Friday, November 21, 2008

My Point of View

Agriculture has been on a losing streak lately. In 2002, we got blindsided in Florida with a ballot measure that banned gestation and veal stalls. Then in 2006, Arizona faced the same defeat even with a much more coordinated effort from our side. Now California has passed Prop 2, which took one more step and banned battery cages for egg production. Also during that time, Colorado was forced to dance with the devil and negotiated a deal through their legislature to phase out gestation stalls. The Oregon Legislature also passed a similar law. This snowball keeps getting bigger, so what do we do?

To answer that question, we must first try to learn some lessons from our past battles. The argument that agriculture has been trying to convey is that these laws will force the cost of food production to rise, thus making it more difficult for families to put food on the table. We have also put forth all of the science that we can generate about the benefits of using modern production techniques. In short, we have tried to reason with the consumer by using numbers and logic.

Meanwhile, our opponents have busy arguing on a different level. That level is emotion and the idea of making you feel good by voting to ‘help’ animals. They have compared livestock to the family pet and pose the question “Would you treat your dog this way?”.

Recently, I attended a meeting where I was exposed for a second time (thanks Matt D.) to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. Basically, humans have eight levels of need. The first need is physical. In other words, we need to take care of hunger, thirst, and bodily comfort. The last need that humans desire to fulfill is transcendence, i.e. helping others realize their potential. In between these two needs, are things like learning and self-esteem. Humans will always strive to fulfill needs higher on the list. After some discussion at our meeting, this list was applied to how people vote on issues, and specifically the recent vote on Prop 2 in California.

You see, our arguments were aimed at fulfilling a need that most people have already attained, the need for food and physical comfort. The argument from HSUS appealed to people’s need for helping with a cause that is bigger than themselves and makes them feel good. The people that voted for these measures were looking to fill their need for transcendence. They were able to help someone (or in this case something, although most animal rights activists like to argue that livestock are a “someone’) who couldn’t help themselves.

The other problem we face is that there were basically no consequences for the voters if they passed these laws. It won’t directly affect the consumer at this point. The grocery stores in California will now just import eggs from other states or countries and consumers will still have an affordable and abundant supply. No matter how they vote, people will still expect the grocery store to be full of food and it most likely will be. I used to think that if this country could go hungry for a day that people would realize the importance of a home-grown food supply and that would end this effort against modern production techniques. That’s not going happen however, due to the global economy we live in. I truly believe the only thing that might scare consumers enough to change their mind would be a food-borne disease outbreak from imported food, but by then it’s too late for US agriculture to ramp up production and get back in the game because of over-regulation. So we can’t wait for that to happen.

So what do we do? I doubt there is a silver bullet out there that will fix everything, so we need to stop looking for it. But here are my thoughts.

I think we need to start focusing on the people in our industry. When our industry is talked about as a whole in the media, normally it gets beat up pretty fast, but when individuals are highlighted it seems as though the tone changes somewhat. The general population doesn’t think the producer that lives down the road from them, that they know, is the problem. It’s the one that lives further way or in another state that’s the bad guy. They are the ones that causing the problems. This highlights the need for producers to get up, get out an introduce themselves to the public.

We still need to continue generating the best available science and show that 99.9% of producers are doing the very best jobs we can at sustaining life on this planet. Even though we have found out this won’t win at the ballot box, we must have that foundation under our efforts.

Also, if you don’t belong to an agriculture organization that represents your views, you should be. And if you are already active in one, you need to encourage them to work together with other ag groups to combat these misperceptions. And it’s not just the livestock organizations, it needs to be ALL groups that deal with agriculture. It’s time to put petty differences behind us and realize the need to work together toward this common goal. HSUS isn’t just trying to change how we manage livestock, they are trying to abolish animal agriculture and promote a vegan society. Like Ben Franklin said, we must hang together or we will surely hang separately.

And finally, the best thing you can do is tell everyone who will listen what you do. Pamphlets, TV commercials, radio advertising, or the various ways of disseminating information on the internet do not hold a candle to a one-on-one conversation or presenting to a group of consumers. The previously mentioned items are a great way to back up the message that producers need to convey, but they can’t do the job by themselves.

I realize these are broad, rough ideas, and not a comprehensive list, but we need to be gearing up for our next challenge. We can’t allow agriculture to be forced into using 1940’s technology in the 21st century. That is a death sentence for agriculture and for the security of this country.

Your industry is calling and it needs your help. Are you willing?

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