Commentary: Three-legged fools

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The anti-industry industry—and make no mistake: it’s a career track for most partisans—is propped up on a three-legged stool: Three interconnected lines of attack with which the people who hate on producers hope to take down the industry.

The first and most self-righteous leg is animal welfare. The true believers devoted to this often wide-ranging mission prefer the phrase “animal rights,” since that conjures up an ingrained legal standing for our fellow members of the animal kingdom.

But let’s keep it real: The moral basis of the operatives at groups flogging animal abuse issues, such as PETA and HSUS, is that raising livestock is inherently cruel, abusive and inhumane. The animal welfare movement isn’t about making production better, it’s about making it disappear.

As a corollary, their favorite tactic is the use of imagery: video clips, photos, staged demonstrations—anything that depicts stalls, cages crates, pens or any sort of confinement that shows a sad-eyed calf or a cute little piglet staring out through iron bars of some sort—coupled with whatever footage or photos they can obtain that show the very worst and most wretched of conditions in feedyards, packing plants or dairy farms.

The goal of the animal welfarists is to shame people into believing that there’s a better way to produce food, either some non-specific “natural” means of animal husbandry or the implied contention that we really don’t need to eat meat or drink milk, so why even have livestock and all the suffering that goes along with raising them as food animals?

Not really reformers

The second leg of the stool is vegetarianism and its extreme cousin, veganism. The people who focus on this line of attack take the notion of animal welfare even further. They argue that not only don’t we need animal foods, they contend that we’re actually better off without them.

The vegan purists love to occupy the moral high ground on this issue of diet, and unlike the pseudo-reformers pushing for an end to “factory farming,” they make no pretense about reform: Theirs is a religious crusade, no offense to contemporary believers on either side of the disastrous attempts of religious zealots in Europe to re-conquer the Holy Land a thousand years ago.

Vegan activists will make full use of whatever weapons are available—medical studies suggesting that meat causes cancer or heart diseases; environmental studies implying that livestock production is causing global warming; underground videos showing the “horrors” of modern livestock production.

But in the end, like preachers in the pulpit, they go to the heaven-or-hell card every time. Which is it going to be, people? Fire and brimstone for bloodthirsty carnivores, or milk and honey for pure and peaceful vegetarians? (Yeah, I realize those are animal foods—blame the Bible). It’s either floating on clouds with harps and angels while living off sprouts, or eternal damnation in a fiery barbecue pit for consuming the poisoned flesh of innocent animals.

You make the choice.

A glimmer of hope

Finally, the third leg of the anti-industry stool is one that grows more prominent by the week: Environmental destruction.

The activists who flog this attack range across a broader spectrum than their vegan brethren: from sincere scientists concerned about a variety of assaults on the global ecosystem to born-again believers convinced that each bite of beef is represents a slap in the face of Mother Earth herself.

There’s a ray of hope here, though. Some of these eco-activists are willing to dialogue with industry, to discuss in sober, scientific terms how best to minimize food production’s eco-footprint. They trade in data, they point to science and they rely on analysis to support their positions. These folks—though few in number—need to be engaged; industry needs to listen and learn from them, because there are improvements to be made in animal agriculture that could benefit both people and producers.

The more radical environmentalists, however, are as implacable as the most dedicated PETA street theater performer, convinced beyond any reasoning that raising livestock with the technologies that have evolved—as a result of mountains of research on efficiency, by the way—in the last 40 or 50 years is one of the primary causes of a laundry list of ecological disasters, some well underway, others hopelessly past the point of repair.

Even worse, thanks to hustlers like Sir Paul McCartney, the corollary to the environmental problem is that it’s solution is as simple as pushing away that steak, foregoing that slice of ham, or choosing a soy-based patty, rather than a piece of chicken. If only we would stop eating animal foods, the mantra becomes, we could heal the planet—and, of course, save the animals and reverse all of our health problems.

For industry, then, the goal is to remove one of the legs of a stool so it no longer supports the activist platform. But which one is most vulnerable?

To me it’s the environmental line of attack that needs to be neutralized. There is already good data that argue in favor of intensive livestock production as being more benign in its eco-impact, for example, when comparing grassfed beef to feedlot beef. And there are even more compelling data showing that the more “natural” methods of grazing livestock, absent modern genetics, veterinary practices and feed-and-forage strategies, actually cause serious and very environmental impacts across much of the developing world.

No matter how hard industry appeals to “reasonable” people, far too many will blanch at the sight of a farrowing stall or a stunning chute. There’s just no way to convince a generation far removed from raising their own food that what seems horrible is actually humane.

Likewise, with the abundance and variety we enjoy in our modern, convenient food supply, there’s little chance of weaning anyone away from thinking that vegetarianism isn’t a perfectly natural and totally healthy way to eat.

But as resource depletion, land-use dilemmas and the overriding threat of climate change continue to force their way into policy debates, industry can—and must—make the case that animal agriculture is part of the solution to our challenge of feeding the world.

That mission is difficult, but it’s one that must be undertaken—and accomplished—if that three-legged stool upon which the forces aiming to curtail the business of raising livestock are standing is to be dismantled.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Michigan  |  March, 01, 2013 at 07:30 PM

A couple of things: You cannot reason with these whackos. It simply is not possible. We still have to argue for science and pragmatism, frustrating as it is arguing with ditzy pudding heads. There is some value in keeping zealots cranked up and excitedly spewing recognizably preposterous nonsense, thereby discrediting themselves. There is always some danger of being dragged down into the muck ourselves. We are too willing to let the whackos frame the argument and establish the working assumptions. Case in point; in closing this article you blithely accept as our onus "resource depletion, land-use dilemmas and the overriding threat of climate change". We always need to force a step back in whacko arguments to evaluate all assumptions and all implied blame and/or responsibility. These whackos are never going away. They have been around a long time. Seemingly key members have died off, only to be replaced by ever more rabid hatemongers. They operate powerful donation mills. They hire competent guns for hire in fields of marketing, sociology, science to craft their propaganda messages and nuisance lawsuits. We need lusty funding vehicles and good competent efficient defenders to counter them. Whackos breezily claim to have all the easy answers. They seldom know what they are talking about and we somehow need to arrange for them to demonstrate their goofy ideologies in such a way their inevitable dismal failures are apparent to sane people everywhere. Maybe it's just a feature of farming. Like hail, drought, locusts and blight. Nobody said it would be easy and the whackos are here to make darned sure of it.

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