“I hate to be an alarmist, but I have to tell you: there is a time for urgency, and the time is right now.”
That’s how Kevin Murphy, founder and owner of Food-Chain Communications LLC (truthinfood.com), prefaced his remarks to cattlemen attending last month’s Feeding Quality Forum in Grand Island, Neb., and Amarillo, Texas. Murphy says production and economic issues won’t matter if agriculture is regulated out of business by the activist groups that he says are leading “an attack on agriculture that is literally unrelenting.
“Every single day you can pick up a newspaper or magazine that talks about how horrible modern ag is and the sins of the industrial ag model,” he says. “Now, we see activists moving toward denouncing what goes on in food through the prism of morality, religion and ethics.”
And it’s not just typical groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS). It’s the people those kinds of organizations work to influence; among them are university professors, reporters, religious organizations and civic groups.
“You can’t believe these activists groups are so ‘way out there’ with unique and radical ideas that they will never gain mainstream momentum,” Murphy says. “If you think that, you haven’t been paying attention. The people participating in the attack against ag are people you know.”
HSUS and PETA, he says, have more than 200 full-time employees working to disseminate information and influence opinions about ag. These opinions center on animal welfare and rights, the environment, food nutrition and safety and the ethics and morality of it all.
“Food is undeniably the most political issue on the planet,” he said, “and I feel like ag is completely ill-equipped and unprepared for anybody to ask a question about their ethics.
“We have a tendency in ag to look at food as a physical, tangible, packaged product. In reality today, a lot of issues that are presented about food are not really about food – they’re about the issues that cascade around it,” he says.
He says ag traditionally responds to bad press by ignoring it or trying to “science-ize” it. “We put together a recommended handling guideline and auditing system. Then when consumers are unsure about how we handle our animals, we tell them to read the 100-page audit guide. Boy, that’ll show them,” he quips.
Instead, he said, agriculturalists must be prepared to defend their practices morally and ethically.
He says ag appeals to scientific reason, while anti-ag activists appeal to emotion. “That leaves an appeal to morality, and we better tell our story before the activists take our moral high ground right out from under us,” he says.
Two points he shared to appeal to consumers’ moral questions were:
• Rediscover the 21st century moral farmer. “Throughout history, we've played on this image about how authentic and moral farming is, and now we’re allowing people to take that image away from us.” Though society is now several generations removed from farming, people still “yearn for a connection to the people who produce their food.” Be that connection, he says.
• Shed our guilt. Agriculturalists are always on defense, feeling guilty and apologizing for what we do, Murphy says. “Frankly, farmers are in the business of feeding their fellow man, and they love what they do. Why in the world do we apologize for that? Stop it.”
Murphy says winning the battle of being politically and morally correct in the ag arena comes down to one argument. “You have to be able to answer one simple question – is what you do right? And can you explain why? If you can’t explain what you do and why you do it, morally, you will not win,” he says.
But, he adds, “If we tell our moral story, we will win. If we can’t tell that story or at least begin to engage conversations in that arena, other people will begin to dictate what happens in our food system and we will be regulated to death.”