Helping food companies reach their sustainability goals: The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, Episode 10
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Welcome to Episode 10 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast. In this episode, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill provide updates on flooding along the Missouri River and the assistance available to flood victims. The episode also features an interview with Charlie Arnot (CEO of the Center for Food Integrity) about a plan to help food companies reach their sustainability goals, while avoiding inaccurate and harmful claims about farming practices and technology.
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Narrator: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks, a podcast from Iowa's leading agricultural news source. Brought to you by the Iowa Farm Bureau. Now here's your host, Laurie Johns.
Laurie Johns: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. This is our April 8th edition. Thanks for tuning in. We've reached our 10th episode of the podcast. Wow. Can you believe it? Time flies, right? You can catch all of our previous episodes in your favorite podcast app, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Tune In Radio and Stitcher. There's some really good stuff in those past episodes that you'll want to hear, including a visit with US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. My interview with record breaking astronaut Peggy Whitson. Stories about fake meat and the true environmental impact of livestock, and by the way, it's not what you've been reading. There were also tips for navigating a difficult farm economy and so much more. So find us in your favorite podcast app and get subscribed. Today's episode features an update on flood relief efforts in southwest Iowa, which may be going on for a while. We'll also hear about the sustainability claims made by food companies and the best ways for you as farmers to tell your own story about farming sustainability. Well, let's start with flood relief. Let's get an update from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. Iowa Farm Bureau's Zach Bader tracked down Secretary Naig following a recent town hall meeting for farmers who've all been impacted by the Missouri River flooding.
Zach Bader: Joined by Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Naig. We're in Malvern for a meeting to talk with some folks that have been affected by the Missouri River Flooding. Secretary Naig, I know that you were also doing some traveling around in this area the last couple of days here and recently went up in a flight as well to take a look and survey the area. Can you tell folks who aren't as connected to this issue what you're seeing out there and what you're hearing from folks in this area?
Secretary Naig: Well, absolutely. You know, we've spent now the last two days, really touring up and down Mills and Fremont Counties. Been as far south as Hamburg. And then, you know, here in Malvern finishing up today. Had a lot of opportunities to visit with farmers directly. You know, really most importantly, what I wanted to get out of this was to listen and to hear what folks are thinking about, how they're impacted, what their frustrations are. You know, here's some of the emotion and you heard a little bit of that today in the room here in Malvern as folks were asking questions and making comments. But we're looking for solutions. And you know, there's a lot of folks here in Fremont and Mills County has been watching this river for a long time and they've got lots of ideas about the levees, the Army Corps of Engineers and how USDA programs can help recovery. And so that was very important. I also very appreciative of the fact that now Undersecretary of Agriculture Bill Northey was with us for the last two days and Senator Grassley joined us today. And you know, of course we know USDA is really, that's the source of a lot of those programs that are gonna help folks with recovery. And then of course we identified some gaps, right? Some things that USDA can't do and we'll have to be addressed in other ways and some issues with the Corp. And that's where having senator with us to hear those things and be able to respond was very important too. So, I really appreciate Senator Grassley and Secretary Northey for being with us the last couple of days.
Zach Bader: Can you dive a little bit into the support that is out there right now on the state and federal level for folks who are dealing with this situation right now?
Secretary Naig: I'll just talk with in the ag space, of course there's lots of programs for folks, you know, and their household needs and individual needs through FEMA and, you know, some state level assistance. That's really outside of my purview. So I'll just stick with agriculture. But you know, again, we're looking at programs to help with land restoration, clearing debris and through the NRCS we're certainly looking at a livestock indemnity if there are needs. And really we're not hearing about a lot of livestock losses in this area, you know, not certainly not like we know has happened in Nebraska to the west. Of course, it's just a different landscape here and, so we haven't had to deal with that thankfully, but there have been some losses. And what can we do about providing some assistance to get feed, you know, into the area and some things like that. Of course, looking ahead, we're also talking a lot about a lot of conversations around prevent plant and what those programs need to look like. Those would be the big topics that we heard about it from a USDA standpoint.
Zach Bader: As you get a sense of the landscape and of course working with the governor's office as well and other agencies, as we start to look at what does this recovery look like and where we take those first steps. What's the, I mean, what's the timeline for that? What are those first steps look like?
Secretary Naig: Yeah, that's a great challenge, right? So here we stand at the end of March. Today it rained, it rained yesterday. We know that a significant percent of our precipitation will still come this spring. We've had historic snow pack to the north - South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota. That snow is still coming. And so a part of this is here we stand with flooding that is starting to recede in the area, but with so many breached levees that any rise in that river above flood stage brings water right back into the area. So there's a, there's an urgency and a desire to get moving on recovery, but there's a need to sort of watch that process too and make sure that we're not getting too far ahead before those levees are in place. And I think that's, you know, we, we know that the governor's office is working very closely with the Corps of Engineers and with the levee districts here in this area to try to get those initial temporary levees up, but do so in a way that can also contribute to where we need to go on a more permanent basis too. So getting that levee process started is really one of those first steps. And we all want that to happen as fast as possible. And then you know, you talk to some folks who's water is receding and they're still hopeful that they can get a crop in the ground this spring. And so it's really, there's a lot of variety out there. Even within the bottom ground here, there's still some elevation changes and some folks will be okay and others will still be underwater. So it all, it's all a varying degrees of flooding, but I know there's just a real desire to move on. But unfortunately, we still have to look out the window and see what the weather's doing.
Zach Bader: Any last thoughts that you'd like to share with the farmers in this area who might be listening to this podcast? Anything you want to pass along to them?
Secretary Naig: Well, first of all, I'm, I'm humbled by what I saw when I was, you know, up in the air and the power of the, of the flood water and the destruction it caused. And, but I'm also incredibly encouraged by the resiliency and the attitudes of the folks that I've met with. They're frustrated in some cases, but you know, most people are saying something like, Hey, we're not as bad off as our neighbors or, you know, what, we can replace stuff, but we're okay. And I just heard that so many times throughout the last couple of days and I love that about our state and I love that about this area. I want folks to think about the fact that, one, we're not done with spring flooding yet and not just here, but even other parts of the state need to be vigilant. And the two would be this situation here won't be resolved tomorrow. It won't be resolved next week or even next month. This will take months and in some cases years to recover. So let's keep these folks in mind and their needs and help in any way we can. But don't forget about what's happening down here in the recovery that'll be underway.
Laurie Johns: Clearly the folks impacted by these devastating floods are just at the very beginning of a long tough road to recovery. And this is just the beginning after all of the rainy season in Iowa and there's still that snow melt from Minnesota and other parts up north, which has yet to come down. So clearly all of us need to be thinking about ways that we can make things better because you know how farmers are not always willing to say they need help. Zach talked with Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill about the flood recovery. And ways that Farm Bureau and its members are pitching in for flooding recovery. Let's hear that now.
Zach Bader: Here with Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill. Craig, you spent a couple of days in southwest Iowa last week. You also spent a couple of days in Washington, D.C. Among other things advocating for flood relief. From what you're seeing, from what you're hearing, can you share that with folks who maybe aren't as close to the situation?
President Hill: Well, you know, we've always tried to look back to something that analogist to this and whether it's a one in 100-year event or one in 500-year event, we don't know. There's nothing really similar to this type of catastrophe that we've had in southwest Iowa. We have six weeks of the rainy season, the spring rainy season ahead of us. So the question marks remain and now that the river has broken, the levees are damaged, multiple levees are damaged, you know, we don't know what the damages will be going forward and whether they'll be able to farm this land going forward. Disaster relief from the federal government's going to be important. And there may be some dollars from the state that are important. So we just need to look at where the losses are, how can we repair as much of this, and no one's going to be left. No one will be repaid from what they've lost, but we want to help as much as we can. And so, we're looking for all those options and opportunities.
Zach Bader: Mentioned that you'd spent some time in DC as well, advocating with our members out there for, among other things, federal flood relief. What are, what are you hearing about that at this point?
President Hill: Well, there's a number of disaster occurrences across the country that have been wrapped up in a disaster and legislation piece. And we want to be part of that. Iowa, Nebraska, the Midwest, flood victims. And we're very hopeful that it'll move. We've got support from our congressional delegation. And so, in detail what it looks like, how many dollars will be there, just how it will perform for those with various losses. I can't speak to that, but we're supportive of it. We're working toward that end zone to get that approved and the details worked out.
Zach Bader: Can you just share at a high level what the Iowa Farm Bureau's doing and then any anecdotes that you've heard as well locally there?
President Hill: Well, recognize, again, that this is an emergency without an end in sight. Many of these individuals have lost their homes. Maybe some will lose their farms. They've lost their livelihood, they've lost their dreams in many cases. So you can't repair all of that, but you can help. And people come together in times of crisis like this. And we're seeing that neighbors, friends, even from as far away as states away, hundreds of miles away, people are coming in to provide assistance. It's a difficult situation. And we put $20,000 toward the Red Cross to help immediately. We sent $15,000 to the Nebraska Farm Bureau to help their farmers. All those dollars in the case of Nebraska's foundation will go to help farmers specifically. There's other things that we can do. We're waiting for the counties that have impacted to let us know what more can be done. You know, of course we're networked in every community of this state. And so we're looking for input from individuals, from our regional managers and others is what can be done? How can we be helpful? And we'll continue to look for opportunities to help remediate and provide some assistance. If we can.
Zach Bader: Can you share any stories that you're hearing from the flood relief down there of local folks pitching in or local farmers' stories, those that are affected?
President Hill: Right now, you know, there's limited things you can do because the water is still there. We still have a lot of flooded properties, but as we go in there, you know, farmers are a take charge kind of group. I mean that, that's what farmers do. They see a problem and they want to jump in there and fix it. And so they're gonna go after it. They're going to try to do the best they can to recover, you know, property recover what they can and then, you know, clean things up. It's an absolute mess and it'll take a very long time. It may be throughout the summer, it may be years before it's finally cleaned up as we would like to have it. But you know, these, these farmers, and these, these residents of these communities, they know how to get after it and they're going to do that. They're going to do it together and they're going to join arms in doing that.
Zach Bader: Any thoughts that you'd like to share with folks that are dealing with this tragedy right now? Perhaps tune into this podcast? Any message you'd like to share with them?
President Hill: Well, it's a difficult time and there is the shock of what's transpired here. You have to recognize that as time goes by, it's going to be more difficult as a cleanup begins, as you recognize and realize, you know, your cash flow needs that aren't going to be met at the bank. All those things that will impact you and your life. But I think we just have to stop and recognize as time goes by we will look back upon this and it'll be one of those things in our life, one of those challenges that we've had. But we'll look back and we'll see it for what it truly is and we'll be able to have some comfort to know that we did the best we can and it was out of our control. You know, it will be a better day, a brighter day. We don't know this year whether some of those farms will be farmed. We don't know what the future will be, but we're gonna work together. We're gonna find solutions. We will perhaps be surprised how bright things will be at the end when we look back.
Laurie Johns: Alone a recovery effort like this one would just be impossible. But together we can help our neighbors pick up the waterlogged pieces of their lives and get back on their feet. If you're someone who's been impacted by the flooding or would like to offer assistance with the flood recovery, I encourage you to check out our website. Here it is: IowaFarmBureau.com/floods. The site includes links to critical recovery programs and resources as well as ways that all of us can help. And just last week we added an online message board where Iowans can offer help including goods and services to those who are impacted by the floods or maybe seeking assistance for themselves or for a neighbor. We're calling it the Farming Community Disaster Exchange, and again, you can find that on IowaFarmBureau.com/floods. From flood recovery we turn to a very different kind of challenge facing Iowa's farmers. For years, farmers have shaken their heads at claims made by food companies, grocery stores and restaurants that sure seem to throw certain farming practices under the bus. It's divisive. It's maddening. Charlie Arnot is the CEO of Center for Food Integrity, an organization that works closely with a wide range of food stakeholders from farm organizations like Iowa Farm Bureau to food retailers like Kroger and Costco. CFI's latest project helps food companies think through the tradeoffs of different farming practices and technologies before they commit to big decisions that affect what they put on their shelves or in the restaurants. It's great information. Charlie recently sat down with Zach to discuss that project and the best ways for farmers to communicate the sustainability of their own practices. Check it out.
Zach Bader: I'm here with Charlie Arnot who's the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity. Charlie, the Center for Food Integrity has been a partner of ours for many years. For those who don't know, could you tell us a little bit about what CFI is all about and some of the notable food system stakeholders that you've been working with over the years?
Charlie Arnot: So, the Center for Food Integrity is a not for profit organization whose mission is to help the food system earn consumer trust. And we work with companies and associations across the food system from organizations like the Iowa Farm Bureau, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Pork Producers Council, Pork Board, Dairy Farmers of America, all the way through to the Costco's Kroger's, Chick fil A's of the world. And pretty much everybody in between. We all share a similar goal and that's to help earn consumer trust because whether you're producing the food, you're processing the food or you're selling the food, you want to have that high level of trust and confidence that Americans and consumers around the world trust where it comes from, they trust the men and women who are growing it. They trust that it's going to be good for them and it has been responsibly produced.
Zach Bader: And one of the issues that you were talking about with our Farm Bureau leaders here today is sustainability, which can be a tricky issue to define and to discuss. But I know CFI has done a lot of research with consumers. When it comes to food, what are most consumers thinking about when it comes to defining sustainability? Are there any key common threads that they're thinking about when it comes to that issue?
Charlie Arnot: Yeah, so we kind of, if you think about a little frame that, reframe that a little bit and think about mindful purchases. So consumers are really thinking about this as being more than just environmental impact. They want to know is it good for me, is it good for the world, was it produced responsibly? And produced responsibly can incorporate a number of different attributes. It can be the care and treatment of animals, it can be a potential for forced labor in other parts of the world. It could be environmental impact, it could be social impact. So it's a broadening definition, but if we think about it and we think about it in terms of is it good for me and was a produced responsibly, I think the answer for agriculture is generally very positive. So we have an opportunity to help redefine that conversation for consumers as well. But it's going to require us to think about it differently and make sure that we're answering different kinds of questions then we have historically.
Zach Bader: So how are food companies, again, you work with food companies as well, so how are food companies going about meeting consumer sustainability expectations or even creating new expectations of their own?
Charlie Arnot: Great question. It's a rapidly evolving environment and what you really see is that the definitions of sustainability and corporate social responsibility vary greatly by brand. And some brands will have a handful of attributes that might be tied to a greenhouse gas emissions or transportation miles, while others might have a much wider range in terms of what's the impact on indigenous populations or the impact on biodiversity or whatever it happens to be. So it's really, it runs the gamut today and it kind of depends on where you are in the supply chain. So I think the opportunity in that for agriculture is again to be involved in helping to define what constitutes responsible production regardless of what company or what brand happens to be a part of that. Now that's more than just measurement. Today, agriculture's really focused on can we benchmark, can we measure, can we reduce impact, environmental impact, social impact, animal care, impact, whatever it happens to be. But it also is going to require us to think differently about how we engage in that conversation. Because historically we've been very science based in defining sustainability. We need to think about it from a social standpoint as well. Science tells us if we can, society tells us whether or not we should. So a lot of the questions around sustainability and social responsibility today are really tied to should you be doing what you're doing? Not can you do it, don't give me the numbers, don't give you the metrics, but tell me that you should be doing what you're doing. Now. I happen to believe we've got great answers to those questions in most of agriculture. That moving animals indoors, anybody who was in Iowa this winter understands that animals indoors are going to be a whole lot happier than animals that were outdoors, right? It's going to be better for them. It's going to be better for the environment, but we have to tell that should story. Now, food companies are also going to be interested in the measurement. They're going to want to know those metrics for environmental impact, greenhouse gas emissions, et cetera. So it's a combination of having the data and that data driven story for food companies. But as we think about that broader social discussion and enhancing the interest of it's really being able to tell that should story. Why are we doing what we're doing? Why is what we're doing in the best interest of people, animals, and the planet?
Zach Bader: So how can we get food companies to make sustainability claims that work for them without tearing down the farming practices that we know are sustainable.
Charlie Arnot: Yeah. Good question. And I think it helps, again, this is about changing the mindset more than anything else. It's about trying to get to the food companies and help them understand that we want to be a partner in their decision-making process to help them optimize sustainability. If we wait until the decision has been made and then we simply go and protest or complain about the decision, we're not likely to have a lot of impact. But if we too are engaging with those conversations on an ongoing basis to say, we know sustainability is a growing priority for you. As you make decisions about sustainability, we'd like to help you optimize your sustainability performance. To do that we want you to make sure you understand what the impacts are on agriculture and across your entire supply chain. How can we be a partner for you? How can we be a resource for you? So we're not just complaining after something has done. We're making the investment in developing the relationship and being there as that decision process is taking place.
Zach Bader: And the Center for Food Integrity is involved in that. And you've got a project where you're working on that right now. Can you tell us a little bit about that specific project?
Charlie Arnot: Absolutely. It's called optimizing sustainability. And we have a number of partners from environmental groups to academics to food company participants including the Iowa Farm Bureau that have helped us develop three different tools for food companies to make better informed choices. The first one is how to set sustainability priorities. So you're not simply responding every time an activist group comes and makes a demand, you've actually gone through and established what are the priorities for our company? The second one helps you evaluate tradeoffs. So if a company comes to you or an activist group comes and says, we want you to stop this, you can evaluate it and say, okay, if we stop that, what's the impact on the environment? What's the impact on consumer choice? What's the impact on the animals? What's the impact on farmers? And you can kind of balance all of that before you make a decision. And then the third tool is how do you respond to requests for commitments? So if an advocacy group comes and says, we want you to do x, how do you engage with them in a way that's constructive but helps you make a decision that's ultimately in the best interest of your company and in the best interest of sustainability? So we launched that tool last year in Chicago. We're now in the process of rolling it out more extensively to ag groups so we can get more case studies to help evaluate tradeoffs and then to the food system, so they can make better use of that tool.
Zach Bader: And what kind of reception have you had for food companies with that model so far?
Charlie Arnot: It's been phenomenal. The response has been really, really strong. People that are really engaged in the tool. They want us to continue to simplify it so that it has fewer steps and it can be easier for them to use. But they really value having a resource they can go to to say, okay, here's a process you can use to make a decision that's right for your company. We will never tell the company what the right answer is. Each company has to come to that decision on their own, but we can give them a decision-making process that will help them make better informed choices.
Zach Bader: When you talk about being resource for those companies, I know you mentioned that in a group that you spoke with here recently and you also mentioned best food facts.org as a resource out there. Tell us a little bit about that and how companies and individuals can use that as well.
Charlie Arnot: It's been a phenomenally good platform for us. It's a platform where we answer consumer questions about whatever it happens to be in food and agriculture. We get about 150,000 unique visitors every month without really any promotion and we have a network of experts and academics that will answer all of those questions. So it's been a great way for food companies to refer their customers and others to get information and answers. It's also been a great way for us to partner with others. So for example, the Food Marketing Institute, which is the Trade Association for Grocery Stores, we're doing a pilot project with them now to help see what kind of impact can we have on the conversation around cage free eggs and slow growing broilers. So can we actually begin to have greater influence over that conversation and dialogue. Again, not to promote a particular perspective but to promote more informed decision making. So it's a great way for us to continue that conversation and dialogue. It's a direct consumer facing to a platform and we think it's not just had great results but has tremendous potential as well.
Zach Bader: As we wrap things up here, again, we're talking with a group of farmers on the podcast and a lot of them have that interest in how do I, how do I convey to the public that what I'm doing is sustainable?
Charlie Arnot: Yeah. Well one of the things the Iowa Farm Bureau has is probably it's best asset is the credibility of all your farmer members. Farmers have phenomenal credibility and are truly a trusted source on these issues. The key is to connect based on our values, not data and science. So very few people are going to be interested in knowing, you know, how many pounds of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous you have on your field, but they are going to be interested in knowing that you're a third or fourth generation farmer who's really committed to protecting the environment. That you value living in that rural community and that having your kids go to school there are raising your family there is really important to you. Those are the kinds of things that engender trust because we know that that perception of shared values is three to five times more important than data and building trust. So being able to communicate our values, our commitment to producing safe food, caring for the environment, protecting animals, producing safe food, all of those things are crucially important in helping people understand our commitment to do what's right. That commitment to do what's right is significantly more important and more valuable than any data we could share. But we know, as I shared in the data earlier, farmers are significantly more trusted than sources like Food Babe or Dr. Oz, but they're much more visible than farmers. So we're gonna have to have a lot more farmers involved. So in whatever way is comfortable be engaged. Tell your story. If it's to a neighbor, if it's to a friend, if it's to a relative, if it's on social media, whatever way is comfortable for you, we need as many people engaged in that conversation as we possibly can.
Laurie Johns: Hey, you know, I certainly appreciate that final call to action from Charlie. Get out there, tell your story and it sounds pretty familiar, folks who know me know I've been saying that one for a while. It's so, so important. And you know here at the Iowa Farm Bureau, we're committed to helping you tell your story and we have lots of ways to help you do that. So if you're interested, get connected with your County Farm Bureau to start learning about all of those possibilities. We're also proud to play a big role in CFI's initiative to help food companies, grocery stores and restaurants think through their options before rushing to believe some of the divisive or just playing wrong things that are out there about farming. As you've heard Charlie say, helping food companies on the front end is much more likely to be successful than complaining about their decisions on the backend. So we're certainly excited to be involved in this proactive mission. Well, that's all for this episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. Be sure to join us for our next episode on April 22nd which is Earth Day. We'll have some fascinating updates on ways that farmers are taking on the challenge of improving water quality and the progress that's being reported. You don't want to miss that. So until next time, thanks for reading The Spokesman. Thanks for all the great stories and inspiration and thanks for listening to The Spokesman Speaks.
Narrator: Thank you for listening to The Spokesman Speaks, a podcast by Iowa Farm Bureau. Check out more podcasts and articles from The Spokesman at IowaFarmBureau.com/Spokesman. You can also find and subscribe to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast in the Apple Podcasts app, Google Play, and other popular podcast apps. We appreciate your ratings and reviews and welcome your feedback at Podcast@ifbf.org.
About The Spokesman Speaks Podcast
Since 1934, The Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman has been Iowa’s leading agriculture news source, and today it is the largest circulation ag newspaper in Iowa. While the Spokesman newspaper is available exclusively to Iowa Farm Bureau members, The Spokesman Speaks podcast is available publicly, reaching farmers on-the-go with stories that matter to them. You can find episodes of the podcast at IowaFarmBureau.com/Spokesman or subscribe and listen in your favorite podcast app, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher or TuneInRadio.
We release new podcast episodes every other Monday. Episode 11 will be released on April 22, 2019.
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