Precision livestock farming and the push for better storytelling

Get ready for this term to enter the agricultural vernacular: Precision livestock farming. And get ready for its opponents to speak up loudly. That will create demand for factual, science-based storytelling as a key component of evolving the livestock industry to continue to meet consumer demand.

In the marketing world, we talk all the time about storytelling. A huge portion of our work ultimately boils down to that fundamental job: telling a story to inform, influence or get a message across to a specific audience. And anybody who knows me well (who’s likely had a lot of time wasted while I’m telling some long-winded tale) knows that storytelling — whether relating to branding work or a yarn starting out with “One weekend in college…” — knows that it is something that comes very, very natural to me.

So, when I read some of the latest articles on precision livestock farming, I saw two distinctly different stories being told. In a lot of ways, it’s not unlike the early development of precision agriculture for crop production about 20 years ago. Because precision livestock farming is in the livestock sector, it faces a different set of hurdles to acceptance and adoption by producers. How the industry overcomes those hurdles will be largely influenced by the stories we tell and how we demonstrate this new technology will be to sustaining a safe, secure food supply chain.

Two sides of precision livestock farming

Take these two examples.

First, a recent article in the Washington Post discussed creating an Orwellian context around PLF. The author specifically talks about the PLF component that’s based on artificial intelligence facial recognition. This enables farmers to easily identify and monitor individual animals.

The same type of system is explored in an article on The Pig Site. Only this piece introduces precision livestock farming technology as emblematic of the “smart farming revolution,” a decidedly different tone than the prior example.

While the former example creates a context of a 1984-esque world in which some sort of “Big Brother” keeps watch over animals — an image often associated with fear and uncertainty about the direction of society — both articles take a similar deep dive into the topic. Both explore what it can mean to the advancement of livestock production and its implications for producers and consumers. The reader is left hopeful that this technology will be part of an evolved livestock industry that will continue meeting the world’s needs. It is, ultimately, up to companies to deliver such technology to producers, who in turn will need to implement it at the farm-level to yield industry-wide positive change.

The importance of strategic storytelling

While the precision livestock farming sector works out the kinks, the story needs to be told as it unfolds by those most directly involved. It’s easy for fear of the unknown to drive consumer behaviors. We’ve seen this with things like machine learning (“the machines will eventually take over, like in The Terminator”). Or even GMOs (“our food may be poisoning us, but we don’t really know”).

So let’s not be passive and enable misinformation about how facial recognition in the livestock industry could unfold into some kind of human surveillance. Let’s get ahead of that messaging. We need the smart people behind this movement to be front-and-center. Let’s explain how precision livestock farming works for the farmer and show it safely contributes to a more sustainable food supply chain.

Examples of precision livestock farming in agriculture

Cargill, for example, has been working with this technology for a few years already. Ag companies are historically practical and focused. So sometimes, it’s easy for choruses of speculation and conjecture about new tech tools to scream more loudly than the ones doing the research and work to bring them to life. That’s why it’s important for the industry to be proactive in telling the precision livestock farming story. While Cargill is touting the technology’s practical benefits, other sources are discussing “insidious” unknowns and speaking in “could be” statements. While initially based on sound science, these play on fear of the unknown that’s rooted in almost every consumer’s subconscious.

Traits of successful technology storytelling

Here are a few ways for agriculture companies to ensure the discourse around PLF and similar technology doesn’t become the next GMO issue:

Be proactive.

We’re notorious for being reactive in agriculture. We’re quiet and keep our noses to the grindstone until an industry opponent throws the first stone. Instead, let’s get precision livestock farming mainstreamed and show its value to producers and consumers. Start discussing its real application and implications for the industry’s future. Prevent speculation and clickbait-type headlines from turning sentiment against the technology with no basis.

Be balanced.

My nonsense-detector goes into overdrive whenever I see only positive information about a product, service or new area of technology. Recognize any potential drawbacks and unknowns about precision livestock farming and meet detractors head-on. It’s not just positive spin, but solid, well-rounded information. And if there are areas in which there’s doubt, shore that up before trying to craft a half-baked message.

Be frequent.

It can be easy to get lax when taking a new area of technology to the marketplace. But doing so will enable detractors and opponents to speak out against new technology unhindered. And before you know it, the general discourse has painted that technology in a negative light. Then you’re back in that reactive position. Create content with regularity and the right frequency can help diversify your messaging. That can create a strong position to contribute to stronger integration when market-ready.

Be honest.

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Is precision livestock farming going to solve all the world’s problems? No. Is it going to make life easier for producers and ultimately contribute to a more efficient, resilient supply chain? Yes. Don’t try to address every issue ailing agriculture or try to solve all the world’s problems in your messaging. Balance your messaging and acknowledge the technology’s current shortcomings and weaknesses.

What’s next?

Technology is huge in agriculture right now, and things like precision livestock farming can revolutionize how we produce, process and distribute goods. As new tools become available, it’s the industry’s responsibility to stamp out misinformation and stay on-message with the right storytelling.

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