Venison: Millennials and climate fears are driving major change

South Canterbury deer farmer Martin Rupert (with mic)
South Canterbury deer farmer Martin Rupert (with mic): Deer farming is as close to carbon neutral as any form of farming.
The farmed venison industry has a great future if it wins the hearts of the millennial generation. This message, in various forms, came from speaker after speaker at the Deer Industry Conference in Wellington a fortnight ago.

It means finding better ways to communicate with consumers and the public at large. It will mean being absolutely transparent about on-farm practices and, in some cases, change those practices to meet consumer expectations.

Among those is the need for deer farmers to be seen to do their bit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if – as delegate Martin Rupert, a South Canterbury farmer, commented – deer farming is as close to carbon neutral as any form of farming.

Lain Jager
Lain Jager, chair of the Primary Sector Council: I know why they are grumpy, but the need to act on climate change is urgent and we’ll never win the PR battle by pushing back.

Lain Jager, chair of the Primary Sector Council, told the conference he understands why farmers are so grumpy about the government’s proposed methane targets. New Zealand farmed livestock contribute only a tiny fraction of world emissions and they are among the world’s most efficient in terms of their carbon footprint.

“But we have a climate crisis and that crisis is emerging rapidly in the minds of the public. As that emerges, so does fear. This means the climate change conversation is not rational. It’s a passionate conversation where people are looking to blame others.

“Meanwhile the impact of climate change will become increasingly profound. I’m talking about droughts, floods and ground water running out in important food bowls. It means the global food production system coming under enormous pressure. The need to act is urgent and we’ll never win the PR battle by pushing back.

“We need to do the science and policy work on carbon, so we are able for example to say with authority, here’s our view of a carbon price that will support optimal land use. We need shared environmental targets with the rest of New Zealand and for the farming sector to be seen to be playing its part.

“Farmers are caught in the dialogue whether they like it or not. It is imperative that we produce animal proteins as environmentally sustainably as we can.”

Jamie Fitzgerald
Conference facilitator Jamie Fitzgerald: You may not like change, but you’ll like irrelevance even less.

Inevitably it means an acceleration in the pace of change on the farm. Jamie Fitzgerald, the conference MC and facilitator, said this might be hard for farmers who don’t like change.

“But you’ll like irrelevance even less,” he warned.

Rob Kidd, group operations manager for venison marketer Duncan NZ, said that among the millennials – those born between 1980 and 1994 – are future high net worth consumers who we will rely on to eat our high-priced venison.

The millennials, along with the centennials that follow them, are turning to different diets because they believe eating meat or dairy products is harming the planet, he said.

The ranks of vegan consumers are growing rapidly and now make up six per cent of the American population. Cow milk sales there declined five percent last year. In the UK, Tesco has seen vegan food sales increase 25 percent in the last 12 months. Leather seat covers are being removed from prestige cars and cosmetic companies are removing animal ingredients from their products.

Rob Kidd, DuncanNZ
Millennial Rob Kidd, Duncan NZ: Let’s do the science to establish the carbon footprint of our natural farm production systems and publish this iin a way millennials can understand.

“In this brave new world consumers will continue to demand sustainable and ethical products. Rather than resist the inevitable we need to find ways to make our venison more appealing to millennial consumers. They are hungry for information that is credible and can be transferred by social media,” Kidd said.

“The goal has to be to encourage millennials to become enthusiastic and passionate advocates for NZ venison, promoting its virtues for themselves, their friends and the planet.

“We should establish our carbon footprint, backed by independent scientific verification of our natural production systems and publish this information in a way that millennial consumers can understand.”

He proposes that if the science stacks up we should be promoting our venison as carbon-neutral, alongside its other claims: natural, free-range, hormone-free, GM-free, nutritious, tender, tasty and so on. Hopefully it will also enable the deer industry to argue that its farmers are being asked to bear an unfair share of the climate change burden.

Toni Frost, First Light Foods
Firstlight’s Tony Frost: UK consumers associate venison with health and well-being, with sales increasing at a time when overall red meat sales are declining.

Toni Frost, general manager sales for Firstlight Foods, like the other marketers, sees a great future for venison if we can find ways to communicate its attributes better. She suggested that a traffic-light or other graphic symbol was needed on product packs to show consumers at a glance that our venison has a small environmental footprint.

Firstlight has been witnessing steady growth in venison sales in the UK, one of its key markets, at a time when overall red meat sales are declining. At an average of £14.08 ($27.29) a kg, venison is more expensive than all other proteins except fish.

“Why? Emotive trends are increasingly shaping food purchase decisions. These are not just UK trends, they are trends we are seeing everywhere.

“Seventy three per cent of UK consumers now rank health and well-being as a key factor in their food purchase choices. At the same time they are willing to spend more for special occasions. Millennials are also keen to try something new,” she said. Venison is clearly ticking all those boxes.

Nicola Johnson, Silver Fern Farms
Nicola Johnson, Silver Fern Farms: We need to be telling consumers that venison is nature’s ethically-raised sustainable superfood. But that means our story has to have substance; it can’t be an empty promise.

Nicola Johnson, group marketing manager, Silver Fern Farms, said millennials are facing a world that’s changing faster than any generation before. As a generation they are rightly or wrongly better informed and are more considered in their purchase decisions.

“Data tells us that 20 percent of the on-line conversations that are going on in New Zealand about meat are about reducing meat intake and that’s growing rapidly. That’s neither positive nor negative, it just is,” she said.

“But as people become more mindful about their choices of protein the better our venison proposition becomes. So we need to step up and have a louder voice and be at the table when people are talking about protein. We need to be telling them that venison is nature’s ethically-raised sustainable superfood.

“And that means leaving absolutely no room for doubt. We need to stand up boldly for what we are and equally for what we’re not. Our story has to have substance; it can’t be an empty promise.

“We have the opportunity to demonstrate how it should be done … to protect, to nourish, for the generations to come. We need to do things right. Not because we have to. Not just because we have to comply, but because it’s just the way we are.

“That’s also what our customers are buying from us, that personal commitment. Once we make that emotional connection with consumers, that’s when the value equation kicks in. It’s no longer just about price.”

Anna Campbell, managing director of Abacus Bio, said the millennials and centennials tend to be more purpose-driven than previous generations. She said the three main causes that engage these generations are relieving extreme poverty, stopping animal suffering and addressing environmental issues – especially climate change

“While these may be seen as a challenge by the red meat sector, it is not all negative because the products that are being marketed as substitutes for animal proteins are having to come under the same transparency lens as meat products. The Impossible burger for example has been shown to include GE ingredients, something they didn’t put on the label,” Campbell said.

“The lesson from this is that to compete with these products we need to be transparent in everything we do. If we do the things we say we are doing, that won’t be a problem.”

Deer Industry NZ chief executive Dan Coup said deer farmers have always strived to do the right thing, for their animals, their people and the environment.

“But ‘the right thing’ is a constantly moving target – it changes as societal expectations change.  We need to embrace that, accept that we are going to need to be constantly evolving our practices and get better at making sure our consumers and communities understand this.”

This article was written by Trevor Walton, Deer Industry NZ, and is reproduced here with permission.

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