When it comes to livestock farming and meat production, opinions tend to differ: Consumers want small farmers who personally care for every sow and cow. They equate intensive livestock farming with horrific photos of tortured creatures.
For their part, livestock producers feel heavily burdened by regulations on animal protection and hygiene on the one side and pricing on the other. They do their best and feel unfairly treated. So agronomy students, who are full of idealism and normally know only limited areas of the discipline from practical experience, face having to adjust to a difficult environment.
Evonik gave 10 animal nutrition students the opportunity to form a realistic impression of the agricultural industry in Europe--a three-week trip, organized by the Health & Nutrition Business Unit. The objectives of the project are to promote young talents in a key industry, cultivate their loyalty to Evonik and win them over as ambassadors. More over it gives our business partners the chance to present themselves in a positive light and correct the meat production industry's image.
Put to the test in the Assessment Center
Another aim of the trip is to explore ways in which social media might be used to address young target agriculture groups. For this reason, the central communication platform for the Ag Trip was a Facebook page. This page was the only place students could find the invitation to apply for the trip, and the only place to submit applications.
At the same time, the business unit advertised the trip through a poster campaign and a letter to agronomy chairs at European universities. Thirty-six applicants were invited to an assessment center, where they had to demonstrate commitment, creativity and ability to work in a team. Finally 10 students from eight countries were selected for the Ag Trip.
Divided into two groups, “Team 1” went through Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Denmark. “Team 2” traveled to Rumania, Hungary, Poland, Spain and Germany. They visited Evonik customers and other key partners in the food production chain - independent terminal operator for agriculture goods J. Müller in Brake, feed producers like ForFarmers or Sano; integrated poultry companies like Wiesenhof and Rothkötter or the turkey meat producer Heidemark.
Evonik's local staff provided services for Ag Trip participants. Some of the students' tasks included documenting their trip experiences on Facebook, making them available in public and working on two projects with relevance for Evonik.
Facebook travel diary
To keep their journals, the two groups were provided with laptops and video cameras. The reports, photos and films are still available on www.facebook.com/evonikfeedadditives. The agricultural operations were more than willing to grant the students access to every area. In most cases, students were also allowed to film what they saw - whether it was a barn, warehouse, laboratory, or slaughterhouse.
Despite their current level of knowledge, the students were impressed by what they saw. For example, the growth dynamics of the functional feed additive company EW Nutrition, part of the EW Group ; the efficiency of the turkey farms at Moorgut Kartzfehn; the dimensions in which petfood is produced at MARS; the organization of the Sterksel Pig Innovation Research Centre - a seemingly simple yet highly functional place where pigs even learn to use a "toilet"; the complexity of the MetAMINO® production in Antwerp; the near-natural poultry production system at the Loué "Label Rouge" operation in France.
A plea for transparency
"Consumer Protection" was the theme on the agenda of “Team 1.” In gathering information, the students focused on the points of view and efforts of all participants in the food production chain and contrasted them with the consumer's point of view.
When it comes to feed production, they found out that consumers lack even the slightest idea of how hard producers work to manufacture feed that is free from antibiotic residues and the products of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Between farmer and consumer, they see a big acceptance problem with intensive livestock farming.
Consumers simply do not understand the agricultural industry. They want farmers to nurture every animal personally. On the other hand, they take no notice of high animal protection standards and the farmers' efforts in the area of hygiene. Many people also viewed the sheer quantity of processed animals as the primary problem with animal slaughter. In Denmark, Ag Trip participants were able to experience how animals are killed nowadays, respectfully. The students found less criticism aimed at the areas of milk and beef production.
Their conclusion: on the manufacturing side, consumer protection is provided. What is missing is the acceptance of consumers towards intensive livestock farming.
The solution: the agricultural industry must make further advances in animal protection and provide greater transparency. The students cited the Danish company Arla, which offers guided tours through its mink farm as a role model for this approach. Why not have windows in stables and video cameras in slaughterhouses installed? These were a few of the suggestions from the project work. Consumer enlightenment was further mentioned – also by using media.
The students from “Team 2” found highly developed agricultural operations in the Eastern European countries they visited under the theme "Europe as Meat Production Site." What they discovered: The developing Eastern European countries can function as meat exporters to price-sensitive European markets. This will likely intensify the competition within Europe. By surveying consumers, they found out how much they value fresh meat and domestic production.
With their new appreciation of the agricultural industry, the students on the Ag Trip are sure to help improve the industry's image in their individual spheres of influence. They will stay in touch with Evonik and work with the company during trade shows and similar occasions. And in the near future, they will also become players in the agricultural economy themselves - whether as farmers, academics or company employees.
This experience will be continued. The Evonik American Ag Trip for 2013 is in preparation.