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Published October 29, 2012, 10:27 AM

Animal activism and agriculture

Are the actions by animals rights groups having some positive effects?

By: Rita Brhel, Agweek

YANKTON, S.D. — A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for a beef industry organization on the Center for Food Integrity’s Animal Care Review Panel, which evaluates undercover videos of alleged animal abuse on U.S. farms. The panel consists of a veterinarian, animal scientist and animal-husbandry ethicist, so these are knowledgeable folks on livestock management.

While they don’t condone undercover reporting, these videos are being recorded and released anyway. This is a way for the Center for Food Integrity to stand up for animal agriculture — by addressing these videos through a professional, evidence-based lens, that could otherwise be damaging to a largely uneducated public.

I read recently that Tyson Foods is the latest company to launch an animal welfare program to monitor the treatment of animals at farms that supply the company. An independent committee mandates certain livestock management practices in the realm of human-animal interaction, worker training and access to feed and water. The program is debuting with Tyson’s hog suppliers and will expand to the cattle and poultry suppliers in time.

I don’t know what to think of the animal welfare movement. There are conflicting messages out there. On one hand, activists seem to be out to end animal agriculture by manipulating the voting public into making it unlawful to continue common animal-husbandry practices that appear barbaric on the surface but are proven best-management practices from a veterinary and production management standpoint.

On the other hand, animal rights aren’t a bad thing. Ethically, producers and processors should be treating fellow living beings with dignity. Practically speaking, producers and processors do better business if they treat their animals well. For example, dark cutters are animals that are stressed at slaughter, and their meat is less palatable. It stands to reason that the majority of producers and animal handlers are treating livestock with respect. But there are exceptions to the rule. Not only that, but it’s good to look at our practices at times and evaluate whether they’re still appropriate.

While agricultural researchers in the field continue to move animal-husbandry practices forward, animal rights activism seems to be forcing the issue to go quicker than the industry is accustomed to. Does it need to move that fast? I’m starting to think that animal rights activism, even the “extreme” activists such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, do have some positive impact on agriculture. The university research and corporate advances we rely on for the most up-to-date information is working, but not at the pace that the uninformed public needs it to be. Consumers are operating at the speed of social media and rumor, which are far faster than the time it takes for information to trickle down through extension publications and farm shows.

No offense to local extension educators, but it’s true — how long would it take the animal agriculture industry to come up with an appropriate response to undercover videos on farms without appearing defensive? Animal rights activism is using the Internet to its advantage. At the same time, it’s forcing animal agriculture to become a more organized entity, to refine ways of responding to attacks as a united front, and to develop systems of ensuring and communicating responsibly.

Farmers can’t be immune to public influence, and we can’t pretend to be, either. The future of agriculture depends on that — not that there ever will be an end to agriculture, but there likely could be an end to how we know agriculture now in how we live it. It could morph into a maze of unnecessary bureaucracy as producers lose the autonomy that defines our profession.

Farmers need to tell their story, they need to appear as experts in food animal production and they need to earn consumers’ trust through education and accountability. We need consumers to like us.

Editor’s Note: Brhel is a correspondent for the Yankton (S.D.) Press & Dakotan. This column originally appeared in the Press & Dakotan.

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