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Big changes in pressure from animal activists

Key indicators show the challenge to the livestock industry is increasing

Posted: February 20, 2014

A lot has changed in the past few years on the animal activist challenge facing the Canadian livestock industry.

Paul Hodgman has seen it firsthand. He has spent a lifetime in the livestock business and today serves as a strategic lead with a business called the Ag & Food Exchange (AFX). It is a fee-based privately run, specialized information and consultation bureau developed with initial financial support from government and now operates based on support from the livestock and food industry.

One of the key goals of AFX is to tackle the activist issue. From his background of working directly with the industry, Hodgman sees several key indicators that clearly demonstrate dramatic developments on the activist front that threaten to overwhelm the livestock industry.

From animal care to business issue. Not that long ago most activist activity was targeted at animal welfare. Today this activity has grown to target the business of animal agriculture at a fundamental level. Activists are challenging the right of the livestock industry to exist. They don't discriminate; all types of livestock production are the target.

Rise of the professional activist. Activism has moved well beyond protests. Today it is an extremely well-funded and sophisticated, lobbying politicians and senior bureaucrats. "They are applying tried and true tactics of defeating enemies and that is to divide and conquer, pitting one group against another and creating conflict among those in the supply chain," says Hodgman.

"The people who don't like us are in this for the long haul, and they are quite content with incremental change," he says. "They are driven by ideology or money, both very powerful forces."

The Humane Society of the U.S is a powerful fundraising machine that has invested more than $350 million the past few years, much of it to put modern animal agriculture out of business, says Hodgman. "That is a very serious business threat to agriculture.

Moving to Canada. Much of the activist activity in Canada has its roots elsewhere. Today aggressive activists in the U.S are moving north into Canada and establishing cross-border links, sharing organization board members and funding activities.

AFE monitors activist government lobbying activity, says Hodgman, and last year's monitoring showed that animal activists are securing more face time with the federal government. From 2012 to 2013 meetings between animal rights activists and government Members of Parliament and bureaucrats doubled.

Taking advantage of and heightening societal concern regarding food sources activists are turning to legitimate public opinion research firms to conduct research and releasing investigative reports in an attempt to influence public office holders.

All parties are targeted, with some opposition parties voicing support for activist groups, says Hodgman. "We expect that to continue."

Investing for the long-term. One example is that the Humane Society of the U.S. is funding graduate students in many law and veterinary faculties in universities. This is a patient and strategic effort to build for the future, says Hodgman. By comparison, the agricultural industry does a lot less to invest in its next generation of leaders.

Rise of a new consumer. The consumer environment has changed. "We have consumers who have grown more sophisticated, are relatively well fed and concerned about these issues," says Hodgman.

"We know from our research that we can have a conversation with most Canadians on food. It will be a different discussion than in the past and agriculture needs to find a way to have conversations about things that are uncomfortable. We have traditionally relied on science and economics for these arguments and we need to learn to talk ethics and shared values."

The social media threat. With social media, the speed of communications is becoming more important. "The bad news is that our opposition is using this very effectively," says Hodgman, "and agriculture needs to be better."

Realistic preparation

It's not that the livestock industry has done a poor job of everything, says Hodgman. The industry has raised the awareness of the issue, and worked to have their people better prepared on the issues with communications and crisis management plans.

The industry has implemented standards such as updated animal care codes of practice and has made progress on assessment approaches, with some sectors having already implemented assessment programs. The industry has also worked with on issues such as transportation, and invested in research and innovation.

"But when you get to really serious issues you need teams of people to deal with the issue and you need the information to make good management decisions," says Hodgman. "On the negative side, the activist threat is being handled in our agricultural organizations by people who have many other things on their plate in addition to these issues.

"The weakness is the full understanding of the threat, being realistically prepared internally. To build teams within the group and outside to deal with these issues. To work across the spectrum and up and down the supply chain to deal with these issues in a non-competitive way.

"If we can all help each other we take away the number one counter attack for our opposition, which is to divide and conquer."


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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