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Why undercover videos aren’t the answer

They wear two faces, two hats, one hidden video camera and have one goal: to put all farming operations that produce meat, milk and eggs out of business. Undercover animal rights activists gain employment on farms across the United States and Canada under false pretenses to help animal rights groups produce undercover video campaigns.

Undercover video map

Undercover video map

Undercover videos

In the past two weeks I’ve watched more than 90 undercover videos from start to finish and researched past news coverage about each video, how the company responded and what actions were taken after the video surfaced. Sure I’ve seen undercover videos before, but this was the first time I actually sat down and not only watched, but analyzed about six hours worth of footage and media content.

Watching the edited videos filled with haunting background music was frustrating more often than not, but I’m glad I had the patience to analyze each video because I was able to find exactly what I was hoping for: reasons why these videos are not the answer to addressing concerns of alleged animal abuse in animal agriculture.

Before I dive into some common trends, let me first say that when actual animal mishandling or abuse occurs, the animal agriculture industry does not condone it or try to hide it. Farmers, ranchers and industry leaders are dedicated to providing the best animal care possible, but activist groups are not concerned about animal welfare and are hindering the ability of the animal agriculture industry to strive for continuous improvement.

Common trends 

As I was going through footage and reading what the activist groups claimed to have happened, I couldn’t help but notice common trends start to emerge within each video – all of which supported why activist groups aren’t concerned with stopping alleged abuse.

Here are just a few (I could write a book on this, but I’ll spare you the time):

1. Out of context

Dehorning cattle

The average length of an undercover video is about 3-4 minutes by design. Activist groups rely on the viewers’ lack of familiarity about animal agriculture to convince and mislead them into thinking that what they are viewing is without a doubt animal abuse when they could very well be watching a procedure that is for the long-term welfare benefit of the animal, approved and supported by science and for the safety of employees that work with the animal.

One example of something being taken out of context would be dehorning. This procedure may not be easy to watch for someone unfamiliar with raising cattle, but imagine how much pain another cow or an employee would be in if they had their side cut into by a sharp set of horns. People have even died from these types of injuries. Naturally polled cattle (cattle that are born without horns) are growing in popularity, but a transition to an entirely polled population wouldn’t be possible overnight. As long as there are cattle being born with horns, dehorning will be a necessary practice for everyone’s safety.

So remember… don’t believe everything you see and know that these videos only show what the animal rights groups want you to see.

2. Staged scenes

Undercover activists are paid up to $800 per week to capture footage of what they deem as inhumane. So what if they don’t find anything worth capturing? What if nothing they see is worth splicing together for an undercover video? We’ve heard that activists only get paid if they capture footage the animal rights groups can use, and this could very well explain why some activists are known to stage scenes and either encourage other employees or partake in abuse themselves.

Mercy for Animals ad

Mercy for Animals ad

One video taken at a poultry processing facility showed chickens in a room of the facility where they should have never been and was later determined that that the activist had access to the facility at night and staged the chickens and put them in danger just to shoot a video.

In another video at a dairy farm, the activist made sure cows were led through deep manure when the cows had no reason to be walking in that area. It was later found that this scene was staged and that if the cows were living in the conditions that the activist group had claimed, then they would be covered from head to tail in manure, not just their legs.

So if I am aware that undercover activists are staging scenes and even encouraging employees to break animal welfare protocols, then the animal rights groups must be aware since they supposedly expect an update from the activist each day. This begs the question that if they are aware then are they actually encouraging it too? Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt and say they are aware, but aren’t encouraging the activist to go to any measures possible to obtain footage of alleged abuse, then what are they doing to stop activists from encouraging or even being a part of what they claim they are trying to put an end to? From what I can see, nothing, because it continues to happen and a handful of activists have been charged as a result of their actions.

3. Refuse to cooperate with farm owners and law enforcement

Farm owners and law enforcement have requested to view the full, unedited video footage that the undercover activist obtained while working on the farm for the purpose of getting the entire story and finding out what exactly (if anything) went wrong and how to fix the situation so it doesn’t happen in the future. If activist groups were concerned about helping animals they would be willing to help management and law enforcement to take corrective action.

In all cases, the undercover activists leave employment before the video footage is released and therefore not available to answer questions regarding their concerns and what they allegedly witnessed because they are already undercover on another farm working on producing another video. If they are concerned about animal welfare, wouldn’t you think they would stick around and help in any way they possibly can?

4. Playing the innocent bystander

On many farming operations employers require their staff to sign an agreement stating that they will report any concerns about animal welfare immediately. Do the undercover activists sign this agreement? Yes. Do they adhere to the agreement and report concerns of abuse immediately? No, they just stand there and videotape. If I was witnessing something that I truly felt needed to be stopped, I wouldn’t be able to just stand there and watch from an arms-length distance. Would you?

Animal rights supporters often fire back with the argument that “we need to get as much evidence as possible” when asked why they wait to report concerns of abuse. Not only are undercover activists breaking protocols if they did sign an agreement, but all this so-called “evidence” that they are getting is not doing anyone any good. It is only prolonging this alleged abuse that they deem as their top priority. If you actually are witnessing true animal abuse it doesn’t matter if you have one instance or three weeks worth of footage.

5. Taking forever to release the video

I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again – this day in age it does not take more than a day to put video footage online. One activist group claims undercover “investigations” are the “livelihood” of their organization, so they should be pros by now and be able to edit together their catchy three-minute videos in a few hours, right? But they wait for days, weeks, months and sometimes even up to a full year to release video footage! A year!

Honestly, this is the most glaring flaw of the animal rights groups in my opinion because it screams hypocrisy. The fact that they wait so long to release and report concerns of abuse just proves that they are more concerned about fundraising and perfectly timing video releases within the media cycle and their own PR campaigns than stopping the alleged abuse.

What it means for farm owners

For farm owners, the concern has shifted from if they will run into an undercover activist to when will they encounter an undercover activist which creates distrust between employees and supervisors. Now owners have to worry about hiring people that are there for the wrong reasons instead of focusing their attention on how to improve their operation and take care of their livestock. Concerns of abuse need to be reported immediately so management can know about the situation and resolve it as soon as possible. Supervisors can’t be everywhere at all times and they can’t fix what they don’t know about, so they rely on their employees do their job and to report their concerns immediately, not five months down the road after their footage is made into a video or commercial.

What can you do?

Ask yourself: if you were concerned about the welfare of animals, would you help and report your concerns immediately or just stand there and do nothing for the sake of a campaign?

If you answered the former, then don’t let the activist groups mislead you into thinking they are here to improve animal welfare. I encourage you to speak up and share why you don’t support undercover video campaigns by posting your thoughts with the hashtag #ReportNotRecord, started by Dairy Farmers of America in response to an undercover video targeting one of its member farms.


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A Brief Examination of “Ag-Gag” Legislation

Just after calving season on my family’s Polled Hereford ranch this year, I helped my father and grandparents treat new calves and their mothers for lice. At one point, a calf inside the barn saw her mother on the outside and tried to jump a fence to reach her – poor thing got stuck, so I had to extricate it from the fence. The problem here is that the calf was already weighing in at around 450 pounds, so I had to push less than gently to get him off the top of the fence. In the end, the calf reunited with his mother, I patted his head as he moo-ed contentedly, and then I returned to the job at hand. Pretty innocent story, right?224282_129546030454370_1495270_n

Now imagine an animal rights activist had obtained employment with us under false pretenses and secretly filmed the incident, then edited the video to show a five second clip of me tackling a calf splayed over a fence, baying with displeasure. Out of context, that five second clip would seem quite a bit worse than how the actual event occurred, and it just so happens that animal rights activists do this kind of thing rather frequently. A previous blog post illustrates this point, showing that only a very small percentage of undercover video campaigns actually resulted in convictions. In that same post, our communications coordinator Casey Whitaker thoroughly explains how animal rights activists’ primary objectives are to propagate a pro-vegan, anti-animal agriculture agenda, so I will not detail that subject here.

Many in the agricultural community seek protection from malicious animal rights activists through various laws (termed “ag-gag” legislation) that place penalties on individuals or organizations for performing different actions on farms, depending on the state. The purpose of recounting the above anecdote is to establish that I understand and sympathize with farmers who are searching for ways to protect themselves from malicious animal rights activists. I too want to protect my own family farm. Farm protection legislation (so-called “ag-gag” laws) are one way that farmers and legislators are trying to eliminate this activist tactic. These laws share some similarities and differences, so let’s look at all nine of these existing laws to get a feel for what they entail.

Idaho

Idaho’s law is similar to the Kansas law (see below), but with the addition that seeking employment under false pretenses and with intent to cause economic injury to the employer is a misdemeanor. I am definitely supportive of that idea, but I have some reservations about the subjectivity of what false pretenses and intentions could entail. For instance, if a person overstates his or her ability to operate a tractor during an interview, is it really worth a misdemeanor charge? Or what if a person really can drive a tractor well, but makes a mistake one day that breaks a piece of equipment, or simply works more slowly than the employer would have hoped; is this worth a misdemeanor? I would consider issues such as these civil disputes, not criminal dispute, which are distinct areas of law and are handled differently.

Iowa

Iowa’s law doesn’t deal directly with with undercover videos. Instead, it focuses on ensuring that farmers have recourse against activists who impede farming operations by damaging property, killing animals, or otherwise harming animals.

Kansas

Kansas’ Law also has provisions against the damage of property and animals, but also makes it illegal to take pictures of nonpublic areas in the farm through any means without the consent of the property owner. Though the latter provision would indeed protect farmers, it achieves that protection through a law that may be contradictory to legal precedent involving the Fourth Amendment (see Katz v. United States, and in particular a “reasonable expectation of privacy”). A property owner has no reasonable expectation of privacy if he or she allows a person access to a private area, even if the property owner issues a notice explicitly forbidding the recording of any data. Property owners do have a reasonable expectation of privacy if the area or objects being recorded are not visible from a public vantage point, like a public road. This idea also means that individuals cannot break an entering or utilize technology outside the general public use – such as advanced thermal imaging techniques – to view private property.

Missouri

Missouri’s law is very practical in terms of protecting farmers from undercover activist. The law stipulates that any farm professional who digitally records animal abuse must submit that recording, unedited, to the proper authorities within 24 hours of its capture. I really like the idea of requiring unedited recordings to be submitted quickly. Taking that further, it seems that tampering with evidence that may be admissible to court should be illegal in the first place.

Montana

Montana’s Law has similar to provisions to Kansas’. However, it does include a provision exempting humane animal treatment shelters whose purpose is the humane care of animals. While this certainly does not apply to animal rights organizations, I’m concerned that they may try to find a way to take advantage of this exemption.

North Carolina

North Carolina’s law is also similar to the previous three, but with some key differences. For instance, it references the concept of “duty of loyalty to the employer” as justification for some important provisions. The text never defines what this duty actually entails, and is open to interpretation. Does it mean employees can be persecuted for any perceived breach of that loyalty? Crazy as that sounds, it may just be the case, due to another provision that states employers can sue for damages resulting from “An act that substantially interferes with the ownership or possession of real property”. So hypothetically, if an employee decides to leave his or her job for any reason, an employer could potentially sue for breaching a subjective notion of loyalty that may or may not interfere with business operations, transitively affecting the ability of an employer to own property. I understand what this law is trying to achieve: protection against activists seeking employment under false pretenses. I agree that employers should be able to hire employees without fearing nefarious ulterior motives.

North Dakota

North Dakota’s law is similar to both Kansas’ and Montanta’s. Additionally, North Dakota boasts another section designed to prevent the theft or release of animals (another problem perpetuated by animal rights activists).

Utah

Utah’s law is basically a more concise version of Idaho’s.

South Carolina

South Carolina’s law looks well done. This law allows farmers to sue for damages if an individual enters property without consent and with the intent of somehow damaging the enterprise. This seems reasonable, as it does not specifically refer to employers or employees. Rather, it focuses on consensual entry to the property, meaning that courts can determine if a crime was committed based on whether or not the person had legal access to the property or not.

While these laws take a step toward protecting farmers, I have more ideas for what animal agriculture can do. I will share these thoughts in my next blog!


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Millennial tendencies can benefit the agricultural industry

As a millennial, one of my biggest pet peeves is when my elders roll their eyes and use the phrase, “Your generation…(fill in the blank with some comment about how our reliance on technology reflects our inability to interact with others or has hindered our formal written communication and speaking skills.)” Below is a list of some of the stereotypes associated with the millennial generation, along with a few links to blogs and articles that expand on them further.

  • They are entitled; they expect things to be handed to them.
  • They are “know-it-alls.”
  • They are job hoppers.
  • They are too plugged in.
  • They have no concept of privacy.

http://aboutschwab.com/index.php/work-at-schwab/career-investments-blog/millennial-myth-busters-breaking-down-millennial-stereotypes

http://switchandshift.com/breaking-the-top-7-millennial-stereotypes

While I would like to take the time to elaborate on these stereotypes – not to completely debunk them but to explain their benefits and how they were inevitable because of societal changes – I am going to focus on the last two and how it is essential for farmers and other agriculturalists to embrace these characteristics to ensure the progression and transparency of their industry.

They are too plugged in.

While there isn’t necessarily an exact age range for millennials, generally speaking, they were born between 1981 and 1997. Meaning, these 18-34 year-olds have grown up almost their entire lives with access to cable TV, the internet and cell phones. Consequently, digital media has become a comfortable source for them to find information, stay connected with family and friends and share their story.

From an individual or company perspective, we all have a story to share. What types of pictures and posts do you share on social media?

  • A victory for a sports team?
  • A visit to another state or country?
  • Events and news related to your work?
  • Socials with family and friends?

For those involved in the agricultural industry, they know just how important it is to share agriculture’s story. In a time when less than 2 percent of the United State’s population is involved with farming and ranching, there are not many people directly involved with production agriculture. I don’t want to portray this as bad news, because this has allowed other individuals to spend their time progressing modern medicine and other advancements that improve our daily lives. However, it is still important to keep them in the conversation, because not only do we eat on a daily basis, but our diet directly affects our health and livelihood.

So how do we reach this 98%, which equates to over 312 million Americans? Do we share it in person? A newspaper article? A video? While any form of communication is better than none, the industry can benefit most by using online social media outlets.

Facebook is a news powerhouse. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults use Facebook, and of those adults, half of them get their news there. That means over one hundred million Americans receive news stories via Facebook. And the best part…one doesn’t have to be a journalist our news anchor to share. While this presents some credibility hurdles, it allows every American the opportunity to share their personal story. So when you see individuals on their phones like below, don’t shake your head in disgust. Rather, put into perspective the meaningful engagement that could lead to education and advancement personally or professionally.

Cell Phones

They have no concept of privacy.

While this might be a strong statement, something can be learned from this stereotype. In a world where professionals become specialized in a trade or skill, it can be challenging to stay up-to-date with other industry affairs. But because every person consumes agricultural products, transparency within farming and food processing is almost essential. While the industry has taken it upon itself to set standards for animal welfare and food safety, this needs to be transferable to the public.

By tearing down the “privacy barrier”, the industry can regain or maintain the public’s trust. Many of you might be wondering, how might the industry have lost this trust in the first place? Animal activists groups, in their interest of creating a vegan world, have misinformed the public through videos and stories. By capturing staged imagery or misinterpreting standard industry practice, they have sparked and capitalized on public interest about the way farm animals are being raised.

Animal welfare has been and will continue to be a top priority among American farmers and ranchers. They can prove this to the American public by being more open and transparent. Now, I am not suggesting that they be required to install video cameras and release this footage to the public upon demand. Just like every other business, they have the right to some privacy. However, current trends are demanding more transparency among the industry. Therefore, by becoming more open, whether that is inviting interest groups to their farms for a tour or sharing their story through digital media, they can become more transparent with the public.

Embrace Being a Millennial

So as a millennial, I could dispute, argue or complain about the stereotypes associated with my generation. Rather, I want to highlight how they can be beneficial to the agricultural industry. As a rising college senior studying agricultural communication, I know just how important it is to bridge the communication gap between the producer and consumer. Therefore, it is my desire to embrace the changing trends in society to help accomplish this.


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Is it immoral to promote systems that do less with more?

“I believe it is immoral to promote systems that do less with more.” Cameron Bruett, chief sustainability officer and head of corporate affairs for JBS USA Holdings, Inc., introduced this idea at our 2015 Summit during his presentation on sustainability. I knew that being resourceful, efficient and thinking about the future was the smart thing to do, but to say that it is immoral if you support and promote systems that aren’t – I had never exactly thought of it in terms of morality, but I think Mr. Bruett has a point.

Doing less with more 

Is it immoral to promote systems that don’t take advantage of scientists’ research about technology, biotechnology and other improvements to further and better agriculture? Perhaps it is. People have accepted and welcomed innovations and and improvements using technology in other areas that directly affect their lives, so why is there a hesitation to accept innovative techniques in agriculture?

The same people who are completely against modern agriculture probably have an iPhone, have taken medicine in their life, have used a GPS system and can’t wait for the next new thing to come out.

Well, the idea of genetic engineering and selection isn’t new by any means, but it’s here and ready to help produce more with less. And yet people are pushing it into a dark corner. Why?

As the population continues to increase, farmers and ranchers are expected to feed 9 billion people by 2050 and genetic engineering can help achieve this, yet some say it shouldn’t have a role in food production.

Sustainability, biotechnology and animal agriculture

Bruett defined sustainability as “responsibly meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to responsibly meet their own needs.” Advances in technology like genetic engineering can do just that.

Photo credit: GMO Answers

Image credit: GMO Answers

Biotechnology can prevent crop disease, control insects, manage weeds and reduce pesticide use. It also improves yields, keeps food affordable and has no effect on human health. It has been researched to death and nothing harmful has been found to come from using biotechnology. Biotechnology is safe and benefits the farmer, the environment and the consumer.

So how does biotechnology have a role in animal agriculture? Well, livestock and poultry eat too. For more than 20 years, livestock and poultry have consumed genetically-engineered crops and producers have not seen a difference in feed efficiency or the animals’ digestion process. There is no evidence that genetically-engineered crops are unsafe to animals.

Biotechnology has not only had positive impacts in the United States, but it has the potential to help save lives in developing countries.

Image credit: TIME Magazine

Image credit: TIME Magazine

“If you can add vitamin A to a developing world’s staple food, you can save lives,” said Mandy Hagan, vice president of state affairs and grassroots at Grocery Manufacturers Association.

To realize that we have this level of technology is amazing to me, but the fact that people are still against it also astounds me.  I’d have to say media sometimes portrays these advances in a negative light and puts a level of uncertainty into consumer perception. For example, if you’ve seen that dreaded tomato with a syringe sticking out of it and think that is biotechnology, you have been misled. Biotechnology involves genes and takes place at the production level, it isn’t injecting chemicals into food.

Continuous improvement 

Are people who oppose biotechnology and want everyone else to oppose it as well being immoral? Maybe. Or maybe they just don’t know what they don’t know. And in that case, if they are lobbying against the use of something without taking the time to research the facts, then I think they are definitely being careless.

If a company wants to not use certain techniques or systems in their production methods because it works for them then that’s their choice, but to rally against the use of sustainable methods for everyone isn’t the way to go.

Advances in technology that are able to use less input and get the same or greater amount of output help keep food costs down while still producing a product that is safe and nutritious along with providing environmental benefits.  It’s really a win-win, so why not take advantage of it?

Image credit: www.isaaa.org

Image credit: ISAAA

Agriculture has come a very long way and I would argue that it is the best it has ever been because farmers and ranchers don’t view sustainability as a destination; there is always room for improvement. Continuous improvement, even – because everyone has a different definition of perfection and because research and technology is always advancing.

I encourage everyone to join agriculture’s journey of continuous improvement by not only staying informed yourself, but sharing credible, factual content with your friends about sustainability and modern agriculture and basing your opinions and decisions off of factual information.

For more information on sustainability, biotechnology and modern agriculture check out GMO AnswersBiotechnology Industry Organization and the video below!