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Open up, Grandin tells farmers
Temple Grandin, a woman who overcame autism to become one of the world’s most influential authorities on livestock behavior, shared her ideas on how farmers can tell their story to the public at the Iowa Farm Bureau’s annual meeting in Des Moines, Wednesday.
Instead of public relations formulas, Grandin offered a blunt appraisal of what commercial agriculture needs to do to win over ill-informed and skeptical consumers.
“The problem is, agriculture has done a lousy job of communicating with the public,” Grandin said.
Consumers don’t understand food production. In Britain, for example, 10% thought that beef is made from wheat, according to one poll, she said.
“The most basic things, people just don’t know,” she said. “It’s kind of appalling.”
Nor does the public know about progress in animal production. Grandin can remember a time when packing plant workers would move live pigs around by pulling them with a meat hook. Today the USDA would shut down a plant using such methods.
“No, things are not perfect, but they’re a whole lot better,” she said.
Still, Grandin believes agriculture should hide nothing.
When Iowa passed a law making it a crime to capture images on a livestock farm without permission, “that looked like crap on the editorial pages of The New York Times,
The real answer is openness, she said.
“I think in agriculture we’ve got to look at everything we do and think, ‘How would that play with your wedding guests from New York, or your wedding guests from Chicago?’ ” she said.
That means giving up some practices.
Grandin has tried in vain to justify the use of gestation crates to her sister in Connecticut during holiday gatherings with her family. She thinks that sow stalls, as they’re also called, will be phased out. She favors a long adjustment time that would allow for depreciation.
Castration of pigs is something else that may have to change, she said, citing a Pfizer product, Improvest, which is a protein that’s injected into the pig. It induces what Pfizer calls “temporary immunological castration.”
“What would you rather do? Yank the balls out of screeching pigs or give them a shot? Most people would choose the shots,” she said.
Grandin believes that most problems with livestock handling have been resolved, except for some strange, sadistic behavior by employees on some dairy farms.
“Handling is no longer my top concern,” she said. “It’s heat stress and open mouth breathing in cattle. Not acceptable. That’s bad becoming normal.”
More feedlots may have to use shades, she said.
Grandin prompted her audience to ask questions. One was what she thought of the meatless Mondays being promoted by vegetarian activists.
Grandin said that she’s not a vegetarian, that she eats meat. She became interested in cattle production as a young woman living in Arizona and now lives in Ft. Collins, Colorado. As a westerner, Grandin knows that much of the land there isn’t going to grow corn and is best for grazing.
“All these people are interested in organics. I don’t know how you do organics if you don’t have manure,” she said.
That drew a hearty round of applause from the Farm Bureau members.