When the news media or some other organization puts out a report about the agriculture industry that is wrong, the industry must respond immediately with a correction. Procrastinating about a response can allow negative public opinion to fester and ultimately, the false report can do more harm than it would have if it had been addressed immediately.

A perfect example is the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) report: “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which stated livestock created 18 percent of greenhouse gasses. If this was true, it would be higher than emissions from fuel burned for transportation. Dr. Frank Mitlochner from the Univ. of California-Davis, eventually pointed out a major flaw in this report and got the FAO to retract its statement. The figure for cattle was calculated for the animal’s entire life and the transportation figure was calculated only for the fuel burned in the vehicle – it left out all the energy used for building cars and refining oil. It was a clear case of comparing apples to oranges. The only problem with the excellent points Dr. Mitlochner made was that it should have been made immediately after the report was published.

Views on animal welfare
At this summer’s International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare at Kansas State Univ., Dr. Glynn Tonsor provided a summary of the latest information from consumer surveys regarding animal welfare. During his presentation, he asked, “What sways voters?” First of all, state of residence has no effect and living in an agriculture-centric state also has no effect. Consumers do not differentiate between species or industries, such as dairy vs. beef or pork vs. poultry, when thinking about animal welfare. They are more concerned about a particular production practice, such as sow gestation stalls or chicken cages than they are of the species of animal. Guy Loneragan, another speaker at the meeting, reported that research indicated the Hallmark-Westland video, depicting dairy cattle being abused, hurt only beef sales and had no effect on dairy product sales.

The survey also showed the public associated large farms with objectionable practices, such as sow gestation stalls. However, with regard to the sow gestation stall issue, two-thirds of consumers in all the surveys do not like them. Proposition 2 passed in California with a two-thirds majority.

Animal agriculture needs to phase out the most objectionable practices and then open the door and let the public see the new systems that are being used. An innovative egg company in California is installing a live Internet video feed of their new housing facility for egg layers. They should be commended for this because it’s a great way to promote the positive and progressive side of agriculture.

Angry responses fail
An angry response to an attack on agriculture does not work. HSUS had a brilliant advertisement for Proposition 2 depicting a person at the eye doctor being asked the question, “Which looks better?” when shown pictures of hens jammed in a small cage and pictures of free-range chickens. The entire tone of this advertisement was calm and logical. Unfortunately, agriculture responded with an angry, attacking advertisement that was difficult to understand. The angry approach failed to change voter opinion.

Dr. Lily Edwards, also from Kansas State Univ., gave a great talk at the symposium outlining ways to lose welfare arguments with the public. Some of her major points were that you would lose all credibility if you defend all agricultural practices and attack everybody who disagrees with you. We need to be doing more things like Dr. Mitlochner’s response to the FAO report. He showed where the fact that was presented was absolutely wrong, and he published his results.

I have been reading too many angry responses from agriculture. I recently read an article in an agricultural publication attacking Michael Pollan, saying he’s a person who wants to destroy the industry. This emotional outburst was totally counter productive. There are actually some parts of Michael Pollan’sOmnivore’s Dilemmathat many people in animal agriculture agree with. He totally ripped apart hard-core animal rights. A better approach would be to calmly point out and publicize where Pollan is wrong and agree with him on other points.

The agriculture industry needs to reach out to the public. Mike Siemens from Cargill gave a wonderful presentation on outfitting their plants with a remote video-auditing system from Arrowsight Inc. He explained how he sends the results around to all the plants to get friendly competition going. His company is also using good results on the AMI scoring system by rewarding good behavior. The public needs to know about this.

As part of her presentation, Dr. Edwards had a very fitting final slide. It showed a bridge across a chasm. On the bridge was the public on one side and cattle on the other. The cattle met the public more than three-quarters of the way across. I think the industry needs to reach out first and meet the cattle halfway across the bridge.

Dr. Temple Grandin operates Grandin Livestock Systems Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., and is a faculty member in the animal science department at Colorado State Univ.