ballot initiatives pass or are upheld in the initial state.

During the 2021 Virtual Summit, attendees will hear from farmers, ranchers and practicing veterinarians about how to create opportunities to elevate their voices, learn why we should rethink methane and agriculture’s role in environmental discussions, and how two farmers were able to pivot during the pandemic to connect consumers directly to the farms producing their food.

Check the Virtual Summit website for session descriptions, speaker biographies and additional information. For general questions about the Summit please contact or call (703) 562-5160.

Source: Animal Agriculture Alliance