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4 Front-Burner Animal Ag Issues

The Animal Agriculture Alliance met recently at its 2017 Summit to share trends, tips, and tactics for defending animal agriculture in the face of anti-agriculture activism.

The Alliance has members from all segments of animal agriculture, including the National Pork Board, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, the American Feed Industry Association, and many private companies.

Here are four interesting highlights from the meeting.

1. Chickens on the hot seat

Over the years, nearly every segment of animal agriculture has been at the forefront of anti-animal activist groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S., Animal Equality, and The Humane League. First it was the veal industry, then sow crates, then caged laying hens. Now, the spotlight is on the chicken broiler industry.

The three things they most commonly demand of the industry are more space per chicken in grower houses, more and better natural light from windows, and slower-growing chickens.

Yes, you read that right: slower-growing chickens. The theory behind this is that the fastest-growing chickens outgrow their ability to support that weight with their bone structure and cardiovascular system, resulting in broken leg bones and high mortality. The animal activists would have the industry move to breeding lines that actually grow slower – 55 or 60 grams of gain per chicken per day rather than 65 or 70 grams.

The problem with this, says Ken Opengart of chicken processor Keystone Foods, is that slower-growing chickens require more days to market, have poorer feed conversion, yield less meat, require more acres for feed, more water per bird, produce more manure, and it takes more total birds to meet demand.

“If we go to slower-growing breeds of chickens, we’ll decrease feed conversion by 25% to 30%, and drive up the cost of chicken at all markets,” says Opengart. This actually has happened in some countries in Europe, he says, and the cost of chicken has gone up by as much as 30%, which impacts food availability.

Plus, he adds, scientific breeding programs are already making stronger-boned chickens – the survival rate in grower houses is about 99.7%.

Opengart wonders if the next animal industry to face the ire of food activists might be the dairy industry. It has some parallels to chickens: very high-producing cows that are constantly being pushed to give more. “The fact is, if you produce food, you’re a potential target of the activists,” he says.

2. An Animal-based diet is good for you!

Yes, you heard that right, too. Nina Teicholz, an investigative reporter, wrote a book in 2014 called The Big Fat Surprise. She poured through decades of research going back to the 1950s looking at the connection between diet and illness like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Her bottom line is that many of the experts, and our own government’s dietary guidelines, got it wrong: Saturated fats such as those in meat and dairy are not the culprit.

Teicholz, who admits she has many detractors in both the health and nutrition fields, says the science backs her up. “The low-fat diet doesn’t work,” she says after recounting a study of 65,000 people that went unreported for 16 years, and even then was not widely disseminated. It said a low-fat diet did not reduce obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.

There are surprising benefits of more saturated fats from animal-based foods, she continues. They are stable fats that do not oxidize when heated; they are natural and come from whole foods; and they tend to make you feel full so you don’t overeat. “Plus, they raise your good cholesterol. Eating cholesterol in meat and dairy does not worsen your cholesterol. Your body produces cholesterol. If you eat more, your body produces less, and vice versa.”

So what does cause obesity and heart disease and other related illnesses? Teicholz points to carbohydrate-based foods that come primarily from plants. In the 1980s dietary guidelines began pushing more fruits and vegetables and less fat and meat, and that is exactly when obesity began to take off. “Bringing carbohydrates down is the best way to prevent obesity,” she counters.

“The dietary guidelines are out of step with science. You can eat these foods [meat and dairy] without guilt, and they’re delicious foods. I feel so badly for livestock farmers who have been made to somehow feel guilt and shame for what they do. That shouldn’t be. These foods are good and wholesome.”

3. Avoid the trolls

Amber Pankonin, a registered dietician who is also a communications instructor at the University of Nebraska, says it’s easy for farmers and others in the food industry to be lured into a trap when you engage food activists. This is especially true in online social media, such as Facebook. She says some of those people are internet trolls who are looking for a fight. “Don’t feed them,” she says. “And remember, anything you post online can be easily taken out of context.”

She encourages farmers to get out of their bubble of only talking to other farmers, and find places to engage, educate, and enlighten nonfarm people about farm facts. “There’s a moveable middle 80% of people who will be responsive to your message, and they are the ones to engage. There’s a certain small percentage that just isn’t interested. Don’t waste your time there.”

When you do engage consumers, Pankonin says you should follow a four-step process: Listen for an opportunity; find a shared value; ask permission to share; then share your story and the science behind it.

She gives an example: “A consumer says they’ve heard about all the hormones they give to chickens. You start by telling them that you care about your kids, too. Then, you tell them you’re a farmer and ask if you can tell them about your farm and your experience. Then you can also share the science of farming, and that chickens don’t get any hormones.

“And smile!” she adds. “Being likeable can go a long ways in such a discussion.”

4. The Humane business on your side

Jack Hubbard works for American Humane Association (not to be confused with HSUS). It is an old organization that has three programs: A rescue program for abused pets; a U.S. military program for service dogs to veterans; and a verification program for farms that need certification that animals are treated in a caring and humane way.

“We’re growing in this last program and now certify about 1 billion animals every year,” Hubbard says. “Certification from American Humane says to retailers and consumers that this farm is doing things in a humane way.”

Their certification is science-based, he adds, and led by a veterinarian. “Farms look at us as insurance, or risk management,” he says. “There are other certifiers, but some of them are led and funded by vegans. We think we are your best partner because we have no agenda, and we don’t want to put you out of business. We don’t believe big is bad. We have to feed the world, and we don’t think we will do that by raising chickens in our backyards.”

The AHA program says that farm animals have a right to be healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, able to express normal behavior, and free from pain and distress.

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