I encountered a typical complaint the other day, one that over the years I’ve heard more variations on than a chess master has openings.

“I don’t really like to eat meat, because those animals are just so abused.”

The speaker was an otherwise intelligent, well-educated young woman with enough smarts and savvy to have risen to the managerial ranks in her company at an age my biggest accomplishment was blowing my measly paycheck—and my weekend—on the futile pursuit  of whatever girl du jour I had no chance of landing.

This particular young woman was a sucker for the “pumped full of antibiotics and hormones” rhetoric that anti-industry activists are so adept at disseminating. Even though she admits to being underweight and anemic, she vowed to gain her way back to a normal BMI by increasing her consumption of—wait for it—peanut butter.

I’ll grant you, George Washington Carver was a genius who created some 300 uses for the peanut, but none of his patents involved the reversal of anemia. Although highly nutritious, a jar of Skippy isn’t going to take anyone to a place, nutritionally speaking, that lean meat can’t go more efficiently and, truth be told, contributing far fewer calories and fat to one’s diet (a single cup of peanut butter delivers more than 1,500 calories, two-thirds of them from fat).

That’s the predictable part of the discussion I had with this young woman. The interesting part, however, was that her objections to eating meat centered not on how animals are killed, but on how they lived. It’s not about humane slaughter, it’s about humane lifestyle, if that term can be properly applied to farm animals.

Interesting, because her objections echo the more recent positioning of the activist community. Ten years ago, there were high-profile campaigns against inhumane slaughter, and lots of accusations about animals being skinned alive and chickens getting manhandled at the plant, and pigs jammed into overheated trailers on their way to slaughter.

Those issues, however, have largely subsided, and for the past five years or so, the thrust of both the activist community’s propaganda and its campaign funding has been focused squarely on living conditions, not slaughter. Thus, the referenda launched against gestation stalls and battery cages and veal crates, and the concurrent marketing of the benefits of free-range production, open housing systems and the outdoor access that many alternative agriculture participants preach to their customers.

Pushing back on the issues

In some ways, it’s just easier for the groups invested in promoting vegetarianism to attack producers on the confinement issue. Most people still harbor romantic notions of a now non-existent farmstead with chickens running loose, a couple pigs covered in mud and a docile cow in the barn munching on hay as their conceptual framework for food production.

It’s also a far better source of the angst activists prey on to drive their fund-raising, and focusing on living conditions allows those holier-then-thou groups to hide behind a reform banner, rather than admitting their ultimate goal is a meat-free society.

So how does the industry push back? On two fronts.

First, by pushing forward in the evolution of production systems that incorporate the key concerns consumers have bout food animals: open, or group housing systems and access to the outdoors. In the end there is no inherent conflict, no technical barriers to adding those elements to production that cannot be overcome. Just the necessary determination and the appropriate investment.

Second, the looming specter of a world population plagued by food shortages—even in our own lifetime—represents a real awakening for the very people, like the young woman I spoke with, who are intelligent enough about the larger issues of resource limitations and climate change to appreciate the urgency of maintaining, if not increasing, global farm productivity.

There is fertile ground, I believe, to discuss the merits of so-called industrial agriculture. Without the efficiencies inherent in modern food production, there would be starvation in many places around the world. Although we like to believe that could never happen here, the specter of soaring food prices does hit home, and it’s there that traction can be gained for establishing not just the justification for, but the necessity of factory farming.

I know activists love that phrase, but I think it’s time for producers and farmers to demystify it and drain it of its pejorative context. Nobody objects to the concept of a factory, if—and that’s a big if—the working conditions are satisfactory. And few people complain about the concept of mechanized farming when it applies to commodities such as corn, wheat and soybeans. Heck, there wouldn’t be a veggie activist alive today to protest production agriculture without the availability and affordability of soy protein in its many culinary incarnations.

It’s only animals that are seen as victims in the farming and food production systems that have evolved so dramatically over the past 50 years.

And as long as industry maintains the efficiencies, and mitigates the deficiencies, there is no reason that even the more critical consumers can’t be eventually persuaded to skip the Skippy and return to meat-eating.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator