Farmers, activists tussle to guide public conscience

How can farmers compete with activists? | Focus on animal welfare, advise livestock experts

The calf, resting near a roadside fence while its mother was grazing, looked abandoned.

So a passer-by loaded the 80-pound Charolais into her Lexus SUV, took it back to her garage and attempted to nurse it with formula and a turkey baster.

Eventually she took the weakening calf to a veterinarian, where she learned all had been fine before she intervened. The calf’s mother had been nearby.

This true story was recounted at Tennessean.com. The 2006 incident occurred at the Middle Tennessee State University Farm.

And it’s just the sort of event that should alert Canadian livestock producers to the need for a public conversation, said Manitoba Beef Producers general manager Cam Dahl.

“I think that’s what happens when people are only getting information from the activist side,” he said.

“If that’s the only source of information for somebody, they don’t know our story. We need to be engaging the public in a conversation and let them know what is being done.”

But terminology is important when producers consider those who criticize animal production practices, he added.

Those he calls activists are people who want to eliminate animal agriculture. People concerned about animal welfare are a far larger group, and the one producers need to reach.

John Maaskant, a chicken farmer and former chair of the Ontario Farm Animal Council, makes a similar distinction when asked about the possibility of a dialogue between livestock producers and activists.

“We have animal rights activists that basically threaten our food system because they are abolitionists,” he said.

“On the other hand, we have people concerned about animal welfare. They don’t tend to be activists in the same sense. We need to make sure we understand that there’s a difference.”

Maaskant said animal activists are not that concerned about animal welfare. As proof, he points to their successful elimination of the horse slaughter industry in the United States that resulted in hundreds of horses being starved, abandoned and transported when sick or injured.

“None of that is of concern to the animal rights people. They won that one.”

Ed Pajor, a professor of animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Calgary’s veterinary school, said the rise in consumer concerns about animal welfare in food animals over the last 10 to 15 years relates directly to their unfamiliarity with agriculture.

In many urban lives, animals have moved from possessions to members of the family.

“The closest relationship they have with animals, and in some cases the only relationship they have with animals, is the relationship they have with their pet, and that does create certain expectations,” said Pajor.

The specifics of stocking density and livestock housing may be lost to them because they have no context.

“But they do have a sense that causing pain and suffering to animals might be a bad thing, and is a bad thing, and if there’s ways it can be controlled, it should be done.”

Pajor, Dahl and Maaskant agreed producers need to focus on the latter group of people rather than to the extreme groups whose positions are entrenched.

“How does the guy at the end of the gravel road respond to the latest advertisement from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals),” asked Dahl.

“We have to make sure the consumers aren’t just hearing from PETA. They have to hear from us, too.”

And that means taking every opportunity to talk about their operations and explain the reasons behind common agricultural practice.

Dahl said farmers are credible in the public eye and their views carry considerable weight.

However, Pajor suggests part of consumer distrust with animal production lies in disillusionment when they learn modern farm operations do not resemble the Old MacDonald farm of song and colouring book.

“People have an expectation of how animals are supposed to be raised,” said Pajor. “When that image doesn’t really reflect reality, you lose a lot of trust.”

That’s when it becomes easier for animal activists to gain sympathy and support from consumers, adding to their coffers and enabling them to marshal campaigns.

Maaskant believes some of these groups, which began in the 1970s, had good initial intentions, but fundraising has now become a greater goal than animal welfare.

People who donate to animal activist groups believe they are helping animal welfare, said Maaskant. These are the people producers need to reach.

But how?

Pajor said social media is a good tool. Websites, blogs and videos are helping producers connect with people interested in their products and how animals are raised.

Farm animal care groups across the country also provide resources to producers interested in better explaining their work to consumers. Numerous organizations in the United States, among them the Animal Agriculture Alliance, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) and Protect the Harvest are all designed to present agriculture’s side of animal agriculture and counter activist claims.

“As farmers and ranchers, we’ve raised pretty much everything. Except our voices,” reads the USFRA website.

“For too long the voice of farmers and ranchers has often been missing in the conversation about where food in America comes from. That changes now.”

Producer openness is another important aspect, said Maaskant. Throwing open the doors of the farm operation to the public is not often practical because of efficiency and biosecurity reasons.

However, Maaskant said producers should be willing if people want to visit farms to see the source of their food. Animal agriculture practices have changed for the better over time and producers should be ready to explain it.

“I think it’s something we can be proud of and something we can talk about. I’m not ashamed to show anybody what I do,” he said.

“We tell each other, ‘if I can’t show anybody what I do, then I’d better look at what I’m doing.’ ”

Dahl said he has a lot of confidence in consumers’ ability to sort through various messages about animal agriculture. Given reliable information, he added, they can make an informed decision.

“If that information is based on fact, I think agriculture will be fine. If we do this right, it’s an opportunity, not a threat.

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