If You CARE About Food – We Need to Talk.

I have been and will continue to be  a vocal supporter of livestock farmers and have been disturbed by the confrontation and criticism that they have been subjected to by animal rights activists (ARA) on social media. On the other hand I have tried to keep an open mind and at least consider where the ARA points of view are coming from. Using #farm365 as an example, we have, in my opinion a battle between the very best representatives of the farming community and the most extreme, militant spokespeople from the ARA side. That being said, the one thing these radicals have in common with farmers – they care about their cause and want to share it with others.

In the extremely unlikely event (and I mean, winning the lottery, pigs fly unlikely) that the militant ARA’s on social media ask for my advice, here’s where I would start: You are picking the wrong fight! If you are genuinely interested in improving the lives and welfare of animals, this is not the group you should be alienating. The #farm365 Tweeters and other farmers who are trying to engage the public take their responsibilities as stewards seriously and- get ready for it -really do CARE about the well being of the animals on their farms. Attacking this group is, literally, like picketing a volunteer fire station because you have a moral objection to to burning tires. The farmers who are taking the time to share their experiences and pictures are not doing it for money, glory or fame. It takes time and effort to do what they do. They are putting their private lives on display to help people connect with where their food comes from and to understand what’s involved in feeding a growing population. Invariably, these farmers are opening themselves up to criticism and ridicule, not because they think it would be a fun way to spend a Friday night, but because they CARE enough to take that risk.

Now for the tough part – farmers aren’t perfect. The harsh reality is that there are farms that need some work- just like there are pet owners who neglect their pets and there are vegans who vandalize farms and cops that abuse their authority and bad bankers and bad priests and bad teachers and…. I think you get the point. The good news is that the overwhelming majority of farmers provide an excellent level of care to the point where domestic animals are better cared for than any point in history and, arguably, better off than their wild counterparts. The problem is that even if 99.99% of farmers are doing an excellent job, we, as an industry have to answer for the 0.01% that leave us open to criticism. Anytime it appears that we are hiding facts or covering up abuse, our credibility takes a hit.

In my line of work I often review feeding trials to evaluate performance and health benefits of different feed ingredients or additives. Some of the things I look for are the “negative” trial results. If the ingredient  being tested wins every single trial, I question the validity of the testing methods. It’s this thinking that makes me wonder if the same is true of how our industry is viewed by the ARAs? If we claim that ALL farmers are in the right ALL of the time will they automatically assume that we are all in willing collusion to cover up abuse? The difficulty is – can we really expect a logical response or reasonable dialogue at this point?

All of the livestock groups have certification programs in place focusing on both food safety and animal welfare, which is intended to assure the public that we are raising the bar and ensuring best practices. A couple of examples are ProAction Initiative from Dairy Farmers of Canada and CPC CQA program. As with any audited program, the expectations must be clearly outlined and measurable. Equally important, the consequences for failing to meet expectations must be understood and the program needs some teeth, with specific penalties for producers who fail to meet a minimum standard. Often, these programs will offer a financial incentive to achieve a high standard and If the audit process is transparent, legitimate and clearly tied to the price paid by the customer, results in consistent improvements.On the flip side, a program can be designed with standards so low that virtually all producers meet them. The result is a program that has virtually no value and does not last. In a logical, business setting, transparent measurables give credibility to the program and demonstrate to the customer realistic objectives and improvements.

In theory, my argument makes sense. In reality, I have less confidence that ARA’s are interested in logical, fact based explanations for how we are improving animal welfare. I suspect that there are many ARA’s that really are interested in productive dialogue, but I worry about the small percentage who are willing to go to extremes like spreading mis-information and harassing honest, hard working farmers. Animal welfare is important. So is the business of feeding the world. We are lucky that 99.99% of farmers CARE about both.

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