When you go grocery shopping, does it matter to you if your pork chops came from happy pigs? Would you care if the cow who supplied your milk was a genetically engineered animal?
Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics faculty members David Ortega and Christopher Wolf are investigating just that — they’re launching a project that will study Michigan dairy and pork consumers’ changing awareness and perceptions of animal welfare and biotechnology practices.
“We’re trying to help Michigan farmers make informed decisions — do enough shoppers care about their operations that they should change them?” said Ortega. “This project will generate a baseline of information on consumer preferences for animal welfare practices and biotechnology and their response to various marketing strategies. Our analysis will then determine which specific production practices and information consumers seek, which farmers can then use to build the best business.”
The three year project will be joined by Danielle Ufer, a second year AFRE PhD student, and is funded by USDA Agricultural Marketing Services and supported by Michigan Pork Producers Association, Michigan Milk Producers Association, Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture and MSU AgBioResearch. Ortega and Wolf chose to look specifically into dairy and pork production, as both are vital to Michigan’s agricultural economy.
According to Ortega, the value of pigs produced by Michigan swine farms annually exceeds $500 million on over 2,600 farms, creating 10,800 pig-related jobs for the state. With 1500 farms, the dairy industry is the largest animal agriculture enterprise in Michigan in terms of value. In 2017, Michigan produced almost 11.2 billion pounds of milk making it fifth in the U.S. Dairy farms generate jobs and have large impacts on the local economy.
“Market and policy changes are important not just to the farms that are directly affected but to the state economy as a whole,” said Wolf.
Livestock producers, in Michigan and across the country, are facing a changing marketplace for food and agricultural products. Consumers are increasingly sensitive to the practices employed in the production of livestock and dairy products, not just the characteristics of the products themselves. Though producers have long used conventional selective breeding to improve the genetics of food animals, animal biotechnology is now a hot issue surrounding newer technology like creating transgenic animals, and using gene editing technology to insert, delete or alter specific genes or traits.
“We know that consumers care about animal welfare, and generally are not receptive to the use of biotechnology in their food products, so it will be interesting to see what preferences are for animal welfare improvements brought about through biotechnology,” said Ortega. “And more importantly, we are interested in finding out if potential premiums are enough to cover the costs of producers changing their operations.”
Ortega and Wolf will assess consumer preferences for animal welfare practices and acceptance of biotechnology in animal agriculture by conducting a series of field experiments in Michigan. Following these experiments the team will broaden their scope and look at preferences and acceptance nationwide. Upon completion of the research activities Ortega and Wolf will disseminate findings to the pork and dairy industries via symposiums at industry-oriented meetings and conferences.
“This is a project that focuses on understanding consumer, producer and agribusiness decision-making to better inform food policies and marketing strategies — which is what my career focuses on.” said Ortega. “It also informs an important and timely economics issue, helping local producers and consumers — which I hope my work will continually do.”