Perception is reality.
Those involved with agriculture have long known this — people smell with their eyes, support family farms but hate factory farms, and oppose GMOs even though they do not know what they are. These perceptions translate into realities for agriculture.
The ongoing public debate concerning water quality is laden with perceptions, misperceptions and plain old confusion, even more so than some of the other issues in agriculture. In the case of genetic modification, for example, the crops are among the most tested food ingredients in the history of mankind with no proven ill effects, yet the perception that they are bad and/or unhealthy persists. Even with science clearly on the side of genetically modified crops, perception continues to trump it. Amazing.
Now consider the power of perception in the water quality debate, where there simply is no definitive science able to clearly quantify the factors involved in causing the problem. With water quality and nutrient management, the gap between the scientific realities and the existing perceptions is much narrower and open to debate. The science may some day be there to get a handle on solving the vexing problem of toxic algal blooms in lakes around the nation, but it is not yet. For now, perception reigns supreme in the water quality issue and that has significant implications for agriculture.
In a series of surveys conducted last year before and after the early August water ban in Toledo, Ohio State University experts were able to get an idea of how the incident affected public perception.
“Some argue that these 56 hours in Toledo may be a turning point for Ohio agriculture, potentially altering public sentiment and private fears about agriculture and farm runoff and its relationship with water quality and public health on par with how reports of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 pivoted public attention to industrial pollution around the Great Lakes,” said Brian Roe, an economist in Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences who has been conducting an initial analysis of the surveys. “Respondents were asked a sequence of questions that will help us to understand public sentiment and concern about Lake Erie water quality, the respondent’s perceptions of the role of both crop and animal agriculture in affecting water quality issues in Lake Erie, and the depth of support for possible policy responses.”
Roe and his colleagues administered the initial surveys last March to an online sample of more than 1,000 Ohio residents. This initial data collection was designed to understand awareness of Lake Erie algae issues among respondents and to gauge their willingness to pay for various policy interventions to stem algal blooms, he said. The researchers later administered a second survey to a subset of 400 people who completed the original survey to analyze their thoughts on Lake Erie algae after the crisis. Roe said the second sample, which is still being analyzed, “While not representative of the Ohio public,” will provide some insights into how Ohio residents responded to the event.
Here are some of the findings from those who participated in the surveys before and after the water ban:
• There was a 4.1% increase in contributing blame to animal agriculture for Lake Erie’s algae issues after the Toledo water crisis.
• The blame on crop production increased by 3.4%, while the blame on weather increased by 3.8%.
• After the water crisis, the blame shifted away from industry by minus 5.3%, urban sources by minus 1.7% and rural septic tanks by minus 1.8%.
In addition, Roe and his colleagues found that there were no changes in the survey respondents’ perceived quality of Lake Erie’s water, which respondents rated as low quality in both surveys. There were also no changes in the participant’s willingness to pay to reduce damages from algae, Roe said.
These perceptions have the potential for negative and positive consequences for agriculture. On one hand, with more blame being directed at farmers for this issue, increased regulations are almost inevitable as politicians find ways to “fix” the problem. At the same time, the blaming of agriculture (warranted or not) has led to boatloads of funding for farmers to implement legitimate and proven conservation practices on their land that can ultimately be beneficial to the farm’s bottom line and the environment, even if they do little or nothing to stop toxic algal blooms in lakes.
As of now, the reality is that no one really knows how to solve the problem, or if the problem can even be solved. But, for good or bad, the perception that agriculture is to blame currently reigns supreme. It is in the best interest of your farm operation to plan accordingly.