Reframing the Animal Care Debate (On Our Terms)

Posted: 10/13/2009

Posted by South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Even

This past summer I hosted world-renowned livestock handling expert Dr. Temple Grandin at our family farm near Humboldt.  Dr. Grandin is a living legend; she has published several books on livestock handling and is widely considered the field's foremost expert.  So when the opportunity came to have her visit our farm and meet with South Dakota producers, I jumped at the chance.

But before she arrived to examine our operation, we had some clean-up to do.  We straightened a few bent gates, replaced several broken-off posts, fixed some loose tin covering our cattle shed, and in general did our best to make the place look good and be a bit safer for our cows.

As agricultural producers, sometimes we fall behind and need a compelling reason to make long-overdue changes.  In the area of animal care, well-funded special interest groups and a new generation of concerned consumers have provided the impetus to adjust our message and demonstrate that agriculture does not have any "dirty little secrets."

A growing number of Americans believe that agriculture is hiding something.  After several generations away from the farm, these skeptics have forgotten that agriculture is more complicated than the pastoral images they see on television.  They have convinced themselves that "something" is going on and are looking to "expose" agriculture's hidden agenda.  This manifests itself in dramatic video exposés, public referendums, and animal welfare legislation.

Despite these attacks on livestock agriculture, we should welcome this greater scrutiny because additional exposure offers us an incredible opportunity to seize the initiative and reframe the animal care debate on our terms.  We cannot continue with our traditional message-too many people lack the context to understand what farmers and ranchers do every day.

Instead, we must make a concerted effort to be as transparent as possible and do a better job of policing ourselves.  A number of professions-medical doctors, lawyers, accountants-have professional organizations that regulate their own members to ensure the best possible service.

Agriculture must do the same thing: clean up the bad actors and open our operations for public scrutiny.  We cannot allow our industry to fall victim to radical interest groups like the Humane Society of the United States, whose primary goal is to eliminate animal agriculture altogether.

At the same time, we cannot compromise our core principles and values: animal husbandry has been a central aspect of food production for millennia and should continue; a vegan lifestyle is a personal choice, not a moral obligation; farmers and ranchers have a responsibility to treat all living creatures with care and respect, but elevating animals to the same level as human beings sets a dangerous precedent that cannot be undone.

If we embrace transparency as necessary for success in the 21st century and respond to criticism not by telling our opponents what we are against, but what we are for, livestock agriculture will continue to remain a viable industry for millennia to come.


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