Oklahoma State University professor studies people's feelings on where our food comes from
OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.
How many people really care about the ethical treatment of the animals they eat? Oklahoma State University professor Dr. Bailey Norwood's research attempts to answer that question.
In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dr. Norwood to learn more about people's dealings with animal welfare and how that impacts what meat they buy.
NORWOOD: I thought this was a neglected topic, but I also thought it was a topic I could confront very objectively because I'm a meat eater. I will raise chickens in my backyard and kill them myself and eat 'em. So, I'm aware of the reality of where meat comes from. I've worked on a lot of farms, so I know what farming is like, but I also understand people who are concerned about how we're raising certain animals. I don’t just outright dismiss them.
ROBINSON: What is your attitude on food? That simple question is the essence of Dr. Bailey Norwood’s research at Oklahoma State University. The professor of agriculture economics is focused on understanding consumer behavior and their stance on the treatment of animals.
NORWOOD: We've done surveys where we just ask people attitudinal questions. We ask people what type of foods they purchase, but we even bring them into a classroom sometimes, and give them money and have 'em bid in an auction for foods that don't really exist in the store to see what they might purchase if they had other opportunities for different types of food.
ROBINSON: What approach do you take to get people to tell the truth about how they feel about animals being raised?
NORWOOD: That's the hardest thing about this type of research because we all want to make ourselves look a little better than we actually are. One thing we've learned is that there's no one truth when it comes to people. We're different people at different times. For instance, we're different people in the voting booth than we are in the store. But when it comes to predicting what people do in the store, we've learned it's actually better to ask people what they think other people would do than to ask them what they would do.
So if I want to know what you would actually buy in a store when it comes to animal welfare, I get better predictions if I ask you what you think some other person would do or the average American would do than to ask you what you would buy because you have an incentive to make yourself look good, but you don't care as much about making other people look good.
ROBINSON: Dr. Norwood’s research is used in several ways. First, it helps food companies who they’re selling to. It also helps people make more informed decisions about some of their choices.
NORWOOD: One thing I've learned is that we kind of all are aware now that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower carbon footprint, but most of us don't want to give up meat. We really like meat. Well, some of my research has found that you can achieve the same carbon footprint as a vegetarian simply by donating $20 a year to carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are things where they'll like plant a forest or sequester carbon. So, if you want the carbon footprint of a vegetarian, you can do one or two things, become a vegetarian, or donate $20 a year for carbon offsets. I choose the latter. That's a lot easier for me.
ROBINSON: Dr. Norwood and his colleague have written a book called "Compassion, by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare." It helps consumers recognize the realities of what it takes to raise animals ethically while keeping the costs low.
NORWOOD: And we've even developed a little model that someone can do. They can assign their own welfare scores to different types of animals, and it can tell them the ethical consequences of their different choices. And so that's one guide we have that people can use to help them make their own decisions. Now that takes a lot of reading, it takes a lot of study, and you've got to really be willing to spend some hours reading the book. Most of my other research would be more for politicians, policymakers, companies, but also animal rights groups just trying to understand the whole issue better.