Survey Shows Higher Levels of Concern on Food, Agricultural, Environmental Issues

September 7, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohioans' level of concern regarding food and agricultural issues has climbed in the past two years, according to a biannual survey conducted by Ohio State University researchers.

The "Ohio Survey of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Issues" was conducted in 2002, 2004 and 2006 to measure Ohioans' attitudes and track changes over time, said Jeff Sharp, rural sociologist and associate professor of Human and Community Resource Development in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. Sharp also holds appointments with the college's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and Ohio State University Extension, both of which helped fund the study.

"Across the board, levels of concern are higher than they were two years ago," Sharp said. Beginning in 2004, participants have been asked about their level of concern regarding a series of current issues related to food, farming and the environment. In 2004, the percent "very concerned" about those issues ranged from 29 percent to 69 percent, depending on the issue; this year, the percent "very concerned" ranged from 40 percent to 92 percent (see table).

"I think this reflects a growing awareness among Ohioans about some of these issues," Sharp said.

Concern about the loss of farmland saw the greatest jump, from 55 percent "very concerned" in 2004 to 70 percent today. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, Ohio's farmland diminished from about 21 million acres in 1950 to 14 million in 2002.

Respondents also indicated an increasing level of concern about global warming, Sharp said, with 41 percent saying they are "very concerned" today, compared with 29 percent two years ago. "That makes sense, with so much more media attention on the issue these days," he said.

An issue Sharp thought would fade, but didn't, was concern about large-scale poultry and livestock facilities in Ohio. "That jumped from 29 percent to 40 percent, even though it's an issue that hasn't been in the headlines as much in some regions of the state as it was a few years ago," Sharp said. In examining the result, Sharp found that concern over large farms remained the highest in northwest Ohio -- where many of these facilities are being sited -- where 48 percent of residents indicated high concern, up from 40 percent in 2004. Concern grew from 35 percent to 45 percent "very concerned" in southeast Ohio; 32 percent to 44 percent in central Ohio; 27 percent to 37 percent in northeast Ohio; and 24 percent to 36 percent in southwest Ohio.

"Older Ohioans tend to be more concerned about large-scale livestock facilities," Sharp said, with 46 percent of those 61 and older "very concerned" compared with 31 percent of those 40 and younger. "A lot of older Ohioans have backgrounds in agriculture or have been somehow linked to the land," Sharp said. "The concept of 'megafarms' may not be what they remember from when they were growing up."

Concern about pollution of rivers, streams and groundwater also remained high, increasing from 65 percent in 2004 to 72 percent today.

But survey respondents also remained secure in trusting farmers' stewardship of the land, Sharp said. This year, 63 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they trust Ohio farmers to protect the environment, compared with 67 percent in 2004 and 60 percent in 2002.

Despite that level of trust, animal welfare concerns remain high among Ohioans, with 51 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing on the need for increased regulation of the treatment of farm animals. Furthermore, only 12 percent of respondents disagreed with the need for more regulation this year, compared with 23 percent in 2002.

"Ohio State recognizes the concern, and our animal sciences department is actively involved in this issue, seeking to identify systems in which animals are treated well but still produce an adequate supply of meat for consumers," Sharp said.

A new question in this year's survey asked respondents to rate their own level of knowledge about how and where their food is grown. 65 percent indicated they were "somewhat knowledgeable," with 15 percent saying "very knowledgeable" and 20 percent admitting they were "not at all knowledgeable." Respondents 35 and younger were much more likely to be in the dark when it came to knowledge of food and farming, with 35 percent falling into the "not at all" category -- nearly triple the number of respondents 65 and older.

"Knowledge impacts attitudes," Sharp said. "In the future, as older generations who are more knowledgeable about farming die off, the subsequent generations of Ohioans may not be as strong advocates of agriculture as those around today."

Some of the strongest supporters of agriculture were respondents who also reported strong pro-environment behaviors, Sharp said. "Historically, the farming community has been seen in opposition to the environmental community at times, but both care about the future of the agricultural landscape," Sharp said. "As we look to the future and a less knowledgeable population, it may make sense to find ways for the two groups to work together to maintain a strong constituency who value a vibrant farming system."

Sharp is preparing reports based on the new survey results, and when complete, they will be posted on his Web site at http://ohiosurvey.osu.edu, and on the college's Social Responsibility Initiative Web site at http://sri.osu.edu.

The 10-page survey was distributed between March and June 2006. Results are based on responses from 1,729 Ohioans, a response rate of 55 percent. Just over 3 percent of respondents resided on a farm.

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Author(s): 
Martha Filipic
Source(s): 
Jeff Sharp