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Battle for the moral high ground

Looking at animal welfare through the lens of religion is controversial and can spark strong emotion. But it is an element of the debate that some activists are using and can't be ignored.

Posted: February 6, 2014


Who will capture the high ground?

It's a powerful cocktail: religion mixed with rhetoric and emotional appeal. It's also a reality in today's animal welfare debate, says Dr. Nelson Kloosterman, executive director and ethics consultant for Worldview Resources International.

Some animal rights activist organizations are using religion as a powerful tool to wage war against the livestock industry, he says, and producers and their industry need to recapture the moral high ground in raising livestock to ward off that threat.

Controversial tactics

Worldview Resources International is a service organization with a mission to provide resources designed to assist in understanding and applying a religious worldview to responsible living.

Kloosterman, speaking at the recent Banff Pork Seminar, says there are specific steps farm animal industries should consider to better manage this volatile part of the debate.

First step, says Kloosterman, is to understand what he calls the ideology of food tyranny, the "political groupthink" characterized by manipulation, coercion and violence. Religion is a powerful tool of propaganda, he says. There is a tremendous ignorance in the public about religion and a tremendous ignorance about animal stewardship. Anti-livestock groups deliberately use religious terms to their advantage.

For example, a bumper sticker "Thou shalt not kill. Go vegetarian." uses the sixth commandment to make a point about livestock production. Another says, "He died for your sins. Go vegetarian." referring to an image of Christ on the cross.

"If you think these slogans are innocuous or benign you need to realize that many people are coming under the influence of this use of religion in service to animal rights," says Kloosterman. "This approach is in service to what they call animal welfare, in direct opposition to the very vocation you are practicing," says Kloosterman.

Another form of this tactic is to tie the animal rights debate to emotional religious and ethical debates, including the issue of abortion. One example is a campaign with messages such as "Eating meat stops a beating heart."

Recapturing the dignity of raising animals for food

How should farm animal industries respond?

Kloosterman has three recommendations based around "Recapturing the dignity of raising animals for food" and recalling a position of stewardship.


Dr. Nelson Kloosterman

First, practice comprehensive transparency, he says. "Be confident enough about what you are doing, why you are doing it and how you are doing it to let other people in the barn to watch you work."

Second, move beyond advocacy to public service. Advocacy is important but organizations should move beyond simply serving producers to serving the public, he says.

Third, ramp up resources to engage animal science educators and communications experts. Part of the advantage some activist groups enjoy, in Kloosterman's opinion, is that with their "terms, language, manipulation and coercion," they've been able to capture the moral high ground because they are assisted by academics and others who know how to craft the message.

The livestock industry needs message-makers and communicators who meet the opposition on their turf, he says. The effort comes with a price tag, of course, but is a wise investment, he believes.

"I'm suggesting if the animal industry in North America wishes to survive, it will have to allocate a significant part of its budget to precisely this kind of thing."


Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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