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Speaker says public wants trust in animal welfare, not data

Published on 28 July 2014
David Daley

The ag industry has reason to rely on science to find its solutions for production, but don’t expect the public to always trust that research.

Speaking at the fourth International Cattle Welfare Symposium in Ames, Iowa, on July 17, David Daley, dean of the College of Agriculture at California State University – Chico, said today’s consumers want to know they’re buying meat, milk and eggs from producers taking care of their animals, but their concerns aren’t resolved by science.

“Most of you are science-based,” Daley said to the symposium attendees. “You want to solve things analytically. I’m the same. I believe in the data and the scientific method. But the public doesn’t trust us.

“People say we need good research. We do; we need good information. But that’s not going to change the public’s perception. They want trust, not science.”

Teaching at a California campus made up mostly of students from California’s urban cities, Daley said today’s generation and many food consumers have a growing distrust in research data, thinking the results can be bought, and students saying they can tell the results of a study by who published it.

“That’s a little frightening,” Daley explained. “That’s not the way it was 30 years ago when there was scientific literature. And the public picks up on that.”

Daley suggested ways to respond to animal welfare critics without breaking into debate or confrontation. That path resolves nothing and puts producers into a bad light. Instead, today’s producers need to take different paths.

Don’t use profit as a welfare motive
Producers who say they treat animals well because they need animals to make money, are not winning over critics, said Daley.

“Just think how stupid that sounds to the general public. Even if it’s factually accurate, it’s such a poor argument. Take it out of your discussion.”

Defend other industries … carefully
The ag industries are waging a cause all together, Daley said, but that doesn’t mean producers have to defend bad methods in the dairy, pork or poultry industries if they are indefensible.

“I think we need to admit we can do better in animal welfare. You get this approach, ‘We’re doing all we can.’ It should be, ‘We will continue to improve.’”

Don’t argue with the completely disagreeable
Waging a discussion of fervor with those who oppose you entirely won’t bear fruit, Daley said. More critical is to find the people somewhere near the center.

Recalling a conversation with a London banker, Daley said he was told American farming producers “are just too defensive. You just react too strongly. You focus on PETA and HSUS so much, you forget most of the people just want to make sure you’re doing it right.”

But Daley added that ag supporters lose some credibility when they assume someone they disagree with is “stupid, evil or both.”

When animal rights speakers come to his school and the young cattlemen groups want to go engage a debate, Daley counsels them to just listen and hear the concerns.

Don’t criticize non-conventional production
There’s room for all methods of beef production, said Daley, who’s a fifth-generation stocker operator, who grazes public acres in summer and then moves herds into the Sacramento Valley.

But the voices in the beef industry throw criticisms at organic, grass-fed or natural systems – and vice versa.

“We don’t have to say grass-fed won’t work, or organic won’t work, or feedyards are bad. Let the market sort itself out, otherwise it looks like we’re defensive or have things to hide.”

Use solutions that producers can buy
Many of the industry’s changing practices on welfare and animal handling come from academia and research. But they won’t progress unless there is investment and support from producers.

Daley showed recent data and surveys revealing the evolving ideas from producers on animal welfare.

When asked about adopting alternatives to branding, 15 percent said absolutely not, 43 percent said they would approach it cautiously, but 28 percent said they would consider it strongly and 14 percent said they would implement it immediately. A similar survey showed somewhat more acceptance of economically viable alternatives to castration.

Don’t be afraid to engage the public
Producers and the public are responding to more public concerns about animal welfare. Sixty-five percent of respondents in a recent survey said they believed animals have rights.

Producers were also asked if they were working cattle along a highway and someone took a picture, how would they would respond. Eighty-five percent said they would engage in a conversation, with 6 percent saying they would tell the visitor to leave and 9 percent saying they would ignore them.

And when asked if the industry should engage in discussions with animal rights groups, 43 percent said it depends and 55 percent said yes.

“Remember,” Daley said. “They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. They want trust, that’s what they expect.”  end mark

- From DAVID COOPER News Release