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April 28, 2009

At the Table with Agriculture

If we are going to solve the problems that animals face in America and throughout the world, we have to have civil and honest discussions with people involved in industries using animals. We need laws and we need socially responsible corporate standards and policies—and The HSUS works hard to push reforms in both of these arenas. But we also need open communication and collaboration with institutions and individuals who have more conventional attitudes toward the use of animals to be part of the solution. While The HSUS will work to advance its mission and its views, defending the interests of animals and criticizing abusive or inhumane practices, we understand the elaborate cultural and social frameworks in which sport hunting, factory farming, and other industries operate.

Dogfighting and malicious acts of cruelty are crimes, and the people who engage in this conduct operate outside the bounds of the law and also outside the norms of a civil society. By successfully pushing cockfighting bans in all 50 states, we have now established that behavior as criminal in our society as well. But many activities involving animals that The HSUS criticizes are perfectly legal and widespread, and that makes tackling these issues a much more complex task. For example, I don’t think that people involved in factory farming generally want to cause animals distress and suffering. Rather, confinement systems became the norm as the industry attempted to increase efficiency, and producers adopted the standard tools in competitive economic markets. From there, thought leaders in government, academia, and industry worked to defend and provide support for these systems.

Herd of cows in field
© USDA

It was with this set of assumptions last night that I addressed the National Association of Farm Broadcasters—the radio and television broadcasters who speak to farmers throughout America and service the agriculture industry. The farm broadcasters seem to share the same world view of a lot of conventional agricultural operators, and I just think it’s critical we have more dialogue with them since they have an important information platform.

For years, the agriculture lobby was able to block reasonable reforms in Congress and in state legislatures, such as halting the use of gestation crates or battery cages. The HSUS resorted to ballot initiatives in a number of states to phase out these confinement systems. We felt it was important to show industry leaders, retailers, and politicians that the American public doesn’t accept that animals raised for food should be subjected to lifelong intensive confinement conditions. It’s inhumane, and it does not comport with our society’s evolving standards about the proper care of animals.

Proposition 2 in California was a wake-up call for industry, as were similar ballot measures in Arizona and Florida. In order to avert these polarized fights between us and some groups within industry, I asked the farm broadcasters to play a role in facilitating better communication. We’ve got to stop the caricaturing and the mudslinging and discuss a new pathway that balances animal welfare with industry imperatives.

Agriculture is a noble enterprise. And there’s always going to be a fixed consumer base for agricultural goods. But how we conduct agriculture is a topic that we must debate, since our values and our understanding of science are not static. There are right ways and wrong ways to do business in the domain of agriculture, and I know that farmers are innovative and creative enough to leave intensive confinement systems behind. Demonizing critics like The HSUS and simply fighting to maintain the status quo are not acceptable responses, and will not help animals, consumers, or the industry.

Change has always been a watchword for farmers, who have had to adapt to new rules in world trade, global communications and transport, fluctuating commodity prices, shifting levels of government support, and much more. Improving the welfare of animals is one of the additional challenges they face, but it is one that must be accommodated. We hope it’s confronted in a constructive way, and we are ready to be an honest partner in that process.

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