Humans, says Tony Frank, have been domesticating livestock for around 10,000 years. But only in the last 20 or so has the onslaught of regulations changed the stockman’s world so dramatically.

Frank, a veterinarian who grew up on a Midwest farm and now is president of Colorado State University, told those attending the National Institute of Animal Agriculture annual meeting in Denver this week that he can’t predict what the regulatory environment will look like in the next 20 years. “But I can tell you that I believe, with a high level of certainty, that concerns about food safety, sustainability, environment and animal welfare are here to stay and they’re going to increase.”

And in that regard, he has a suggestion – find those you can work with and seek common ground. “I think that if we take advantage of the fact that we care about the same things and we want the same things that consumers want, and we use that opportunity to sit down as a group and find that common ground, we can make some progress.”

Despite the fact that consumers are not very literate about where food comes from and how it’s produced, they have high expectations; and they're paying closer attention to what they eat and how it’s produced than ever before, Frank says. And, in many ways, that lack of knowledge is what is driving today’s regulatory environment.

It works something like this: consumers don’t really understand a lot about how food is produced, but they care about it a great deal. They don’t know the people who produce the product; the relationship is not there, so they’re not starting from a basis of trust.

So where do they turn? They turn to elected officials who also, increasingly, are none too knowledgeable and none too connected to animal agriculture, Frank says. “So the elected officials, very well intentioned, set up regulations designed around accountability and safety that respond to the needs of their constituents.”

Those rules go to a bureaucracy to be enforced and, over time, new rules get piled on top of old rules. That increases cost for both producers and consumers.

“Consumers now pay higher costs, so they have higher expectations for accountability,” Frank says. Producers push back because the cost of the regulations makes their long-term sustainability more tenuous.

“And now we have this negative spiral, people are pulling opposite directions. Constituents are wanting more, industry is wanting less, the regulators who thought they were helping everybody are trapped in the middle, and the elected officials aren’t pleased,” he says. “And we’re moving away from each other and giving up what I see is some very good common ground.”

Producers want to produce a safe, high-quality product that they can produce in an ongoing, sustainable manner, he says. Consumers want the same safe, high-quality product. They want to feel good about how it was produced and they want it to be affordable.

“So there’s good middle ground there. There’s a lot of shared values,” Frank says. “We often miss that middle ground, in my experience, because we start with assumptions we don’t know, about people we don’t know. When that happens, you see a mix of regulations coming out that don’t really make a lot of sense.”

That’s not to say that the industry should expect no regulatory oversight. “There are regulations that clearly strengthen the quality, safety and market position. But there are also regulations that disadvantage us in the marketplace and place an unreasonable stranglehold on innovation and advancement.”

Achieving common ground is never easy, and there will always be groups that want only to divide and destroy rather than cooperate and build. Those groups, over time, tend to make themselves known and get moved to the periphery, he says. “I think we can get there if we think about this: people not talking with each other but talking past each other.” That, he says, is what damages confidence and leads to onerous regulations.

“If we can do more actual talking to each other, spending time focusing on each other and what the key common ground elements are, I think we can fix the situation, move away from bad regulations and get into good regulatory environments where everybody views everybody around the table as part of the solution rather than a group to be sparred with,” Frank says.

For more, go to www.animalagriculture.org.