HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- TURN THE TABLES OF ACTIVISM

by: Wes Ishmael

“In a world of seven billion people and expanding, where malnutrition, hunger or outright famine are commonplace, it's dumbfounding that Time magazine would take one of the great American success stories — the efficient agricultural production of an abundant variety of healthy, safe and affordable foods for consumers in the U.S. and throughout the world — and turn it into an unrecognizable story of exploitation, manipulation and greed,” wrote J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Federation. He wrote that in a letter to the editor to Time magazine concerning that publication's August 31 cover story.

First posted online August 21 under the heading, Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food, author Bryan Walsh starts out like this:

“Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009.”

The author's factual and inferential audacity deepens as the article goes on, indicting beef production and sustainable high-yield agriculture as a whole, while at the same time extolling the virtues of organic agricultural production.

Emotion Rules All

The unfortunate power of such rhetoric is that rather than being accurate in both fact and context, it merely has to be proclaimed and appeal to emotion.

For instance, if I tell you that fence staples have been linked to oral cancer in humans (which it hasn't, far as I know), chances are you wouldn't believe me. If you hear the same basic premise several more times from various sources, ludicrous as it sounds or in fact may be, you can't help but wonder; maybe you even quit clenching the next one between your teeth. Even when some pro-staple group or another proves the claim false, there's always going to be a part of your brain that remembers that claim.

Closer to home, I listened to a lady—who said she represented small cattle producers—explain why she and others like her would never identify their cattle as part of a national ID system. One of the reasons was, “We don't care about market access.”

Depending on any definition of small cattle producer, I've met gobs of them over the years. Never have I met one who didn't care about market access. I suppose it's because the producers I know have an innate love for the cattle they steward, but understand that to stay in business they've got to be able to sell cattle for at least as much money as they've got in them, on average and over time. And, that requires market access.

If you truly did not care about the responsibility of helping to feed the nation and the world with the cattle in your charge, or owned no cattle and didn't think about them one way or another, why wouldn't you believe such preposterous claims when there is no counterpoint?

It's not as if the industry doesn't continue to invest heavily in helping the public understand the facts about cattle and beef. In the case of Walsh's article, management and media relations teams of the Beef Check-off program heard from a Time research assistant at the end of July, who said Walsh was writing an article about food safety and antibiotics; later the focus broadened to nutrition and environment. Long story short, those teams arranged five interviews with industry experts and provided fact sheets. If Walsh talked to any of those sources or considered the other information provided he obviously didn't hear the facts as presented.

Full Time Education Required

The point is, while disparagement of and outright misinformation about cattle and beef should always be challenged, it's difficult to argue with, let alone change the mind of a fence post.

Instead, it seems the more efficient strategy aims to fill the mental and emotional space of consumers before activists do.

There are a growing number of places where producers can acquire information easily. On a national level, there are sites supported by Check-off dollars, such as www.explorebeef.org and www.MyBeefCheckoff.com. Many state cattle organizations also provide a bounty of information to share with consumers. There's even a national training program—Master of Beef Advocacy—offered through the Beef Check-off.

For that matter, check out how a group of agricultural-oriented young people are tackling the issues at www.ilovefarmers.org.

Engaging the consumer doesn't have to be fancy or complicated. It's as simple as asking someone at the grocery store meat case how they like the beef they've been getting, and introducing yourself as a producer concerned about how you're meeting consumer needs. It could be asking to meet the chef where you're eating out and do the same. It might be inviting your Congressional representatives and aides to your operation to show them how what you're doing helps the environment rather than hurts it.

In each of these instances, experience suggests as much as the facts shared, understanding is spawned by these folks being able to attach a face with the issues. Rather than one-sided rhetoric, the debate becomes one of relationships, and that spawns a very different conversation.

In one fashion or another, none of this is new. What is new is the urgency for everyone with a vested interest in the business to become engaged in letting consumers know who you are and why it is that you take so seriously the responsibilities that go along with the opportunity to raise beef.

Boyle noted in his response to the Time article, “As Nobel Laureate Norman Bourlag said, ‘You can't build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.' Before one dreams about the ‘good old days' romanticizing about a return to peasant agricultural production practices, as Time magazine apparently does, we should remember that organic shoppers in well-to-do neighborhoods in our country are a much different marketing challenge and imperative than the 1 billion people around the world that the United Nations estimates are hungry.”

With so many going hungry daily, it seems only the truly ignorant or cruel could support policies that would allow more people to starve. Push come to shove, most of us humans would just as soon see our neighbors as well off as we are. That leaves ignorance, not as an insult, but as a description of any of us who know nothing of a particular subject at hand.

“The battle is on for the consumer's heart and mind. Either you position your product or someone else will,” said Kevin Murphy, founder and owner of Food-Chain Communications at this summer's Cattle Feeders Business Summit, hosted by Intervet Schering-Plough Animal Health.

One statement Walsh made in the Time article that I agree with wholeheartedly, though for opposite reasons than he proffers: “…But we don't have the luxury of philosophizing about food…”

Indeed, the world can't afford to entertain populist fantasy at the expense of scientific facts supporting high yield agriculture as the means to support both a growing population and the environment in which they live.

Likewise, no one with a vested interest in agricultural production can wait any longer to engage the public with factual information about what they do to help feed the world.







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