Interest in ag auditing increasing
Ever think about having a review of your operation by an unbiased, expert third party, to see how you stack up in protecting the environment and care of livestock and workers under your control? Earl Dotson believes you should.
Independent audits and certifications of humane and environmentally friendly production systems will become commonplace, Dotson believes, as public interest in how food is grown and how animals are treated continues to grow. Dotson, an owner and CEO of an agricultural auditing and certification firm, has been watching trends for years and has seen consumer interest begin to spike upward in the past few years.
“Surveys show that more than 8 out of 10 Americans believe it’s a moral obligation to care for the environment, and that environmental or ‘green’ issues are more than a passing fad,” Dotson says. “Almost half of today’s consumers say they are more aware of environmental issues than they were four years ago, and most of them are involved personally in some kind of green activity.”
Dotson says public interest in the environment and how their food is grown has in turn drawn response from food companies. “You look at the top food processing companies and all of them are moving towards environmentally sustainable programs,” Dotson says. “For example, McDonald’s most recent corporate sustainability report indicates plans to incorporate sustainable forestry practices into its food packaging, and it’s evaluating 10 prototype ‘green’ restaurant locations. PepsiCo says they are committed to protecting the natural resources they use, and reducing their environmental footprint on the planet — and Kellogg’s has established a new senior management structure to oversee environmental sustainability.”
Food processing companies have been familiar with audits and certifications for improvement of their own business practices, and Dotson predicts they will extend those requirements to the people they buy from. “It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ food companies will begin requiring their producers to have environmentally sustainable programs based on standards the company sets,” he says. “I think we will have environmental standards for food production worldwide — not pass-fail, but systems that show improvement from year to year.”
“An environmental audit helps a crop farmer learn where he needs to improve, how he can improve, and also points out the regulations that have to be met,” says Dotson. “The audit also can prod a producer into digging into problems and making the changes needed to improve the operation,” he adds. While he doesn’t often say publicly that audits improve the bottom line [people tend not to believe him], his experience is that audits have done just that, because they’ve led to more efficient crop and livestock operations.
“If I were a livestock producer, especially a larger producer, I would get an audit on animal welfare practices on a regular basis, just to protect myself,” says Dotson. Regular auditing and certification of meeting animal welfare practice guidelines is a major recommendation from the Animal Agriculture Alliance, too.
“I wouldn’t recommend getting certified environmentally or for animal welfare until you’re involved with meeting specific requirements of a buyer of your products, but I would say that time is coming,” Dotson says. He says in just the past few months a major pork processor, an egg company and a dairy have been accused via national news of animal abuse.
“Producers who buy into certification programs will get premium prices in the beginning, and as more and more producers become involved it will become a cost of doing business,” Dotson predicts.
Society wants assurances
Well-financed and well-connected activist groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the instant communications that comes from the Internet, YouTube and other communications technology will keep animal welfare and environmental care in the spotlight, Dotson says.
“Many consumers are now three generations removed from farming. They tend to think of farm animals as they do their pets. I think they like meat and want to eat meat, but don’t want to know every detail of how that meat is grown and prepared,” Dotson says. “What they do want is some assurance that their food is safe, that it was produced without ruining the environment and that farm animals are not abused.”
That assurance, he believes, can come at least in part with audits and certifications from trusted third-party sources who have examined agricultural operations against standards set by a consensus of opinion from experts in the environment and animal welfare.
Betts writes from Iowa.
This article published in the February, 2010 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.