Animal behavior researcher Temple Grandin stirred some debate at a recent Animal Welfare Symposium at Ohio State University when she asserted that sow gestation stalls should be phased out because “I can’t sell them.”
Her comments suggested that public opinion was so steeply stacked against the housing practice that it would be more effective for farmers to spend their time changing how they care for sows than trying to change the mind of their customers.
“I can’t sell them to the public. It’s that simple,” she repeated several times.
Her comments drew concern from audience members, with one farmer saying that basing animal standards on a public opinion could have negative implications across the industry. (Read about how Ohio is approaching the sow stall issue.)
Grandin’s response was that farmers should better engage consumers who are disconnected from the farm. Otherwise, they might get the same result on other animal care practices.
“If ag doesn’t reach across the divide, it’s going to be in trouble,” she acknowledged.
Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity called the heightened awareness about food issues “a wonderful opportunity for the agricultural community to step in and fill that information void.”
Arnot said farmers don’t like to be challenged about who they are or what they do, but their best hope is to have a conversation with their customers.
“Not all of the responses from consumers are going to be well informed, well intentioned and they’re not necessarily going to immediately support what we do on today’s farms,” he said. “So we need to be willing to accept some of that and begin to have a conversation as opposed to simply telling people what they think is wrong, that we have the science to prove it, and they ought to be just grateful that they have food on their table.”
If farmers are successful, they could have the opportunity to continue to produce food, he said.
“If we’re not successful in that we could see more laws, more regulations, more social control over who we are and what we do because consumers are saying ‘OK, I’m uncomfortable enough with farmers that I’m not sure I trust them. I want someone else watching what they’re doing.’”
Further complicating the issue is that consumers don’t always make purchasing decisions in accordance with their ethical beliefs, said Janice Swanson of the Michigan State University Department of Animal Science during American Farm Bureau’s annual meeting.
“We need to know this and learn to work with this, because I don’t think we’re ever going to change it,” she said.Swanson noted that society’s continued deliberation on the appropriate care of animals will be “a way of life as we know it.”
She said farmers should consider the long-term impacts of not changing and adapt to consumer demands within reason.
“It’s not worth the fight, going to the mat, if it can be done,” she said.
The establishment of animal care guidelines that balance consumer concerns with the reality of production could allow producers to control their fate, she said. She also said that while consumers generally trust farmers, they’re not sure how to define farming. “Trust means more (to consumers) than being competent at what you do,” Swanson said.
Asked by Ohio Farm Bureau what farmers can do to rebuild trust with consumers, Temple Grandin said emotions are affected by pictures, not verbal or written knowledge.
“I’ve taken a lot of people through our large beef plants, and they’re kind of amazed at how quietly the cattle walk up the chutes. And we just need to be showing what we do. Not talking about it, showing it. Stream it out to the Internet. The equipment’s cheap,” she said.
Grandin said consumers just want to see “how the regular stuff works,” not gory activist videos.
As it faces potentially burdensome new state regulations, the Califorinia egg company JS West has done just that. It put live streaming video of its henhouse online, allowing visitors to select different camera angles and leave comments.