Advocacy in action

At least the food was good

Back during the summer, we received an e-mail from AASV member Dr R. C. Ebert of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, letting us know that he had been invited to a breakfast meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his district congressman. Dr Ebert wanted to prepare for the meeting and asked for some information about the key issues he should emphasize if given the opportunity. We provided him with some background materials on a few of the issues upon which we’ve been focused.

In early October, JSHAP received the following letter from Dr Ebert.

“Recently I and seven of my farmer clients attended a breakfast with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. It was organized by our district congressman, Ike Skelton.

The breakfast was billed as a question-and-answer session. To prepare, I contacted the AVMA Governmental Relations Division in Washington, DC, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, the Missouri Pork Producers, and the Dean of the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. My request of all of them was to provide me with concerns that should be voiced to Secretary Vilsack and my congressman, Ike Skelton.

All organizations responded promptly with lists of legislative concerns. The most striking aspect of this list was that every organization had three to five “major concerns” – all concerns being TOTALLY DIFFERENT. It makes no sense to me that agriculture and veterinary medicine do not have a few MUTUAL concerns to voice to our leaders. How can we expect to appear organized when there is no agreement regarding our needs? We certainly do not have much of a song when we are all singing from different books!!!

I guess I should not be too concerned. Secretary Vilsack only took two or three questions and then talked about his programs for the entire meal. The high point – the food was great!

R. C. Ebert II, DVM
Pleasant Hill Animal Clinic
Pleasant Hill, Missouri”

I applaud Dr Ebert for his willingness to accept the invitation and for his desire to become educated about the issues of concern to his state, profession, and the swine industry. Many of us find ourselves intimidated or uncomfortable talking about legislative or regulatory matters with our elected officials, so it always helps to review some talking points before the meeting. His letter, however, highlights some key points about the legislative process that I think are interesting to explore.

As Dr Ebert notes, no two groups have the same list of “priorities.” The issues impacting swine veterinarians are different from those prioritized by the AVMA, for instance, or those of pork producers. Even within the veterinary profession, swine veterinarians differ from cattle veterinarians, who differ from poultry veterinarians, and let’s not even talk about companion-animal, equine, or laboratory-animal issues. Solo practitioners have different priorities from those facing large clinics with multiple practitioners and many employees, and food-animal practitioners have different issues from companion-animal practitioners. There are over 100 state and allied veterinary groups within the AVMA House of Delegates, each with its own set of issues and priorities.

Sure, as veterinarians, we all share some common issues that we consider priorities, but even within those, we often differ on how they should be addressed. Take the issue of antimicrobial use, for instance. While all veterinarians recognize the importance of maintaining access to antimicrobials for the treatment of disease, we differ on the availability of those products for disease control, prevention, and growth promotion. Animal well-being is another topic on which we agree that animals should be treated appropriately, with dignity and respect, yet we differ on issues of housing, euthanasia, declawing, ear cropping, tail docking, beak trimming, etc. And these are just two of the many issues that affect our profession upon which we largely agree or disagree.

I think this is representative of a broader issue affecting the effectiveness of agriculture in general to obtain the recognition it deserves to ensure a prominent seat at the table when accessing adequate funding and necessary resources. Historically, agriculture was a part of everyone’s life and didn’t need to justify its existence to an unknowing audience. Everyone was closely involved with producing food for their families and understood the intricacies of that endeavor. Today, we are largely removed from the process of producing our food. Recent circumstances notwithstanding, we are a wealthy nation that shouldn’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, giving us the freedom to choose how our food is raised. Advances in communication technology have allowed those with an agenda to access an ill-informed audience to further that agenda. Even to the level of our elected officials and regulators, we have moved at least three generations away from the farm.

Agriculture, by its very nature, is a very diverse enterprise that doesn’t have a history of working together to speak with a unified voice in support of legislation, regulation, research, funding, etc. Individually, we have little influence on the overall process that can dramatically affect our way of life and how we practice our profession. To that end, it is important that we participate in coalitions of groups with which we can find common ground and concentrate that effort on identifying and addressing at least, as Dr Ebert put it, “a few MUTUAL concerns.

This is why I think it is important that AASV continue to be actively involved in the legislative and regulatory process. We cannot rely on any other group to understand or effectively champion our issues of concern. But the AASV alone is not a loud enough voice to affect significant change. It’s important that we find coalitions with whom we can cooperate at the national level. But, as they say, all politics are local and your involvement is critical to our success. I encourage you to follow Dr Ebert’s lead and accept the opportunity to meet with your representatives when you get the chance. You’re the ones that put them in office and they respond to their constituency better than to someone representing an association. Even if you’re not necessarily well-versed on the details of an issue, you can talk about how decisions impact your livelihood and profession. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know about something, but offer to put them in touch with someone who can better answer their questions (eg, AASV, AVMA, NPPC).

Meeting with your representatives may be intimidating and out of your comfort zone, but remember, the representative likely knows much less than you about what you do and how his or her decisions will impact your way of life. Trust me when I tell you that those with an agenda are making their opinions known while we’re tending our pigs or harvesting our crops. So take the chance to sit down over a meal with your representatives. Remind them what it takes to produce the food they’re eating and the importance of our profession in ensuring its wholesomeness and safety. At the very least, as Dr Ebert found out, maybe the food will be good.

-- Harry Snelson, DVM