Relying on boneheaded arguments when discussing animal welfare issues often creates public distrust, says an Ontario government hog specialist.
“You have to have the public trust,” veterinarian Dr. Tim Blackwell told the Manitoba Swine Seminar Feb. 5.
“You deserve to have the public trust, but we have slipped up a little bit over the years.”
Blackwell listed more than a dozen counterproductive or ineffective arguments that farmers and others in agriculture use when responding to criticisms.
Blackwell said some practices, such as gestation crates, need to be left behind, while others can be maintained for a while, such as castration.
However, in all cases farmers need to talk to consumers in ways that don’t alienate them.
Sometimes farmers believe that the public or activist groups are unreasonable or extremist, but Blackwell said most people just want to make sure that animals aren’t enduring unnecessary suffering. Farmers can’t defend delays in using open housing because equally productive alternatives to gestation crates exist.
He said farmers can still defend piglet castration because no good alternative is available, but even then producers must explain that it’s a temporary measure.
They also need to make sure they don’t act like they think castration doesn’t hurt pigs because that will blow the farmer’s credibility .
“The answer is, ‘we don’t like doing it.… We’re looking for alternatives. That’s a necessary discomfort that we would like to turn into an unnecessary discomfort (and do away with), like we’re doing with gestation crates, but we’re not there yet,” said Blackwell. “The experts … have been saying a lot of dumb things, and because you’re the real experts, these are things I hope you won’t say.”
Blackwell said the following are bad arguments:
- Farmers are the experts on animal welfare so the public shouldn’t tell them what to do. Blackwell said that approach does not create trust.
- Gestation stalls and other extremely confining livestock housing are necessary to produce enough food for humanity. Blackwell said the world does not need to eat meat, and people know that.
- Animals don’t have rights because they don’t know what rights are. Blackwell said many people have rights and don’t understand them or are incapable of understanding them.
- I don’t believe in animal rights but I do believe in animal welfare. Blackwell said people have talked about animals having rights since the mid-19th century, so people already accept that animals have rights.
- Animal rights activists are all extremists. Blackwell said it is dangerous to write off critics who aren’t necessarily extreme.
- I believe in science-based animal welfare. Blackwell said welfare and rights have little to do with science.
- Examples of animal abuse are unrepresentative. Blackwell said everything in the news media is unrepresentative, such as car crashes and fires, but that doesn’t mean the issues aren’t real.
- Productivity equals happiness. Blackwell said humans can be forced to produce a lot without being treated well, so an animal that is productive is not proof that it is happy.
- There is nothing illegal in many controversial practices. Blackwell said that won’t convince the public that practices are OK.
- Urban residents want farm animals to be treated like pets or people. Blackwell said most of the public just wants to make sure animals do not face unnecessary suffering.
- Something controversial is OK because it is standard industry practice. Blackwell said standard doesn’t mean acceptable.
- The public just needs to be educated. Blackwell said the public isn’t going to accept everything it is told, and farmers need to accept that.