Education campaigns have drawbacks: prof

A professor from the University of British Columbia says social licence to continue raising food animals depends on the industry’s ability to keep in step with community values.  |  Mike Sturk photo

Engaging the public about animal agriculture’s vision is called a better option than abruptly pulling back the curtain

Engaging the public rather than trying to educate the public could be the best path to ensure continued trust in animal agriculture.

Marina von Keyserlingk, a professor in animal welfare at the University of British Columbia, said she has given a lot of thought about the future of animal agriculture and the growing public disconnect.

“What is the vision that we see for our animal industries tomorrow? How do we convince the world that we’re doing the right thing?” she said during a recent webinar organized by the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council.

Social licence to produce and provide food animals depends on the industry’s ability to keep in step with community values, said von Keyserlingk. That means those in animal agriculture must be open to change.

She described a UBC study on public perceptions of dairy cattle care in which participants actually lost confidence in production methods after seeing a working dairy and being accurately informed of its various practices.

“Educating the public I don’t think is going to work. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be transparent. I think one of the greatest risks to animal agriculture is the public finding out about practices that they had no idea about and then being shocked about it.”

Von Keyserlingk said those involved in animal agriculture cannot afford to be rigid in their stance on how they do things, and accept that they can’t do certain things anymore because consumers don’t approve. Castration without pain mitigation is one example.

“Truly, what’s been happening so far is that so often we are placed in this reactionary position. Somebody criticizes us and then all of a sudden we’re just on the defensive. And then we just spill information and we tell the stories that we’re proud of.

“We don’t talk about what we’re not proud of because we don’t know how to talk about it. And I think instead of that, I think what we really need to do is we really need to sit down and we need to… develop a vision of the industry.”

Barbara Cartwright, chief executive officer of Humane Canada, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, said her group’s participation in development and updates to the national farm animal codes of practice has been useful in the past but now she perceives an erosion of trust and reduced transparency in farm animal production practices.

Different attention-getting tactics by animal activist groups have caused tension and mental health challenges for farmers, she said.

Given that animal welfare workers and veterinarians also experience mental health challenges and have a higher suicide rate, “it strikes me that if vets, farmers, animal welfare workers are all undergoing very similar stresses, that first of all we need to think about why that is because we’re all intersecting with animals, and second, thinking about the negotiation table, how challenging it is to come to negotiation if we lack communication, we lack understanding about each other,” said Cartwright.

Over the last three years, Humane Canada has developed principles surrounding humane animal treatment along with indicators it can measure to gauge progress.

It defines humaneness as “the treatment of an animal in a manner that ensures its welfare and well-being in circumstances where a human is or should be exercising care, custody, control or use of an animal.”

Cartwright said she supports the National Farm Animal Care Council process and said it should have long-term reliable funding so it can continue its consensus-building pattern that involves diverse opinions and groups when establishing codes.

“Without really deft facilitation it can go off the rails, and so let’s invest in the National Farm Animal Care Council. It’s good for social licence.”

She also said so-called “ag gag” laws, those that would restrict access and observation of farms and farm practices, are “a path toward increased acrimony and frustration.

“We want to move toward more transparency. We want to see more accountability. We don’t want to see more farmers suffering from mental health and suicide ideation. We don’t want to see farmers being afraid that someone’s going to come onto their farm and harm them or harm their animals,” said Cartwright.

She sees the way forward as continuing dialogue and the willingness among livestock producers to make changes upon which all can agree.

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