From Hand-Knit Sweaters to Hand-Farmed Food

Just as policymakers should respect consumers’ rights to choose how efficiently their sweaters are manufactured, they should respect consumers’ rights to choose how efficiently their food is farmed and produced.

Jeff SimmonsBy JEFF SIMMONS, President of Elanco Animal Health

I recently saw an ad for a hand-knit sweater priced at $498 (discounted from $712). Figuring there had to be a better deal, I did an online search and found a sweater for $59. Both were blue. Both were available in my size … so why the price difference? One was knitted by hand requiring careful gauging, thousands of individual stitches and the laborious process of matching up the various pieces and sewing them together. The other sweater was produced in a modern manufacturing facility using the latest technologies to cut the patterns, weave the fabric and replicate the process in an efficient manner. The old-fashion process conjures images of grandma in her rocker knitting each stitch with care. But the manufactured sweater also went through quality control. In the end, both were quality pieces. One was simply produced in a more efficient manner, making it more affordable and accessible to all.

Interestingly, we’re seeing a common theme in today’s food production. Affluent consumers more and more are choosing “locally grown,” “natural” or “organically produced” foods. They often have an idyllic vision of the process used to create these foods, even though there is no scientific difference between the nutritional content or quality. Individuals that desire and can afford to purchase hand-crafted (albeit inefficiently produced) sweaters or foods deserve the right to purchase them. The hand-knit sweater’s hefty price tag reflects the less-than-efficient way it’s produced.  

So where’s the controversy? While no laws require consumers to purchase hand-knit sweaters these days, a very vocal minority is attempting to dictate policy when it comes to food. Pick up a popular culture magazine and you’ll find no shortage of articles unwittingly calling for less efficient food production. The discussion seems harmless enough. They talk of how today’s food production methods have become too large scale and they call for a return to simpler methods of farming, reminiscent of 19th century agrarian practices. Ultimately, though, the conversation is not about efficient versus inefficient, but about what might happen if consumer choice was eliminated.

An article in the November 2009 issue of O Magazine praised the European approach to banning/restricting modern farming technologies. To borrow a word from the meat case, I say “baloney!” I lived in the United Kingdom and saw firsthand the enactment of restrictive laws banning farmers’ access to technologies. This gave me a glimpse into what can happen when the preferences of an elite few eliminate choices for the masses. A decade after yielding to pressures to ban (or not approve) many animal medicines, biotech products, GMOs and certain production practices, the U.K. was transformed from a key global leader and competitor to a high-cost, primarily domestic producer, relying on poultry and beef imports to meet consumer demand.

Would any government enact laws that restrict clothing manufacturers’ rights to produce clothing efficiently (and thereby mandate the purchase of hand-knit sweaters)? Absurd, isn’t it? Media seem to “get it” when it comes to fashion. My wife tells me that publications such as O Magazine routinely feature both luxury and bargain-priced clothing in their editorial pages.

I’m a supporter of free speech and consumer choice. However, there is risk in letting a fringe group monopolize the conversation when it comes to food manufacturing policy. Elanco commissioned a research review to further understand this dialogue and consumer attitudes toward technology. A review of 27 studies representing 97,000 consumers in 26 countries showed that 95 percent of consumers make food purchases based on taste, cost and nutrition. Another 4 percent are considered lifestyle buyers that look for organic, local or other luxury choices, while less than 1 percent want to eliminate food choices by banning specific agricultural technologies. Sitting back and letting a small but very vocal minority dictate production and manufacturing practices for all could result in creating a less abundant, less affordable and less sustainable supply of food.

The urgency of efficient production becomes even more important when one considers that the world will need to produce 100 percent more food by 2050 in order to feed 9 billion people. Interestingly enough, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said that 70 percent of the world’s additional food needs can be produced only with new and existing agricultural technologies.

As an industry, the food supply chain has a responsibility to educate consumers not just on the facts about food production, but on their right to choose safe, affordable and sustainable foods. Imagine if laws were passed that required consumers to purchase hand-knit (inefficient) sweaters. They should not be subjected to laws that mandate inefficient food production, nor should they assume that safe, affordable food is guaranteed.

Legislating away food choice is a recipe for higher prices and more hunger in a world where nearly 1 billion people do not get enough to eat. Just as policymakers should respect consumers’ rights to choose how efficiently their sweaters are manufactured, they should respect consumers’ rights to choose how efficiently their food is farmed and produced.

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