Buckeye Farm News
It has been called the most important issue to ever face Ohio agriculture.
With a more than $120 million budget and several successful ballot initiatives under their belts, leaders from the nation’s largest animal rights group have set their sights on the state.
The group — the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) — initiated a meeting in February with Ohio Farm Bureau leaders. The Ohio Cattleman’s Association, the Ohio Pork Producers Council, the Ohio Poultry Association and the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association were also brought into the conversation.
HSUS’ message: Ohio farmers must agree to change animal husbandry practices, or the practices will be changed for them.
Specifically, HSUS wants certain animals to be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and spread their limbs without touching another animal or any part of their enclosure. At the very least, hen cages, gestation stalls for sows and stalls for veal calves would be illegal in Ohio. Voters passed an identical law in California last year.
“Their approach was that they’d like to work together with us,” said OFBF Executive Vice President Jack Fisher.
HSUS indicated there are two ways to achieve its outcome — through the legislature or on the ballot, a much more expensive option. HSUS said its polling showed the public supported its proposal by a nearly two-thirds margin.
“We’ve been engaged in animal care issues for a long time,” Fisher said. “But once HSUS walked in the door our level of activity picked up.”
Fully appreciating the highly-organized strategy and past success of HSUS, OFBF and other livestock groups have been deliberate in developing a reply to the proposal. While the complete response is an ongoing, internal conversation, a first step is the launch of a new initiative to address challenges facing modern food production.
Recognizing that these challenges will persist, OFBF is creating the brand new Center for Food and Animal Issues.
A division of OFBF, the center will support agriculture’s efforts on a broad spectrum of issues, including the use of animals in society and modern farm practices.
“It really goes back to some basic questions, and first and foremost in my mind is what is Farm Bureau all about, what do we stand for, what do we exist for,” Fisher said. “Up front, we say we exist for the member. Well this is something that is critically important for the member.”
The center will house the Animals for Life Foundation, which will raise funds to support its activities in public outreach and media relations.
But to address the specific challenge brought by HSUS, there are fundamental questions to be examined: Is this an honest attempt to improve animal care, as HSUS claims? Or is it part of a broader effort to disrupt livestock farms, artificially drive up the cost of animal products and restrict consumer choice? And at the end of the day, who should have the final say on how animals are raised?
The answers require a deeper look at the mission and motives of HSUS.
Although it often uses images of sad-eyed puppies to solicit donations from well-meaning individuals, HSUS is not the parent of local animal shelters. It is an organization driven by a vegan philosophy that says it is wrong for humans to use animals for food, clothing, entertainment or research. Its purpose is to influence public policy and public opinion.
“We’re talking about, in HSUS, an organization that really wants to reorder the role of animals in society,” said Keith Stimpert, OFBF senior vice president of public policy. HSUS’ philosophy, he said, has implications for farmers, hunters, sportsmen, zoos, and potentially even pet owners.
It’s important to keep in mind that HSUS is an extremely sophisticated public relations machine. It is well aware that its extreme beliefs will not win the support of the majority of consumers.
In 2004, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle told the Washington Post, “I don’t believe there’s going to be any revolutions. I believe it’s going to be a slow process of people seeing alternatives, accepting them and using them.”
It’s a seemingly mainstream mindset that inches America toward the abandonment of animal products over years, if not generations. All the while, HSUS denies that it is out to put farmers out of business.
However, when it comes to eating habits, HSUS pushes consumers to follow its “Three R’s”: reduce the consumption of animal products, refine the diet with “less inhumane” alternatives and replace animal products with vegetarian foods. Reducing the consumption of animals by “only 50 percent,” would save 5 billion animals from “a lifetime of suffering,” it says on its Web site, and, “It’s never been easier (or more delicious) to replace animal products with readily available vegetarian alternatives.”
HSUS’ Pacelle describes animals as “fellow individuals, with the same spark of life that we have, the same desire to live and enjoy their time on Earth.”
In an interview with Buckeye Farm News last year, HSUS’ leading farm activist Paul Shapiro was asked if his ultimate vision for animal welfare was to stop using animals for food.
“Would I prefer for animals not to have their throats cut? Sure,” he said. “But I think that you need to play the cards as they’re dealt and recognize that you don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Despite numerous other statements such as these, HSUS leaders – some of whom formerly led openly vegan organizations – claim they only seek “modest reforms” that are “common sense.”
The organization’s carefully crafted rhetoric has lulled many voters and some in the media into believing that it is a moderate, animal protection group. Ballot initiatives in Florida, Arizona and California restricting animal housing options have passed by wide margins. Farmers in Colorado negotiated on similar legislation to avoid a costly ballot campaign that they were projected to lose.
The momentum of HSUS puts Ohio farmers in a battle to maintain the confidence of a society that has largely lost touch with how its food is produced.
“The challenge is not so much HSUS, but the challenge is how are we are going to communicate with our consumer about what we do,” said Kurt Ely, OFBF senior vice president of communications.
He said understanding the tactics of HSUS is important, but equally important is listening to consumers about issues that matter to them.
“Times have changed. It’s not the same agricultural production environment that we were in 20, 30, 40 years ago,” Ely said. “At that time, the trust, the belief, the proximity to the industry was there. Today, most of our connection (to animals) is through a zoo, is through your pet and not through the livestock industry.”
OFBF’s Stimpert noted that animal agriculture has already made efforts to ease consumer concerns through its own certification programs such as Pork Quality Assurance.
“Should we begin in some way, shape or form to put those into law for the protection of the producer and the confidence of the consumer,” he questioned. “And what would that program look like, how would it be funded and how would producers comply. That’s very central to this question of livestock care in Ohio.”
Farmers have always believed they are feeding the world and caring for animals the best they possibly can, Stimpert said, adding that they are open to reasonable improvements.
“The consumer needs to know the process, needs to see transparency in how we produce our food. We’ve tried that in a number of different ways. We’re communicating all the time. But we’ve got to take it up a step higher,” he said.
What farmers should be doing:
- Learn more about HSUS at www.hsus.org
- Listen and observe consumers to identify how they feel about livestock production and why
- Educate others about the issue and the consumer perspective
- Encourage non-members to join OFBF in addressing this issue
- Encourage participation in activities where farmers can share their beliefs about raising livestock
- Identify farmers and others comfortable in addressing the issue of animal welfare
Centering on animal issues
Ohio Farm Bureau’s new Center for Food and Animal Issues will work to influence public dialog over the role animals play in society.
While much of the focus will be on animals that end up on consumers’ plates, the center will bring together diverse interests, including zoos, hunters, researchers and pet owners.
Its efforts will be supported through its fundraising arm, The Animals for LIfe Foundation.