Efforts to protect farmers from animal rights extremists create some interesting discussions, strange bedfellows and of course, self-serving, misleading propaganda. Over the past few weeks, we have reported on several states considering legislation aimed to restrict the ability of activists to clandestinely take photos or videos of alleged animal abuse, which they use to discredit farms and livestock production overall.

One of the more contentious bills, proposed by Florida Senator Jim Norman (R-Tampa), made the news again this week. The original bill would have made it a felony to photograph a farm or farm operations without permission, and its wording seemed to cover any photography — including someone taking scenic roadside shots. News media in Florida this week reported that the Florida Senate’s legislative committee amended the bill, reducing the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor and narrowing its scope to cover just those photos taken on farm property without the owner’s consent. Other states including Iowa are considering legislation, also narrower in scope, specifically targeting covert activities.

These proposals have generated discussions and some disagreements among agricultural organizations and producers. Some believe the laws are needed to protect producers from fraud and videos taken out of context or even staged. Others insist the industry needs more transparency, rather than laws implying we have something to hide.

I believe we need both. Producers first, naturally, must assure their houses are in order by employing and documenting best practices for animal care and environmental stewardship, and by training their employees to assure compliance. Then we need more operations to open their gates to the public and the media, to help educate our urban-based society about the realities of food production.

Producers also, however, need protection, and a point that’s often missed is that the issue potentially affects all producers. The article this week in Florida’s American Independent, about the photography bill, presented the issue as one pitting large against small, “organic” versus “factory farming.” And of course, the paper had no problem luring specialty producers to sling mud at conventional agriculture.

The article quotes Tommy Simmons, an organic farmer who raises free-range hogs and cattle near Archer, Fla. He starts by saying farmers shouldn’t have anything to hide, but he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he wraps himself in the holier-than-thou cloak of sustainability, using unsubstantiated claims to imply that the whole problem lies with “industrial farming.”

“Just because you’ve got numbers doesn’t mean that you’re doing things in a more efficient way, and certainly not in a way that is more conducive to healthy food, whether it be animals or vegetables,” he says. “If you’re an industrial farmer, you’re trying to maximize the output by increasing the inputs and crowdedness of the situation. Just trying to put all of the inputs you possibly can into as small an area you possibly can, and trying to reap the benefits thusly.”

When asked about the economics of food production, Simmons had this to say: “If expense is their concern, then the totality of the expense needs to be considered, and that has to do with the health effects upon the people that eat the industrialized food, as well as the health effects upon the environment.

“And generally speaking, that’s never spoken to by the industrial people, because they don’t want to hear about that they’re not only providing a food product that’s not necessarily the best for the people, but they’re also involved in polluting the planet,” Simmons says. “Those costs are not considered, and as far as I’m concerned those are the ultimate costs.”

Really.

First, I need to point out that individuals and organizations with a sincere interest in sustainably feeding the world are indeed exploring and addressing these issues, using science, rather than self-serving assumptions.

Take a look at the Sustainable Beef Resource Center, for information on how modern production technologies allow more food production with fewer inputs.

Visit Plenty to Think About, an online blog created by Elanco Animal Health to generate a dialog on how agriculture can meet the need to double global food production by 2050, as estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and do so with less land, fewer inputs and a smaller carbon footprint. Join the conversation and tell us how your production system helps address that need.

Read Beef’s Smaller Footprint, outlining research from Dr. Judith Capper at Washington State University showing how a pound of beef produced today with modern production practices requires 10 percent less feed energy, 20 percent less feedstuffs, 30 percent less land, 14 percent less water, and 9 percent less fossil fuel compared with production in 1977. Capper’s research shows modern, high-yield production practices have reduced beef’s carbon footprint by 18 percent over 30 years.

Check out this article about a Stanford University study showing how high-yield agriculture slows the pace of global warming

Also, consider this: We’re all in this together. At Drovers/CattleNetwork we support the efforts of livestock producers to add value and differentiate their products. If they can find ways to improve profits through natural, organic, free-range or local-production systems, we applaud their success. They cross the line of honesty and integrity though, when they feel the need to promote their system with veiled inferences — or outright accusations — that conventionally produced beef is unsafe, unhealthy, environmentally destructive or unsustainable.

Finally, anyone who thinks their production system insulates them from the agenda of animal-rights activists needs to think again. Groups such as PETA and HSUS are determined to end animal agriculture. They’ve focused their efforts on large operations because they are easier targets, finding a message in “factory farming” that resonates with a poorly informed public. But make no mistake, these groups do not care about your choice of production practices. They don’t care if you feed your animals home-baked organic oatmeal cookies and sing them to sleep at night. They want to put you out of business.

This is not a time for producers to point fingers, attack each other and play into the hands of extremists. Instead, we should present a unified voice and a common message. That message is that the vast majority of beef producers, large and small, organic or conventional, take stewardship of their animals and land seriously. They strive to practice sound, responsible management and continuously seek ways to improve. The small minority who intentionally abuse animals need intensive education or a career change.