At the age when farm kids prep their 4-H animals for the show ring, Jennifer Wray was having second thoughts about the turkey on her Thanksgiving table.
With a clear realization that her main course came with the end of an animals’ life, the city girl swore off meat in the seventh grade and has been considering the implications of livestock farming ever since.
“It was already really a part of my life,” Wray said. “As kids we have an openness to animals.”
As the now 31-year-old vegetarian ordered a meat-free meal in a Columbus restaurant, some of those former farm kids were still tending to cows or pigs or chickens.
What one was doing seemingly had little to do with the other. But with the public growing increasingly vocal about the treatment of farm animals, perhaps it’s time they meet.
Although she doesn’t consider animals a food source, Wray lives with an omnivorous husband, she loves her pets and has a good friend who is a butcher. Her concern for animals seems in line with Ohio’s predominantly urban and suburban residents, even though most have not taken meat off the table. And Wray notes that both she and farmers share an appreciation of animals.
“I guess it’s just coming from different perspectives,” she said.
Reasonably enough, Wray says animals should not be abused. But she goes farther to say that a pig, for instance, deserves to express its “piggish qualities,” meaning it should be able to engage in natural behaviors such as rooting or nesting. Although, for her, the best option is to keep it off the plate altogether.
“It feels like it is the right thing to do,” she said. “We have a responsibility in a certain sense to the animals that are serving us.”
But farmers question why they should alter their standards based solely on the personal philosophies of those with little agricultural experience. At the same time, consumers such as Wray are becoming skeptical that animals on modern farms are well-cared for.
So can the two groups who at times seem worlds apart come to any understanding on animal treatment?
“I don’t think we actually know what the public really wants relative to animals other than the assurance that they’re treated well,” said Candace Croney, an animal bio-ethicist at Ohio State University.”But they have to believe that they’re treated well.”
For Wray, at least to some extent, modern livestock production has been defined by bad actors. Reports of animal abuse seemed far too common and the accompanying images were powerful. A visit to a sanctuary for rescued farm animals confirmed those beliefs.
At the same time, when she visited an Ohio dairy farm, she felt OK with what she saw. But that couldn’t be the case on most farms, she thought.
“We’re all going to have our mascots,” she said. “(Farmers) are going to highlight the best, and the other side is going to highlight the worst.”
But it is often the worst cases that receive the most attention, said Matt Sutton-Vermeulen of the nonprofit Center for Food Integrity, which aims to rebuild consumer trust.
“The consumers today are being bombarded every time they turn around with information that erodes from their trust and confidence in the food system,” he said. “The very nature of our typical media systems focus on what’s going wrong and how to amplify that.”
The crux of the issue is how someone with admittedly minimal experience with livestock determines proper animal care. Wray adknowledges that it is often a visceral reaction, that certain aspects of livestock production simply feel wrong. And part of it, she admits, comes from thining how she would feel in the animal’s position. But she also draws on more researched arguments from a growing number of critics of modern food systems.
According to Ohio State’s Croney, public interest in livestock care grew as social movements were extended to animals and images of livestock production became more accessible.
“In the past 50 years….we’ve had more philosophers talking about animal use who had nothing to do with animal agriculture and thinking about what is the right use of animals versus not,” she said.
Add to that activists with extreme beliefs who seem to go to great lengths to disparage farmers. Matt Prescott was responsible for a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals campaign that compared the Holocaust to modern farms.
“When it comes to matters that harm others (animals), it isn’t exactly just an issue of I believe one thing and somebody else believes another thing,” Prescott said during an interview on Farm Bureau’s Town Hall Ohio radio program. “If we believe that to be true, then slavery would still exist in the U.S.”
Wray understands why criticism of livestock production can put farmers on edge.
“It’s your livlihood, it’s your heritage. It can be hard to say ‘don’t get emotional about this, don’t feel attacked,'” she said.
Still, Wray would like certain farm practices to end. And if voter approval of animal welfare laws in other states are any indication, she is liekly in the majority. The struggle for farmers is to reconcile the economic relaties of livestock productoin and the diverging philosophies of society with their own dedication to their animals.
From Wray’s perspective, “Communication isn’t the only issue, but it is the only solution.”