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September 14, 2011

Stubborn Posturing by Agribusiness Campaign in Nebraska

Can anyone blame the majority of Americans for their deep cynicism about so many actors on the political stage, or for their lack of confidence in our elected leaders? The evidence of their failure, hyper-partisanship, and rigid orthodoxy is all around us. We’ve got real problems that need to be confronted, but too many timid politicians don’t have the strength to stand up to the interest groups that are jerking their chains.

This phenomenon is at work in spades in Nebraska, where Gov. Dave Heineman and his allies in agribusiness have turned away repeated attempts by The HSUS to open up a dialogue about animal welfare issues. In fact, almost a year ago, I was invited by a Nebraska cattle rancher and HSUS member to conduct a town hall meeting in Lincoln; we invited farm leaders in the state to my talk and said it’s time for us to sit down and to address some of the glaring animal welfare problems in today’s industrial agribusiness sector, including the extreme confinement of certain animals in cages and crates barely larger than their bodies. I specifically told them that we would not be conducting a ballot initiative campaign in the state, as we had done in a few other places, but that we wanted to sit down and see if we could work together to find a pathway forward. Shortly thereafter, Heineman’s response was emphatic: "In Nebraska, no deal, no compromise.” He’s been traveling the state, engaging in naked demagogy and trying to demonize The HSUS for having the gall to reach out to farmers and stand up for the well-being of farm animals.

Two piglets
Paul Shapiro/The HSUS

Is it any wonder our nation is in trouble with politicians who take such ill-informed and patently dishonest postures? In Nebraska, as in all other states, there is a real issue related to the care of farm animals. It’s always uncomfortable to push people to examine tough questions, but that’s what The HSUS has had to do with some sectors of the animal agriculture community. To their credit, more and more agriculture leaders are sitting down and engaging in these tough conversations. As a result, we have together hammered out agreements in California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and Ohio on farm animal welfare, and found a better way forward. Recently, we announced an agreement with the United Egg Producers that, if enacted by Congress, would revamp the egg industry in the years ahead and be better for the economic security of the egg industry and also better for the laying hens doing so much of the work.

But in Nebraska, Heineman and some of the state’s farm groups don’t want any discussion or dialogue. They just circle the wagons, make false claims, and talk of looming ballot measures when they know none is coming. Somehow, they think their industries are operating perfectly, and that any change or modification in their current practices is tantamount to an attack on all agriculture. They want to treat their state as an island that will ward off any talk of animal welfare and better treatment of animals. They are stuck in an old way of thinking, when many leaders in the agriculture sector around the country have found a new way forward.

Yesterday, these farm groups announced that they are setting up a fund to defend against The HSUS, even though I’d announced on any number of occasions in public forums and in on-the-record conversations with reporters that we are not going to conduct a ballot initiative there in the foreseeable future. As I told the Lincoln Journal Star, I can only deduce the formation of their new group is a case of paranoia run amok or, more likely, a fundraising scheme from the farm groups.

I can understand stubborn people within industries who are resistant to change. I have seen that during my professional life in animal welfare time and again, whether it’s seal clubbers, cockfighters, puppy millers, or others. I have no illusions that everyone will handle criticism in a constructive way.

But some Nebraska political leaders and their allies in agriculture are fast becoming outliers in a nation that is seeking a better balance between agricultural practices and our nation’s values. The agricultural economy is important to the nation, but so are animal welfare, the environment, public health, and the state of rural communities. We are a nation that can only progress when we try to forge solutions that include all of the stakeholders. Silly, overwrought, dishonest behavior by governors or farm leaders won’t help our nation. It may win them short-term political points with the constituencies they want to curry favor with, but it’s not good for the country.

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