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Published August 18, 2014, 10:01 AM

Controlling the language

I talked once with a farmer who repeatedly mentioned the “individualized housing” in which animals live. He slipped once and used “cage,” but quickly corrected himself. OK, I told myself, it’s the old control-the-language, control-the-debate approach. But the animals live in cages, and that’s the term I’ll keep using.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

I talked once with a farmer who repeatedly mentioned the “individualized housing” in which animals live. He slipped once and used “cage,” but quickly corrected himself.

OK, I told myself, it’s the old control-the-language, control-the-debate approach. But the animals live in cages, and that’s the term I’ll keep using.

I’ve always been skeptical of U.S. agriculture’s effort to improve its image by trying to control the language. Most people see through it, and too often the attempt leaves the impression of having something to hide.

Wildlife management officials, for instance, frequently talk about “harvesting” game animals. True, the animals are a resource to be utilized wisely, and “harvesting” helps to get that across. There’s a valid reason to use the word. But, c’mon, the word also is used, in part, to avoid saying animals are killed. Nonhunters know that; they’re not fooled.

I hunt deer. I’m a terrible shot, so I rarely hit one. But when I do, I don’t harvest it. I kill it. If I’m criticized for killing it, I’ll respond like this:

Wildlife experts, using science and experience, determined the deer population needs to be thinned to reduce disease and depredation. I applied for a state hunting permit, which I received and used.

To be fair, efforts to control language can pay off. Not long ago, I was surprised to find myself asking a farmer about “crop protection products.” Once, I would have asked about the pesticides he’s applying. But after years of conditioning by the chemical industry, I succumbed temporarily and used crop protection products.

I certainly understand why the chemical industry and farmers use the term. “Pesticide” can sound scary. So can “insecticide” and “fungicide.” Saying we’re applying products to protect crops sounds so much nicer than saying we’re applying chemicals to kill bugs, weeds and disease. Still, now that I’ve caught on, I’ve gone back to using pesticide and the others.

Pick your spots

I’d like to think that agriculture doesn’t need to use bland terms to describe sometimes-controversial practices. I’d like to think the best course is explaining, honestly and simply, why some animals are kept in cages and why chemicals are applied to crops. If agriculturalists really believe what they’re doing is good and proper, they should explain their behavior in clear, direct language.

Yeah, I know, critics of U.S. ag try to control the debate, too, with terms such as “factory farms.” But I question whether that justifies agriculturalists in playing the same game.

Maybe you think I’m being naive. If so, drop me a line.

Philip K. Dick, the late, great science fiction writer, once said the best way to manipulate reality is to manipulate words. Some in U.S. agriculture seem to share that belief. No doubt they’ll continue trying to control the language and the debate.

But aggies need to pick their spots carefully. Playing with words too often and too blatantly weakens ag’s credibility. A cage is still a cage, no matter what you call it.

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