The Spin Zone: How Animal Ag is Trying to Dupe You

Perhaps you heard Sherry Turkle on NPR last week discussing her book, “Alone Together,” about the on-going struggle of our youth to remain autonomous beings in an inter-connected society. I wrote about her findings over a year ago, mentioning how Facebook is one big “validation fest.” This was echoed with Bruce Hood’s comments a few months later, who said “[r]ather than opening up and exposing us to different perspectives, social networking on the Internet can foster more radicalization as we seek out others who share our positions.”

And so it is with enthusiasm that I try to expand my worldview, my positions, and my outlook, by seeking the alternative view. Today, it comes from BEEF Magazine – yes, the industry magazine of cattle producers – and I’ve found quite a slew of propagandizing articles. What interests me, however, is the angle. Here, animal rights activists are on the wrong side of the fence, even though they claim we take “moral high ground” most of the time (I think we do because we have it!). In a recent article “debunking” meatless Mondays, entitled “Six Reasons Why I Eat Meat Every Day — Mondays, Too,” beef advocate Amanda Radke writes:

I’ve got to hand it to the vegetarian and vegan activists, they know how to create a movement to rally around. Only a small segment of the U.S. population actually follows a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but these folks have been able to take their ideas and make them mainstream. Universities across the country have adopted the Meatless Monday trend, and it seems like every time I pick up a consumer publication, there’s an article promoting meatless meals like tofu and bean burgers.

Then the author gives six – what I can only assume she feels are valid – reason to eat meat every day, including Mondays. These include “health” which amounts to the statement that beef contains vitamins, minerals, and protein; then reason #5, “it’s kind” which is sort of laughable as ethically, by definition, it is not kind to bring a being into existence to kill it; and some other paltry examples such as “it’s sexy” and “it’s environmentally friendly.” Basically all the reasons we give against eating meat, just spun 180 degrees, to appeal to the cattle producers so they have some argument to throw out there. But you can think through those yourself (I even felt compelled to leave a comment on the post).

The real “meat” of the issue comes in when the industry goes after what they call the “emotion of animal welfare.” Ah yes, emotion. It always gets in the way of things! Author Gayle Smith has some profound quotes about the mucking up of emotion and science that AR activists like to do. For instance…

Animal activists are successfully influencing the consumer’s view of animal welfare by appealing to the core values people believe in, such as compassion, justice, fairness and freedom, she adds. Activists also highlight issues easily grasped by consumers, like housing, handling and pain; they then develop modest appeals for change by adopting a high moral ground or even using religion. As an example, [Purdue University associate professor of animal behavior and well-being Candace] Croney points to farrowing crates to contain sows. “The activists say, ‘Can’t we give this pig just a little more room to turn around?’ That sounds completely reasonable, but the urban consumer doesn’t understand how a sow behaves. They don’t understand it’s not that easy. Their opinion is ‘What’s the problem? Just do it.’”

Just a little more room! Impossible, right? No. While I certainly don’t advocate farming pigs, here are at least two suitable alternatives to farrowing crates: Swedish Deep-Straw Farrowing (hey, pigs in straw! novel idea, eh?) and this Natural Farrowing System. Again, please note that this is not an endorsement of any sort of animal confinement, simply a counter argument to animal agriculture’s claim that “a little more room” is just too much.

Next, onto definitions:

Animal welfare has different definitions to different people. For many, particularly producers, it’s providing good animal husbandry, and taking care of the physical needs of animals for food, water and shelter. However, others feel the biological and behavioral needs of the animal should also be considered.

This is the same rhetoric I heard about KYLCSC meetings: animals need food, water, and shelter, period. A “healthy animal” will produce better than an unhealthy one. And when behavioral needs factor into it? Eh…

It’s clear to me that the majority of animal producers have a wall up when it comes to this front: they create the guise of caring about animals through their basic needs (Maslow’s lowest level), while ignoring the emotional toll it can take on the animals. If you repeat this enough times, and are born into a society that does this (as “nth” generation farmers so proudly state), it can become a sort of truth. But these animals feel both emotional and physical pain, and when either one is left out of the equation, there are disastrous consequences. The article goes on to advise producers what to do when confronted with the media, activists, or even (gasp) conscious consumers!

…Croney recommends explaining to consumers that today’s food challenges require maximizing the use of land and space. “We also need to mention that it requires us to grow and finish a lot of animals quickly. In the case of sows, we need to show the public how they are fed, and that they are housed in a way to protect workers and other animals,” she says. “The attention span of the American public regarding these issues is about two minutes, so we need to develop a quick and effective way to address these concerns,” she says. “Make sure people know no one is more concerned about our animals than us, and that we are committed to their health and welfare,” she says. “Develop a statement committed to animal welfare, and put it out there where people will read it. Actions speak louder than words, but words can be very effective when people don’t know you or what you do.”

If you get to define the terms “health and welfare” then you can certainly be committed to it, no? By advising the animal industry to “develop a statement committed to animal welfare…” you get exactly that: a statement. How about advising them to consider the claims of activists, that animals need to be taken care of on all levels? Or discussing the separation between mothers and their young “down on the farm?” These issues are glossed over in the name of a generic “animal welfare,” and of course, profit. By re-enforcing the point that we have “food challenges” – assuming that they can only be met by meat and dairy – and using this as a talking point, the animal agriculture industry continues to dupe the American public. It takes any option of a truly humane treatment of cows, pigs, chickens, etc. off the table by assuming that their sole purpose in life is to provide for us, not simply exist of their own volition.

Note: in doing some research regarding the farrowing crate debacle, I contacted Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society, who had this to say:

  • Keep in mind that the entire debate going on in the country right now is about gestation crates, not farrowing crates. They keep the pregnant pigs in the gestation crates for four months, then move them to farrowing crates where they nurse piglets for four months, and then go back to the gestation crate where it all repeats for a couple more years.
  • Nine states have passed laws banning gestation crates. Zero have laws relating to farrowing crates.
  • About 35 major pork buyers in the country now have policies to phase out gestation crates. Zero have such policies for farrowing crates.
  • The industry likes to purposefully conflate farrowing and gestation crates so they can make the piglet-crushing argument.

Photo: Twicepix