Not long ago, farmers thought their main opponents were environmentalists, bent on preventing them from implementing modern techniques and technology.
Some considered it a battle against corporatism. But new research suggests that thinking has changed.
In Ontario, results are emerging from a poll last winter of 400 farmers by Farm and Food Care, a group that represents farmers and businesses. It shows that these days, animal welfare is what’s really keeping farmers awake at night.
It’s true, even though farmers don’t highly rate the welfare of their livestock among their personal concerns. They believe they treat their animals well, and they don’t think animal welfare is a problem on their particular farm.
Interestingly, neither do most rural people who live near farms — people who are closest to animal agriculture. Another recent survey, this one by the Rural Ontario Institute, indicates those with a stake in rural Ontario cite job opportunities, accessibility to health services and the cost of electrical power as among their top interests. Those poll results, released late last week, show animal welfare was not among their priorities…although I’m certain if people were asked specifically if they care about it, they’d say yes.
Even consumers don’t think animal welfare is a high-priority pillar of sustainable agriculture. Yet another Farm and Food Care survey bore that out: almost half of the 1,230 people who responded to that survey said animal welfare was the least important pillar, by a long shot. Only four per cent said it was the most important. Instead, once again, food safety was a top issue.
So then why are livestock producers reeling?
Crystal Mackay, executive director of Farm and Food Care, says it’s because of the spate of high-profile ambush videos and campaigns about animal welfare on farms, and the very public pressure on some of their biggest customers, Canada’s grocery stores and restaurants.
Farmers know barbarian acts are highly limited, and that a few minutes of edited undercover video does not represent real farm practices.
But they also know that despite the infrequency of abuse, irreparable damage can be caused by such a video going viral. It prompts negative media attention and brand pressure on food companies. It tarnishes the whole sector.
Farmers need people to understand they take measures to prevent abuse. And in Canada, that’s where research-based codes of practice come in. They’re mostly voluntary measures, informed by studies conducted by experts at the University of Guelph and elsewhere. But these measures have teeth. In Ontario and some other provinces, they’re also used as legal standards and market requirements.
A group called the National Farm Animal Care Council gets support from the federal government to create these animal welfare guidelines for livestock producers. The group prides itself in being, in its words, “the only organization in the world that brings together animal welfare groups, enforcement, government and farmers under a collective decision-making model for advancing farm animal welfare.”
Codes of practice are in place for 14 livestock commodities (including dairy, beef and poultry); seven have been updated since 2009 and the rest are under review. They cover many of the hot animal welfare topics — pig housing like gestation stalls, as well as tail docking and castration, among them.
Farmers like the opportunity to contribute their wisdom to the codes. Nothing troubles agriculturalists more than the distinct possibility of decision makers, customers or legislators (with little to no background in farming) imposing regulations or market demands on them, without any practical grounding or help with funding the changes.
It’s much better for farmers to be proactive, clean up their own affairs, continue improving farm animal care and let the public know they’re taking action to prevent inexcusable abuse.