Activist groups have been haunting production agriculture for decades. I remember how the livestock industry shuddered at the first undercover video. About 10 years ago I spent a long, long Labor Day weekend helping a company overcome an undercover video shot at a poultry operation.
Back then we all hoped activist organizations would eventually dry up and go away. The ag industry didn’t know how to handle these organizations at first—“throw our science at them” we said—but over the years we’ve learned how to communicate more effectively and a significant amount of progress has been made. There is more empathy in our communications with consumers, our tone is less condescending.
Regardless of real or perceived success, activists haven’t gone away. It’s not because the issues have been resolved, it’s because business is just too good.
Unknowing consumers fork over millions of dollars to activists groups every year. For example, take a look at Mercy for Animals (MFA). Their 2017 financials show an income near $13.2 million. Compare that to 2011 when total revenue was listed at $1.6 million, and you realize that business has been good and getting stronger.
If you want to know what impact $13.2 million can have, I suggest you take a look at the 2017 MFA Annual Report. You can find it here. While MFA determines their own impact, the effect the organization has on shaping the view of animal agriculture in the minds of some consumers is significant.
Unfortunately MFA is just one organization. There are many more, smaller and larger, like it. Agriculture continues to fight an ongoing and often uphill battle. And in many ways animal activist have already won.
Take a look at some of the advancements in animal care in our own industry. We’ve banned tail docking. Dehorning needs to be done with pain remediation. Antibiotics are under strict regulation. There are guidelines on handling downed animals. These requirements and more are part of the National Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program.
All of these changes have been for the better. Do you think they would have happened without pressure from activists? We can say that they came in response to consumer demand, but where do you think consumer demand came from?
There are environmental activists as well, many of which are local organizations that oppose large animal operations. A group of such activists recently won a lawsuit against Smithfield Foods around odor originating on hog operations. The first price tag was $50 million, it’s been whittled down to $2.5 million. Still, that group won and now there is precedent for more such lawsuits.
A dairy in Wisconsin is under fire by local activists groups. Pinnacle Dairy is going up south of Madison, Wis., and its faced pressure from environmental organizations every step of the way. The dairy is progressing, but it’s been slow and laborious. (Incidentally, here’s a great, balanced article on the topic.)
There are a number of causes and charities that are worth supporting. Those that help children, fight disease, or help right a wrong top the list and deserve all of the donations of money and time that people can give.
I’m even all for some of the organizations that support animal rights. I think humane shelters are great and worthy institutions. Rescue organizations that save pets from bad environments deserve all the support they can get.
But some organizations that appear altruistic are really in it for the money. Unfortunately those are the ones that continue to win consumer hearts and minds.
What do you think? Are activists winning? Do you have a story to share about an experience with activist groups? Send me a note at [email protected]