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HSUS bullies animal ag and hurts low-income families

Diane Sullivan, an anti-poverty and affordable food advocate, shares her story of standing up for agriculture while the Humane Society of the United States pushed for a ballot in Massachusetts that would hurt low-income families at the grocery store. 

Less than a year ago, I attended the 2016 Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit, my first real introduction to agriculture beyond labels on products in the grocery store. I had recently learned about a ballot initiative filed in my state that, despite efforts to legally challenge its certification, would become Question 3 on the Massachusetts 2016 ballot.

As I considered engaging in this food policy debate, I reflected on my own family’s experience with hunger, homelessness and poverty which drives me in my work for social justice. I recalled the times I would dig through my sofa for change just to purchase a dozen eggs to feed my children some protein for dinner. In deference to the real victims of Q3, I would later agree to become campaign manager for Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice.

In my work, I have always sought to break down the stereotypes we all know too well – that poor people are lazy and uninspired; that if we would just go to work, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Rather than focus on solutions to poverty, policies began to look more like punishments, as broad brushes of accusations of fraud, waste and abuse taint us all when one bad apple makes a new headline.

While attending last year’s summit, I quickly learned that those of you providing the gift of nutrition have your own unique, yet similar challenges. I noted to Brian Klippenstien of Protect the Harvest at the time that low income families and farmers have their respective stories to share, stories that left untold by us, would be told for us by others with self-serving interests.

My years in policy work have also shown me that when we start to solve for a problem that does not exist, there will be unintended consequences. More often than not, the poor will suffer the worst. Q3 is the very definition of social injustice, those elite with money and satisfied choices imposing burdens on those with neither.

On its surface, Q3 would appeal to the good-hearted voters in Massachusetts who want to prevent cruelty to animals. In reality, Q3 was a cruel indifference to those of us who struggle to feed our families in a state ranked 47th in housing affordability and where our food costs are already 26 percent higher than the national average. Like most everyone, I don’t want to be cruel to animals, but I refuse to be cruel to people.

The Humane Society of the United States and their supporters would ultimately spend $2.7 million on the passage of Q3, while ensuring that the good and truth of agriculture would be a story left untold in my state. HSUS would continue to ignore not only the economic impacts for some of our state’s most vulnerable citizens, but also the animal welfare trade-offs for the very livestock they claim to protect.

The politics is strange. Imagine if President Trump were to propose doubling the cost of the most affordable and accessible source of protein available to low income families. Outrage would ensue as advocates for the poor and the media would express their disdain for such a heartless and reckless act. Yet, when merchants of veganism do it, compassion for our fellow humans can simply be set aside, it seems.

Thankfully, Mr. Forrest Lucas and the National Pork Producers Council would provide enough funds for me to give voice to the voiceless in this debate. Sadly, we would ultimately be outspent 10:1 as funds directly from HSUS and their supporters in places like California, New York and DC poured into their campaign. Citizens for Farm Animal Protection rained down TV ads that portrayed animals in awful conditions, duping MA voters into thinking these conditions existed across farms in our state and were acceptable, normal agriculture practices across the country.

Walking into this debate, I had no idea how extraordinary our food producers and science partners are at providing healthy, affordable and sustainable nutrition. I am among the grateful who appreciate why your work is so critical and meaningful. I know why, going forward, the coalitions that I am accustomed to working in must be working in partnership with you all who feed us.

HSUS cleverly played on the emotions of voters in a progressive state where we, in general, know very little to nothing about agriculture. HSUS has bullied our local farmers into submission with direct threats to their livelihoods. HSUS lied about the cost, as they did in CA, selling their ‘penny-an-egg’ story to unsuspecting voters. HSUS claimed that consumers were driving their cause, not mentioning the consumers they were referring were retail executives who know about a good marketing plan, not your average shopper on a budget. HSUS called me as a pawn for big agriculture.

HSUS would soon learn that my supporters hadn’t just come to MA to randomly pick some low-income woman to be the face of this campaign. HSUS wasn’t certain how to handle me. This low income grandma, working 2 jobs to survive, with a solid record of 15 years in anti-poverty work, was on a crash course in agriculture. I found myself being the voice for not only those victimized by Q3, but also in defense of agriculture.

I created a unique challenge. HSUS couldn’t protest in front of my home: my neighbors would have had a field day with them. HSUS couldn’t threaten a boycott of my business: I don’t own one. HSUS couldn’t bully me out of this debate: though they tried. Their supporters suggested that I be locked in a cage. Some commented that my children should not exist if I ever struggled to feed them.

Despite our efforts, Q3 would pass overwhelmingly in MA, with a 2022 implementation date. As predicted, HSUS has moved along to another small, coastal state that, like my own, ranks among the very lowest in agriculture receipts in the country. HSUS is taking to state legislatures and ballots what they have been losing at the check-out counter where 90 percent of us purchase conventional eggs.

As I consider my next steps in this debate, I am reminded that HSUS did not happen overnight. Campaigns take time. Now, I know there has been an on-going food policy debate where those most impacted – and harmed – have been absent. I am here to take my seat at the table. HSUS is now pressing further, trying to bully big agriculture into producing slower growing broilers driving up the consumer price of chicken meat. That negotiation does not include the voice of those most adversely impacted. Any meaningful debate on these issues requires the presence of one of its major stakeholder groups –low income consumers.

In MA, nearly 800,000 residents rely on the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). Nationwide, that number is 45.5 million. We know that these numbers only scratch the surface at what food insecurity in the United States really looks like.

We must be more united and assertive in protecting and distributing our abundance. We must have the victims of this debate join with those who produce. The voice of low-income consumers can no longer be excluded from the negotiating tables. It is critical we unite urban and rural partnerships to promote food security and protect our dinner plates from the self-appointed food police.


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Why I am not a vegetarian (anymore)

It has taken me about seven months to write this blog post. I knew I had a good story to tell seven months ago, but part of me was hesitant to share it because I didn’t want to admit that I once had doubts about the industry that I now am so passionate about.

11188468_10152744847515636_3360909980126081613_n-2Like I’ve said before, I didn’t come from an agriculture background nor did I participate in FFA or any other agricultural programs when I was younger. I stumbled into agriculture while in college and it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Since I didn’t grow up on a farm and wasn’t involved in agriculture like I am today, I was just the regular consumer not too long ago and had the same questions and concerns that a lot of consumers have today. One of my concerns led me to become a vegetarian for about a year.

My vegetarian days  

Strictly speaking, a vegan is someone who does not consume meat, milk, eggs or animal by-products such as gelatin, broths or honey. There are different levels of vegetarianism – some may eat eggs, dairy products and fish but not meat or poultry or some variation in between. For me, I didn’t eat meat, poultry and eggs but I still ate dairy products and the occasional seafood.

I was 16 years old when I made the decision to eliminate meat from my diet. I was worried that eating meat caused health issues and that it didn’t have much to offer on the nutritional side that couldn’t be replaced with protein from another source.

I vividly remember my doctor’s face when I informed him that I decided to become a vegetarian – it 11150483_10152838744175636_2546207196395563572_nwas as if I was the doctor telling him he had an incurable, life-threatening disease – pure terror. I was convinced that I knew what was best for myself, so I  didn’t let anyone change my mind – not even my doctor when he told me I should be eating meat to get the necessary protein and nutrients I needed as a growing teen.

I began eating more beans, nuts and other plant-based proteins, but I soon discovered that it simply didn’t satisfy my dietary needs. Long story short, a vegetarian diet was hindering my health instead of improving it. After a year or so of strictly not eating any meat, I decided that I would re-introduce my once-loved protein back into my diet for the same reason I let it go.

Lessons learned 

In the eight years since I returned to eating meat, I’ve learned a few things about the nutritional aspects of animal protein that I wish I would have known eight years ago…

  1. Meat and poultry are packed with vitamins and minerals.
  2. Animal-based protein and plant-based protein are not equal.
  3. There are lean cuts of meat available with less fat.
  4. Balance is key.

11755235_10152923620605636_3003432396995242031_nReflecting on my experience, I don’t necessarily regret my hiatus from eating meat because it has provided me with a unique perspective, but If I could tell my 16-year-old self one thing it would be to hear all sides of the story before making an important decision that could have an impact on your health.

If you are considering changing your diet based on concerns about nutrition, the environment, ethics or a combination of the three, I hope you take the time to talk to subject-matter experts, read credible resources and hear all sides to an issue instead of basing your decision off a feeling like I did.

 


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An interesting perspective: animal agriculture and city life

This guest blog is by one of our past interns, Kirk Kaczmarek, reflecting on his summer internship experience. 

Since finishing my internship with the Animal Agriculture Alliance, I’ve had time to visit my brother at college, see both sides of my family, halter break some calves, and reflect on my experience in D.C. Working with the Alliance helped provide me with an interesting perspective.

On one hand, I was connected to my family’s farm and agriculture in general through the nature of my internship. On the other hand, living with the hustle and bustle of D.C. places you far away from the farms that produce your food. However, the D.C. social life, at least for my age group, is dominated by food. We meet for lunch, coffee, drinks, appetizers at a bar, and the list goes on. For a huge group of people, farms are always at least a D.C.’s worth of distance away from their forks. Now this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking observation, but I never really stopped to think about what this means for animal agriculture as an industry until working with the Alliance. I noticed three effects in particular that caught my interest.

People Want Information

Most restaurants I went to engaged in some fashion of advertising the origin of their products. Local beef, Boars Head meats, all eggs from insert-farm-name-here, etc. adorned signs in business after business. People generally want to make smart choices; they want to eat food they know is healthy and humanely raised, so they seek out certain products that they think will benefit them in these regards. This should be wonderful news for the animal agriculture crowd, because we aspire to produce just that kind of food. And for many of the farms with their names listed in D.C. restaurants, I’d say this consumer demand for information is working out rather well. However, people don’t always have correct or complete information.

People Don’t Always Have Good Information

Although consumers want to make the most informed decision concerning food purchases, they are often bombarded with statements that misleading. The amount of people who think a “No Hormones Added” label to chicken means anything at all – no chicken sold in the U.S. has added hormones – is astounding. It can be difficult for consumers to wade through all the disinformation and misinformation surrounding food so that they can make the best decision possible.

Long Live Price and Taste

Regardless of how somebody purchases food based on the first two observations, price and taste remain the most significant factors in determining food choices. Once again, those engaged in animal agriculture should be overjoyed, because we do aspire to produce flavorful and reasonably priced products.

The animal agriculture industry today has the opportunity to continue bridging the gap between farm and fork. Consumers will continue to have questions about our food supply; farmers and industry leaders need to ensure they are present to answer the questions.


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Wait. What did you just say?

Growing up on a farm I have always been very aware of where my food comes. I have been known to freak out my “non-farm” friends by bringing up subjects that were part of the normal conversation around my household.  I distinctly remember my freshman year in college when I asked my suite-mate if she wanted to ride with me to my parents’ house to drop off a semen tank. Her eye brows raised and her mouth dropped open hearing the word “semen” coming from my mouth, but to me, that was just another farm chore.  She asked me “Rossie, what in the world is a semen tank and why do you have one in your car?” I proceeded to inform her all about artificial insemination in cattle and how our bull’s semen was collected at a veterinarian’s office near our school. She was absolutely amazed and said that she had no idea that farmers used artificial breeding. I really blew her mind when I told her about flushing cow eggs (AKA in vitro fertilization)!

After that she came to me with any questions she had about agriculture. I loved that she felt comfortable asking me questions instead of believing what she heard in the news or from animal rights clubs on campus. A lot of other friends asked me questions so that they could understand both sides of the argument. I had the training to answer questions effectively mainly by being on the National Beef Ambassador Team and by having a first-hand farm background. After a while I realized that there was a lot of information that was readily available coming from the opposing side and they had the money to put it on television and on billboards. On the other hand, the information coming from the agriculture industry was only found if the consumer took the time to search for it online. The sad truth is, most consumers won’t take the time search for the other side of the story.

So, what can we do in the agriculture community to get our message across and make information about ag more easily accessible? For starters, we can answer questions that come to us through media outlets or from the neighbor that lives down the road. Believe it or not the average consumer trusts farmers. Now they might say that they only trust family farmers, but to me that’s just the perfect example of misinformed consumers, when we in ag know that nearly 90% of farms are family-owned operations. Most of the questions asked of me as a beef ambassador were about all of the beef choices (grassfed, natural, organic, etc.). I explained what each term meant and how the cattle were raised, to help them understand the difference.

There are many groups against animal agriculture that are trying to push legislation to make our lives as farmers and ranchers more difficult. These groups are also the ones that are filling consumers’ minds with questions about animal agriculture. And as I have mentioned many times before, plenty of our state and national legislators are three or four generations removed from the farm. The legislators and their staff have questions about farming and we need to be their point of contact, that’s why building strong relationships with your elected officials is so important. You want them to feel comfortable calling you with the hard questions so that you can tell them the honest answers.

So to all of you ag guys and gals out there, I challenge you to be honest, be transparent. Don’t avoid the consumer’s question. If a consumer asks why you castrate, or why you dehorn, tell them! Farmers are practical people and do things for a reason. Consumers just want permission to trust agriculture. They hear all of these terrible things about farming and ranching but when they ask questions and learn why we do what we do they are reassured in their protein selection. At the Alliance, we’re trying to correct misinformation about animal ag every day, but we need your help. Together, let’s give consumers permission to eat meat, milk and eggs.

For more information on animal agriculture visit the Alliance Website.

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