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January 23, 2008   Email to Friend 

ANIMAL PASSIONS: Livestock Producers Face Growing Opposition From Animal Rights Activists
By Darryal Ray

An American Farm Bureau Federation survey of consumers showed that when asked to rank animal welfare along with other social issues such as human poverty, consumers were two times more concerned about the financial well-being of U.S. farmers than they are about the welfare of farm animals.
Dr. F. Bailey Norwood calls it a well-funded, "almost invisible cause," one that wins over converts by simply showing a photograph -- a cause led by a battery of Hollywood types and other influential people.

It's the animal welfare issue, and Norwood, an assistant professor in the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics, says it's not going away.

"Animal rights activists are a part of agriculture from now on," Norwood told a gathering of Alabama farmers at a workshop during the Alabama Farmers Federation's 86th Annual Meeting last December. "So I would say, 'Get used to it.' And secondly, 'Learn how to deal with it.'"

Of course, learning to "deal with it" will be easier said than done. A simple word search of "animal welfare" on the Internet reveals just how prevalent animal activism really is.

Still struggling with your New Year's resolutions? The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, aka PETA, recommends pledging to "go vegetarian" or "go vegan." They also want you to email former vice president Al Gore to "add going vegetarian to the Global Warming pledge."

Still others want you to celebrate the 23rd annual "Meat Out" on March 20, World Farm Animals Day on Oct. 2, participate in "meat-free Mondays," or refuse to buy meat or eggs from animals raised in cages. Some want heavy taxes levied on meat producers, penalizing them for their alleged role in global warming.

"Animal welfare is kind of like the abortion topic -- it's controversial. People don't meet in the middle, and no matter what you decide to do, not everyone is going to be happy," said Norwood, who was commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation to conduct a survey on where the American consumer stands on the issue.

At the core of the issue, says Norwood, is the question: "Are farm animals a commodity?"

The dividing lines are clearly drawn. On one side, there's the farmer who tries to balance costs and productivity by managing his livestock's environment. On the other, there's the animal rights activist who demands amenities far beyond the basics of shelter, comfortable temperatures and food -- measures that will drive up production costs for the producer and retail prices for the consumer.

"That doesn't mean they can't have a decent life without all these other amenities like being able to play," said Norwood, "but animal activists say animals need other things besides lots of food and comfortable temperatures to be happy."

Norwood points to recent successful referendums in Florida and Arizona that banned the use of gestation crates by pork producers, although doing so could jeopardize the animals' health.

Perry Mobley, director of the Federation's new Equine Division, says activist-inspired legislation such as the recent ban on horse slaughter has shown the damage that can arise from such misplaced intentions.

"There are thousands upon thousands of unwanted and unusable horses in the United States," Mobley said. "These horses now have no ultimate use. They are left to suffer a long, slow, agonizing death as many can't be cared for properly. Many have been taken to public lands and turned out where they have little chance at survival, or will cause an undue environmental hardship on lands already saturated with wild horses."

"Science clearly says, 'You can't just open the cages, free the animals from their cages, and let the animals go wild,'" said Norwood. "Without a cage to protect them from each other, they're going to bite each other's tails; they're going to bite each other's ears; the dominant hog will keep the submissive males from eating."

Guy Hall, director of the Federation's Pork, Poultry and Dairy Divisions, agrees. "Farmers produce livestock using the best management practices to ensure the safest and lowest cost food possible," Hall said. "These management practices change as valid scientific research shows what practices are the best for the animals. I'll admit, livestock production is not perfect, but farmers are doing the best job they can with what they are given to work with."

Likewise, Mobley, who is also director of the Federation's Beef Division, says animal activists are a genuine threat to livestock producers. "I feel that both animal welfare issues and environmental issues will ultimately end many of the scientifically sound production practices that we utilize today in animal agriculture," he predicted, adding that it's difficult to dispel myths when 98 percent of Americans are unfamiliar farming.

"If we have to abandon certain animal production practices that make us as efficient as we are today, then consumers will have to pay a lot more for the meat they eat," Mobley said. "Or they will get it from countries that don't have nearly the safeguards that we have in place in this country for food production."

Norwood cites the case of one Oklahoma farmer who created a "resort" atmosphere for his free-range chickens. "So these chickens have their own type of resort," Norwood said, pointing at a slide. "He only puts a few chickens in a tent so they're not crowded, so they don't hurt each other. Notice that they are still crowded together. ... He moves the tent around so they get fresh grass to play in, things like that. If you want to buy chickens from his farm, it costs you three -- THREE -- times more than chicken at Wal-Mart."

Will that become the trend in the future?

The answer to that is not so clear. Only 16 percent of those Norwood surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "Low meat prices are more important than animal welfare." But 68 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: "The average American thinks low meat prices are more important than animal welfare."

"So is the general public willing to pay higher meat prices to get better animal welfare?" Norwood asked. "I don't know that a 'yes' or 'no' can answer that."

But one thing is for certain -- other findings collected in Norwood's AFBF survey of consumers are disturbing at best. For example, the survey showed that consumers believe that allowing an animal to exercise outdoors is two times more important than giving animals shelter at a comfortable temperature.

Furthermore, 75 percent of respondents said they "would vote for a law in my state that would require farmers to treat their animals more humanely."

Fortunately, there was another finding that suggests there's still time for livestock producers to prepare for an inevitable showdown. When asked to rank animal welfare along with other social issues such as human poverty, consumers were two times more concerned about the financial well-being of U.S. farmers than they are about the welfare of farm animals. In other words, animal welfare isn't really high on their personal list of priorities in life.

Norwood, however, warns against complacency.

"Even though animal rights is still quite an invisible cause, there are some very influential people out there trying to get us to give animals more rights," he said. "How far are we going to go? In the future, will one out of five people be vegans? We've already got a presidential candidate that is. I don't know, but I will say do not underestimate our society's ability to change ... These animal rights groups are well-funded, and they are very aggressive."



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