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When it comes to labeling foods as to what farmers do—and don't do—the contradictions abound:

  • Consumers say they want "welfare-friendly," but "raised without antibiotics" is more likely, not less likely, to make animals suffer needlessly.
  • Consumers say they want "sustainable," but by decreasing the efficiency of the food chain, "GMO-free" actually reduces environmental sustainability.
  • Consumers say they want "cage-free" so hens don't suffer, but research shows more birds die and are wounded, on average, in barns that don't put them in cages.

It's a food-labeling jungle out there, and new research shows it's getting more confusing. Do consumers know what they really want?

University of Nebraska ag economists Kate Brooks and Taro Mieno, working with a fellow economist from Illinois, try to answer that thorny question—at least about livestock-raising—in an upcoming issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values. They point out that although the research is "extensive" showing that consumers say they want products labeled as organic or with animal-welfare claims, the trouble is most of the science only asks consumers to consider one production claim on a label at a time. Although that makes the experimentation easier to carry out, it bears little resemblence to the stew of differing labels shoppers now face in the store.

So the Nebraska researchers instead subjected sampled consumers to a scale that forced them to rank as "best" or "worst" differing side-by-side production claims, including:

  • Certified organic
  • Humanely raised
  • Grass-fed (for cattle) or vegetarian diet (for chickens)
  • No growth hormones
  • No antibiotics
  • Free-range (cattle) or cage-free (chickens)

After weeding out practicing vegans, respondents who didn't reply completely and people who don't regularly shop for meat, milk and eggs, the researchers ended up with 1,039 responses. Their best/worst question structure allowed them to place each production claim on a relative scale, compared to one another, of importance to consumers. They found:

The most important production claims were "no growth hormones," "no genetically-modified organism" and "humanely raised." Together, these three claims captured three out of four shares of preference claims for beef, milk, chicken and eggs. The "no antibiotics" claim ranked in the middle importance for all products, while the "free-range/cagefree," "grass-fed/vegetarian diet" and "certified organic" claims were ranked as the least important. Women were more likely to prefer the no hormones claim compared to men, who were more likely to prefer the free-range/cage-free and grassfed/vegetarian diet production claims.

Which label claims count?

The study offers little to point to the logic of consumer interest in such "absence labeling" product claims:

  • The ag economists found it particularly interesting that low- and medium-income shoppers tended to rank the humanely raised claim as more important than high-income ones did, in contrast to previous research and conventional wisdom that the opposite is true. In their study, high-income families tended to prefer the no antibiotics and organic production claims more than the low-income families did. Another surprising finding: While they expected consumers with a farming background to have different preferences for production claims than shoppers with no farm background, no differences were observed between the two groups.
  • Even though the "no growth hormones" claim was one of the most important traits across all product types, no growth hormones are used in chicken or egg production in this country and haven't been for almost a half-century—a fact USDA requires processors to remind consumers of on every package of chicken labeled as grown without antibiotics. Milk marketed as produced without use of recombinant growth hormone is likewise required to be labeled stating no science exists to prove it's any different from regular milk.
  • As Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, the seemingly simple term "animal welfare" covers some complex nuances that are often unsubstantiated and even contradictory. Yet "humanely raised" ranked relatively high in all product categories.
  • This latest study purposely excluded an entire category of common label the researchers considered too vague, including "agriculturally sustainable," "environmentally friendly" and "natural." While they may describe how some farmers raise animals, their precise definitions were deemed too unclear to the researchers to test, and likely less clear to consumers. How they would have affected the rankings is unknown.
  • Although shoppers across the board ranked "certified organic" as the least important trait to look for when shopping, the irony is that obtaining an organic certification from USDA means the farmer must to some degree incorporate all of the other tested traits those shoppers rated as more important. Whether shoppers' devaluing of the certified organic claim comes out of ignorance about what it means or out of some desire for something else wasn't clear. However, with the scientist's typical flair for the understatement, the Nebraska researchers did note that shoppers' expressed desire for multiple claims on the same package instead of the umbrella organic claim does "suggest some skepticism about consumers’ knowledge."

As the long days, sleepless nights and feverish work to get crops out of the fields and the year's beef cattle out of pastures and into feedlots get into full swing across Nebraska over the next six weeks, chances are unfortunately good that farmers will get hurt or die in the process.

Statistics show farming remains America's most dangerous occupation, both here and across the nation, with Nebraska farm workers suffering an accident rate of more than six injuries for every hundred workers, about 50 percent higher than the accident rate for grocery stores.

Our popular "Why Do Farmers Do That?" series takes on the question: Why do farmers injure themselves so regularly? The question's not as simple as it may seem, and surprisingly unsettled among the experts. Here are a few known—and suspected—contributors:

The nature of the occupation. Farmers work outside (and suffer heatstroke). They work with often large and sometimes aggressive animals (and get stepped on, crushed, gored and suffocated or drowned by exposure to fumes from their stored manure). They handle pesticides and other lethal chemicals (and suffer exposure-related illness). They drive tractors and work around other heavy equipment (and get crushed, buried and maimed by open machinery). They work on tall structures (and fall or get electrocuted by coming into contact with overhead power lines).

Images of the traditional pastoral farm aside, today's full-time farms more closely resemble industrial workplaces than they do Old McDonald's farm, says John Shutske, longtime farm-safety expert and professor of safety engineering and agricultural health at University of Wisconsin.

"Today's farm has its big share of dangerous machines, potentially toxic environments and animals that are easily five to six times bigger and twice as fast as the NFLs biggest lineman," Shutske says. "But, I don't know that people living and working on farms view their farm that way. It's their home and their life. That's not a bad thing at all, but if we could convince every farmer and member of their family that—at least from a safety perspective—their workplace is a potentially deadly industrial workplace," he says, we could make a significant impact in farm-related injuries.

Economic pressure. Not unlike many of the grocers they supply, farmers exist in what some economists deem "commodity hell." Constant competition and relatively undifferentiated commodity products leaves farmers competing on a low-margin, cost-based basis. Cost-based competition requires continually increasing productivity, which leads to even lower prices, which requires even more productivity to survive. Such continual bleeding-edge cost-control leaves little margin to make improvements in equipment, so safety investments often fall to the bottom of list.

Take roll-bars and seat belts on tractors, for instance, which the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimates would prevent more than nine in 10 cases of the No. 1 cause of death on farms—overturned tractors that crush the driver. NIOSH estimates only 60 percent of the nation's 4.6 million tractors are so equipped.

Those economic contributors likely reach beyond equipment investment, as well. The seasonal nature of farming and vulnerability to weather delays condenses a year's worth of work into a few hectic and often sleep-deprived weeks, inviting accidents caused by distraction, fatigue and willingness to accept shortcuts in the name of time efficiency. Even the mental stress associated with economic booms and busts may contribute, Shutske believes. His work over the past year has drawn a connection between constant, chronic stressors and the deleterious impacts that occur on memory, attention and other higher brain function.

"Being highly distracted, forgetful, slow to act or economically unable to make needed improvements, repairs and corrections is not easily forgivable when you're talking about a 300-horsepower machine or a 1,500-pound animal," he says.

Lack of regulation and safety training. Small and mid-sized farms are not subject to most federal occupational safety regulations. Some might argue regulation doesn't make much difference in safety in the longrun, but that lack of regulation also contributes to a lack of safety training on most farms, which is hard to argue doesn't contribute to high accident rates. Farmers, who tend to work alone, seldom if ever have any safety supervision other than their own to rely on.

Cultural factors. Although it appears to be falling out of favor in modern times, the culture created by America's "agrarian myth"—the underlying belief that farmers must accept a life of deprivation and hardship, away from the comforts (and safety protections) of the city life, in order to permit urban society to prosper—has been suggested as a cause of high farm accident rates. Fewer safety experts, Shutske included, fully buy that explanation; however, the explanation remains tempting.

When Obama-Administration OSHA announced it planned to start regulating grain bins in 2013 to protect, in part, children who were being suffocated after being buried in and around them, reaction against the plan from the farm community was loud and angry. Opponents argued OSHA was intruding into farmers' traditional independence, and that farmers know better than bureaucrats how to keep their employees and families safe.

That sense of indendence and the sense of fatalism that accompanies it, an ethic not restricted to America alone, has been cited as a possible cause of farmer's willingness to take risks that can lead to accidents. And anecdotal evidence of farmers who actually display amputated fingers as badges of determination and long-suffering can't be dismissed as evidence farmers, at least in the past, have accepted injury as just part of the job.

"But I think we turned that corner a long time ago," Wisconsin's Shutske argues, "I don't think farmers just "accept" injury as part of life anymore. I truly don't think the cultural beliefs and the norms of a modern farm operator are all that different than a business person in any other industry."

Why did farmers stop saving their own seeds?

The expected corporate merger of seed company Monsanto and crop-chemical company Bayer, expected to take shape by the end of this year pending approval from the regulators in 30 countries around the world, has raised a new round of concern that a small handful of companies are coming to control nearly all the seeds used by farmers. Take the two biggest crops in this country, for instance. According to Wall Street analyst Mark Gulley, Monsanto now holds 36 percent of the seed corn market and 28 percent of the seed soybean market after the merger.

“If these posed mergers work like all of the past ag supply mergers that we have already experienced," Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen told Colorado's Summit Daily, "it will mean that [farmers] have fewer choices in the market place....”

That continuing market concentration fans the flames of Internet mythology that farmers have lost control of their seed destiny, including stories of farmers being sued for replanting seed harvested from plants of purchased seed (sometimes true), that farmers get sued when nature blows the pollen of neighbors' crops into their fields and pollinates theirs (not so true), or that companies have genetically engineered "suicide seeds" to cross-breed with plants and render them sterile so they can't reproduce usable seed in a next generation, forcing all farmers to come under the thumb of "Big Ag" to buy replacement seed year after year (ridiculously untrue).

It all raises an interesting question that may occur to some of your shoppers: Why in the world did farmers ever give up so much control over something as important to their livelihood and stop saving their own seed? Why do farmers do that?

It's not been that simple for more than a century. Yes, in pre-industrial America, when 9 out of ten people relied on their own farms to feed themselves, the typical farmer did depend largely on his own crop to provide seed for the following season. But as agriculture grew, that practice went by the wayside quickly. The nation's first commercial seed seller opened in Philadelphia only a decade after the nation's independence. By the last quarter of the 1800s, more than 100 U.S. seed companies were handling a large quantity of seed corn. By 1960, at least 96 percent of all corn seed was a purchased seed not grown on the original farm. Even as early as 1940, when USDA started collecting reliable statistics, less than half the red clover seed and less than 10 percent of the alfalfa, the two most important hay seeds, were being used on the farm where they were originally grown. Farmers have been buying seed from specialists for a long time.

It's made farming more reliable. It wasn't Monsanto that led to widespread abandonment of saved seed in this country. It was biology. After Congress set aside $1,000 in 1839 to collect and give seed away free to farmers, literally billions of packages were given to farmers until the program ended in 1923. But complaints soon grew widespread about the reliability of those seeds, and despite some public efforts to improve plant breeding, farmers were often disappointed with the reliability of those public seeds.

About halfway through that period, a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel unlocked the key to specifically identifying genetic traits that farmers in the past had bred into plants and animals only by the generational process of trial and error. When commercial companies began applying Mendel's concepts to seed breeding around the turn of the century, the age of the "hybrid" seed was born.

As this video clearly explains, hybridization tightly controls breeding of parent plants in order to help remove the random chance that occurs in nature—the reason some of us are born blonde, some brunette, some red-headed. Like specific building blocks, beneficial traits like disease resistance or tolerance to drought will reliably "express," or appear, in the hybrid plant, in the first seed that goes into a field as predictably as it does in the 10,000th. That predictability is the reason for any given Nebraska corn field's row after row of uniform plants. It's also the reason the Nebraska legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow a restraining order or injunction to be imposed on anyone who sells or represents corn seed as a hybrid variety if it doesn't meet the standards to do so.

And that predictability of a hybrid's performance is the reason farmers don't save hybrid seeds for the following season. By law of averages, only half the plants in the second generation of a hybrid seed will express the traits you originally wanted. Each succeeding generation of saved seed will dilute that trait further. Farmers buy hybrid seed rather than save their own because they know the cost of returning to the first-generation seed is generally worth it to get seed that grows true.

It's made them more productive. Going hand-in-hand with that reliability has come productivity by using purchased seed. Even advocates for sustainability and what's known as "open pollination," or use of seeds that don't rely on commercial, often patented, parent lines, don't doubt the boost in productivity that's been brought about by hybrid seeds. All else equal, studies show, modern hybrids often yield much more that open pollinated varieties, and they have done so for going on a century now.

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