Bridging the great divide

by Jean L Clavelle

There are some statistics being tossed around these days on social media – only 3% of the population is involved in food production agriculture.  Of those involved in primary production, 98% are family owned and operated.  Interesting as it seems this has set up our culture to be an “us against them” scenario in terms of food production and the general public.

It has been my experience that people in animal agriculture are passionate about raising their animals.  This isn’t a job, it’s a way of life.  Most of my colleagues feel the same way, and primary producers (those directly involved with on-farm production) that I’ve had the pleasure of working with here in western Canada exemplify this statement.  They want to produce a safe product, they want their animals to have a satisfying life and they want to have enough income to provide for their families and continue on with this lifestyle.

Sure there are some bad eggs (sorry for the bad pun) and those that don’t make the right choices.  This happens in every walk of life, every profession, every business however it is not the norm and it is certainly not the norm (or considered acceptable) in animal agriculture.

Sadly animal rights groups and some media presentations like those we saw in the recent W5 report do their best to highlight the small percentage that do not represent what conventional agriculture really is.  And instead of highlighting positive practices, sensationalized media coverage takes small snippets of unacceptable episodes and position them as being the norm.  Let’s be clear, animal rights groups do not want us to use animals in any way shape or form.  They do not believe we should eat meat or any animal by-product.  And unfortunately this message is lost for the average consumer.

The business of animal agriculture has evolved.  The reality is that even though we consumers are paying more for food, producers aren’t seeing those increased returns.  To have an income that can support a family not to mention provide enough food to meet the growing needs of humanity (it is estimated that world food demand will increase by 70% by 2050) it is necessary for farms to be large.  And it appears the general public does not understand that conventional animal agriculture is subject to the same rules of economics as any other business system.

I spent an entire degree studying behaviour and welfare.  This is not an anomaly – across Canada researchers are currently studying behaviour and welfare of all livestock species, and a significant portion of funding comes from industry.  Because industry cares about the welfare of animals.  Sadly we do not say this enough.  Consumers/non ag people envision farm animals frolicking in the meadows, snoozing happily in the sun and living their lives in idyllic bliss.  However this doesn’t represent the entire reality – you don’t see the extreme temperatures, wind rain and snow, unreliable food and water sources and no protection from diseases and predators.  Production practices have evolved to improve health, comfort, safety, food and water.   Sure we have a long way to go and all of the production practices are not the utopia we want them to be.  But every month and every year we are making strides at improving animal welfare.  Unfortunately consumers have not made this same evolution in thinking and so modern animal agriculture looks very scary.

It is frustrating to witness this disconnect between animal agriculture and, well it seems everyone else.  Producers are hardworking people who genuinely care about their profession and the animals they are raising for food.  Often however producers and the ag industry in general seem to be questioned on the ethics of their business not to mention each and every practice it makes.  We in the industry need to have a good hard look at how we raise animals.  If we can do it better, then we need to do it better.  Otherwise we must open our doors and invite the public in.  We need to bridge the divide between consumer and producer.

 

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