Speaking Up Without Fear — Here’s to the Charlie Hebdo in us all

Owen RobertsI’m a big proponent of farmers speaking out, of advocacy and of standing up to activists.

It’s encouraging that Don McCabe, recently elected president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, said in his 2015 outlook address Friday that the federation’s advocacy role has never been more important.

The same goes for beef producers. Their new national beef strategy, released earlier this week, includes a mandate to increase the number of future leaders that are able to speak and advocate on behalf Canada’s beef industry. Martin Unrau, co-chair of the National Beef Strategic Planning Group, says “the need for [the beef] industry to push itself is now.”

Still with advocacy, the Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture competition, presented annually at the Royal Winter Fair, features a full slate of pro-farm young people expressing their passion for the sector. They too are advocates, and will hopefully be standing up for agriculture throughout their careers.

Now, all efforts related in some way to advocacy don’t necessarily involve stepping up to the microphone, or (my personal favourite) picking up the phone and calling a reporter. Case in point: the drive towards farmers’ codes of conduct. Activism didn’t prompt these codes, but in adopting them, farmers have yet another good, pro-active story to tell about the way they manage livestock.

And tell them, they should.

It’s vital to not be intimidated by bullies, e-trolls and others who have their own self-interests at heart. Admittedly, it’s risky, and it can expose you to some harsh criticism — as those involved in the #farm365 campaign have discovered – or worse. I don’t know many journalists who haven’t been subject to some kind of intimidation, economic, physical or psychological, for taking a position.

All this really hit home to me Friday, when I was asked on behalf of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists to write an institutional response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France.

Freedom of expression through the media is fundamental to democracy. That freedom is shaken by the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which remind us of how democracy is under constant threat in our world today, in war-torn nations and peaceful societies alike.

Freedom is also compromised when activists advance their causes through scurrilous activities, intimidation and bullying. They want to limit our freedom of choice when it comes to food. I say that’s not their right.

But they’re making headway. Look at A&W’s hormones-and-steroids campaign, which suggests anything other than that company’s beef is sub par, if not downright dangerous. It still goes on.

And then there’s the anti-meat publicity hounds. They engage in stunts like setting fast food (burgers and fries) aside for months or even years, then loudly marveling at how little this food’s structure has changed — presumably because of preservatives, but it’s really because of a lack of moisture.

No one in agriculture is an island. Restrictive laws activists want for modern agriculture will make farming as hard for organic growers as it is for conventional growers.

We all have some Charlie Hebdo in us, and we need to exercise it – say what’s wrong when oppression threatens our democratic rights, be unwilling to accept extremism in whatever form, and stand up for the kind of free world we want to live in.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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4 Comments

Rob Wallbridge

I agree with the point you’re trying to make here Owen, but you’ve chosen a horribly misleading example.

Before A&W changed their ingredient sourcing, consumer choice in the fast food sector was pretty much limited to the toppings on your burger. Now they can choose whether or not to support the production protocols of A&W’s sources. How is that limiting freedom of choice?

Has A&W launched a campaign to demand that all meat is produced according to their specifications? Have they lobbied for a ban on all hormones and antibiotics in meat production? Have they picketed other fast food chains? Have they called farmers using different productions offensive names? Not once. Where’s the intimidation and bullying in that?

They simply had the audacity to tell people that they believed their products were better (not the best, not the only right way). How many times have our industry representatives said that beef from Canada, or from a certain province is the “best”? And who has the “safest food supply in the world” – the U.S. or Canada? I’ve heard it so often from both sides, I can’t keep track anymore. This is called marketing and promotion, not extremism.

Objecting to anybody who dares to step outside the lines and viewing any attempt at differentiation as a threat against your livelihood and your democratic rights is not protecting freedom of expression – it’s suppressing it.

Reply
Owen

Rob, thanks, as always, for your comments.
I don’t object to anyone stepping outside the lines. I do it all the time. But I do object to implications that our food sources are unsafe, which simply is not true.
And I believe A&W is not just marketing its product. It’s strongly suggesting burgers other than theirs are not safe. They don’t come out and say it, but how much more strongly can they imply it? That’s the scurrilous part.
Thanks again.
Owen

Reply
Rob Wallbridge

Hi Owen, I’ve just reviewed the A&W website (http://awguarantee.ca/en/) and read their beef, chicken, and egg FAQs. I found them fair, fact-based, and informative.

The chicken FAQ, for example, specifically points out that no chickens in Canada are raised with hormones and steroids and that all drugs used are approved by the CFIA and Health Canada.

Nowhere did I find any references to food safety. If you can show me evidence of the suggestions or implications you refer to, I’d gladly re-evaluate my position.

In my opinion, there are far, far better examples of scurrilous activities – tilting at A&W’s windmill seriously undermines your argument.

Cheers,
Rob

Reply
Owen

Rob, I’m not asking that you re-evaluate your position, just that you understand mine…I believe A&W cast a disparaging light on the entire beef industry by scaring consumers with the insinuation that products other than its own were loaded with hormones and steroids.
Maybe that’s not the way it comes across on A&W’s website, but it sure does on its TV ads for its burgers.
Owen

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