Animal agriculture big business for animal rights activists

Undercover videos are rapidly becoming the go-to method of swaying public opinion for animal rights groups

Security personnel at the door at the Egg Farmers of Alberta annual general meeting in Red Deer were a stark sign of how the world has changed for the livestock sector.

Four months after an undercover video scandal rocked Canada’s egg industry, security officials were keeping a wary eye out for protesters and allowing in only those who had been given the green light by Egg 
Farmers’ staff.

It’s the new norm for Alberta’s egg industry, said board chair Ben Waldner.

“Navigating the new reality is what it’s all about,” he said. “We’ve never had to do this before, but it’s the way we’re going to be doing business from now on.”

Geraldine Austin, an agriculture management consultant based in B.C., applauded the group’s efforts to bar activists from 
the meeting.

“It seems a real shame that (the egg industry) would be the target for some sort of activism,” she said in her presentation about activism trends in Canada.

Producers can expect animal rights groups to increase their “attack on public confidence in animal products” and livestock handling, she said.

“(Animal rights activists) have their own agenda,” she said. “And farming isn’t on their agenda.”

Egg farmers at the meeting also got a glimpse into how big the animal rights business has become. Humane Society International, based in Washington but also Canada’s biggest animal rights player, brought in $9.3 million in revenue for 2012. Its U.S. parent, the Humane Society of the United States raises more than $120 million every year.

Less than one per cent of that is used for animal care, said Kay Johnson Smith, president of Animal Agriculture Alliance in the U.S.

“It spends $25 million every year on lobbying and legislative campaigns — campaigns to disparage agriculture,” Johnson Smith said. “It spends $20 million just to fundraise to bring in the other $100 million.

“It’s a big industry, and they have a very big budget dedicated to ending our industry and ending your livelihood.”

But activism isn’t really about farmer practices or even animal welfare, said 
Austin.

“It’s not about improving welfare practices,” she said. “Don’t expect that they’ll go away because you did what they asked you to. They keep moving that bar to make it impossible for you to do business.”

From the Canadian Cattlemen website: Advocacy on the front lines

Farming, transporting and processing livestock are all targets for animal 
rights groups.

“Just about anything you would do with your animals, those are all items that are being watched and criticized.”

And when producers fail to meet their animal care obligations, the result can make national headlines.

That was the case in October when CTV aired footage shot on two Alberta egg farms by a group called Mercy for Animals Canada. In addition to crowded and dirty conditions, the video showed a practice called “thumping” — killing sick or injured birds by smashing their heads on concrete or some other hard surface. The bad publicity prompted Egg Farmers of Alberta to create new policies to reinforce best management practices, including a shift toward enriched egg-laying cages.

Animal activists well know this type of video will boost their fundraising efforts, said Johnson Smith.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” she said. “Well, video is priceless.”

Codes of practice are another area where animal rights activists are increasingly active. In the hog sector, the recent review of their codes spanned three years, with “unprecedented” involvement from animal rights groups.

“More comments were made on the code by animal welfarists than producers,” said Austin, who works with B.C.’s hog industry.

Austin urged egg producers not to make the same mistake when it comes time to provide feedback on the egg industry’s codes of practice review, which began in earnest in September 2013.

“Every single farmer should take the time (to comment),” she said. “Your responses should outweigh animal welfarists. You know best about your practices.

“Farmers can be united together and powerful against this sort of a movement.”

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