Advocacy in action

Harry Snelson Advocacy and activism

The face of animal activism is changing. While the old familiar opponents are still leading the charge, their tactics are now sophisticated, multi-faceted, and often cloaked as seemingly innocuous "feel good" messages. Make no mistake, their ultimate goal is to reshape animal agriculture as we know it today, or eliminate it altogether. Their issues are varied, including animal welfare, environment, antibiotic use, community destruction, destruction of the family farm, vegetarianism, and animal rights. Their tactics have escalated in some cases to violence, resulting in the FBI listing some of these groups among their top domestic terror threats.

Their message is often hidden, or sometimes blatantly obvious, in professionally produced, slick marketing campaigns targeting very specific audiences. Last year, the National Wildlife Federation published a Ranger Rick cartoon, directed at school children, decrying the environmental impacts of large hog farms. PETA has targeted the AVMA in the media and on billboards, attempting to minimize the stature with which the public views veterinarians.

They have been successful at contributing to the development of an entire cottage industry of niche markets which has the effect of further dividing the animal agriculture community. Witness the rise of organically grown foods, Whole Foods Market, and advertising campaigns by companies such as Eddie Bauer, Ben and Jerry's, and Patagonia, just to name a few. These marketing strategies often employ misleading advertisements, implying benefits which are not held to the same truth-in-advertising standards to which other label claims must adhere. Some of America's largest corporations have responded to the pressure by requiring suppliers to verify the farming practices they use.

Animal activists have become very sophisticated in their attacks on animal agriculture, using the legislative and legal processes to attempt at the very least to legitimize their positions, and in the worst case, to actually drive producers out of business. Activists successfully introduced a ballot initiative in Florida which resulted in a ban on gestation stalls, and they are currently attempting the same strategy in Arizona. Twenty-four states have a ballot initiative process which allows citizens to collect signatures on a petition placing statutes or constitutional amendments on an election ballot for voters to accept or reject.

Activist groups are well funded. By some estimates, there are over 400 activist groups engaged in food-related campaigns, with the top protest groups having a combined budget exceeding $500 million. As an example, the Humane Society of the US alone has a budget in excess of $90 million, and their new structure allows for more lobbying and litigation.

Americans spend less on food than any other country - less than 7% of our disposable income goes to purchase food consumed at home. That fact means that our consumers have the ability to choose how their food is produced. Studies, however, indicate that the vast majority of American consumers are not interested in where their food comes from until there is an incident affecting food safety or impacting emotions. Opponents of animal agriculture will exploit these incidents to further their agendas.

Most Americans are at least three generations removed from the farm. And agriculture today continues to consolidate into fewer and fewer hands. Raising food has become so technologically advanced that fewer households make their living from agriculture today than at any point in history. In 1910, there were approximately 6.4 million farms employing over 13.5 million workers in the United States. In 2000, those numbers had declined to less than 2.2 million farms worked by fewer than 3 million workers. The US population in 1910 was 92 million; currently, it exceeds 298 million. Today, over 60% of US farmers derive less than 25% of their household income from farming. What this means is that the influence of the American farmer has greatly diminished. Today, large population centers in historically agrarian states may determine legislation and regulations that significantly impact how and where farmers operate.

The distancing of consumers from the production of their food serves to lessen their understanding of farming practices and alters their frame of reference. For these reasons, it is vital that agricultural interests unite and advocate strongly on issues affecting farmers' livelihoods. Agriculture cannot hope to match our opponents' budgets and legal resources, and we must be willing to accept that some changes are inevitable. The swine industry has embraced tremendous changes over the last two to three decades and needs to continue to look for technology that enhances the way farmers care for their animals, protects their environment, and promotes the wholesomeness and safety of the food they produce. Livestock producers have never shied from those objectives.

We as a profession need to continue to provide a scientific review of issues affecting the animals we are obligated to care for and the producers we work with. It is important that the AASV and our members be active in the discussions that involve these issues. We must participate with producer groups, government regulators, legislators, other professional associations, and consumers uto educate decision-makers about the science associated with the issues impacting the animals we care for and the food they produce. This is the role of "advocacy" in professional associations - to insure that you have a voice on issues that concern your profession and your livelihood.

-- Harry Snelson