Last week’s "Future Trends in Animal Agriculture" conference in Washington, D.C., brought together, as have the previous 13 "Future Trends" conferences, disparate viewpoints and points of reference in an effort to create dialog. But after all these conferences, has the result been worth the effort?

Marie Belew Wheatley, president of the American Humane Association, who this year participated in her third "Future Trends" conference, told that as far as AHA is concerned, the answer is yes. "Certainly in my three years of participation, this year was monumentally more powerful," she said. "The span of viewpoints was huge, from animal-rights advocates to biotech experts." She credits the conference’s organizers, David Brubaker, formerly a vice president with PennAg Industries, and Ken Klippen, executive director of government relations and animal welfare for Sparboe Farms, the U.S.’s fifth-largest egg producer, with creating "the only meeting of its kind. Diverse opinions are welcomed. The whole point is to bring forward a dialog between animal agriculture and those who oppose animal agriculture."

In addition to Wheatley, speakers at this year’s conference included Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), Barb Glenn of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Andrew Gunther of the Animal Welfare Institute, Matt Sutton-Vermeulen of Unison Research Company, Ron DeHaven of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States, Christine Bushway of the Organic Trade Association, Ray Stricklin of the University of Maryland’s Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, Adele Douglass of Humane Farm Animal Care, and Jennifer Greiner of the National Pork Producers Council.

Wheatley said that some of the dialog at the conference has grown more polarized. "The ones who are big and loud have become more strident – and I’ll just leave it at that without naming names," she commented. "They’ve found out that what will work is getting the general population to respond emotionally to animal issues, so they use guilt to their advantage because it’s effective."

She said, however, that the conference has given her the opportunity to distinguish her organization from other, more radical animal-protection groups. The American Humane Association has often worked with mainstream meat industry groups and companies, including the American Meat Institute and some of its members, to establish animal-handling guidelines and procedures. AHA is also the organization that has ensured, since 1940, that no animals are harmed in the production of films and television programs.

"We are not extremists," she told "We’re friendly toward agriculture."

She said she’d be happy to speak at the next "Future Trends" conference if invited. "I think it’s important that mainstream agriculture be represented. A lot of people in the industry think the conference simply gives another platform to the extremists to express their views, which is why many industry people choose not to attend. But if everyone came to the table ready to listen, this could be a very powerful meeting."