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Drawing the line —

By Staff | Jan 8, 2010

Animal activists’ increasing influence comes at a time when American farmers’ contributions to feeding a growing global population have become more important than ever, says Dr. Dan Thomson, who spoke at the Iowa Cattlemen's Association annual meeting on Jan. 5.

AMES – Columnist George Will’s advice to never play poker against a man named Slim, never buy a Rolex from a man who’s out of breath and never take advice from a person who’s shouting at you holds a nugget of truth for livestock producers.

That’s especially true in a world where animal activists are shouting their messages – and taking aim at agriculture – from television to the Internet.

“With today’s technology, one or two people can send a message – regardless of its accuracy – and reach thousands of people instantly,” said Dan Thomson, Kansas State University’s professor of production medicine and epidemiology, who spoke Jan. 5 at the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association annual meeting in Ames. “This creates paranoia, not prudence.”

Thomson, a third-generation veterinarian and Iowa native, noted that influential television personalities often help animal activists get their message out to the masses. A few recent examples include:

  • Stephen Colbert, a comedian who hosts “The Colbert Report,” on Comedy Central, intrviewed Ingrid Newkirk, president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
  • Comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, who her own talk show, is a strong supporter of Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States. HSUS boasts more than 10 million members and had an operating budget of more than $120 million in 2007. It made headlines in 2009 when it publicly stated it would like to make Ohio its next victory by phasing out the confinement of animals in swine gestation crates, veal crates and battery cages for poultry.

“HSUS and PETA have smart, organized people and lots of money,” Thompson said, then asked his audience, “but what makes them qualified to address animal agriculture issues?

“We’ve come a long way to improve animal welfare, and I’m ready to take the fight to the activists.” —Dan Thomson Kansas State University professor of production medicine

“You don’t find veterinarians, farmers or scientists guiding these groups. Wayne Pacelle, for example, earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University.”

Serving humanity through food production

The animal activists’ increasing influence comes at a time when American farmers’ contributions to feeding a growing global population have become more important than ever, Thomson said, who cited the “Malthusian catastrophe,” which was put forward by Thomas Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798.

Malthus pointed out that human populations tend to grow exponentially, while the capabilities of agricultural resources tend to grow arithmetically. Using these patterns, Malthus predicted that at a certain point, the demands of a human population would outstrip agricultural ability. This, in turn, would trigger radical social changes, including population decline and, according to Malthus, a state of misery.

Depending on some modern estimates, this Malthusian catastrophe could occur as early as 2040, Thomson said. “I believe our next big international conflict will occur over food, not oil. If activists and others run (animal) agriculture out of the U.S. and it goes overseas, we’ll view the conflict over oil as a minor issue when compared to international conflicts that could cut off our food supply from foreign countries.”

The good news? Surveys show that the majority of Americans enjoy eating meat and support the farmers who produce their food. Studies have also revealed that Americans’ meat consumption has increased from 1990 to 2007, Thomson said.

According to a 2007 study by Oklahoma State University consumers about their views on farm animal well-being, 97.4 percent of Americans said they eat meat. In addition, these consumers ranked the financial well-being of farmers higher than the well-being of farm animals.

“Although our industry is under attack by a vocal minority, the facts show that we’re more carnivorous as a country than ever, and it’s important to remember that livestock producers are serving humanity every day by raising food,” Thomson said.

Taking action

Since farmers can’t bring everyone from the city to the farm to educate them about the importance of modern agriculture, it’s important to bring the farm to the city, said Thomson, who, earlier this year, chaired the World Organization for Animal Health’s Beef Cattle Production and Animal Welfare Committee in Paris. Bringing the farm to the city can be as simple as investing in a special “Cattlemen Care” license plate for the car or truck, to pushing for an ag curriculum in the local school district.

“I think every state should have a mandatory agriculture class for sixth-grade students, just like every sixth-grade student in Iowa studied our state’s history when I was in school,” said Thomson, who noted that activist groups are seizing new opportunities to reach consumers of all ages.

HSUS promotes its views in Kind News for Kids and offers lesson plans for teachers. In addition, HSUS has created the Humane Society University to offer a variety of graduate, undergraduate, and non-credit professional development online programs in human-animal studies, from “How to Become a Citizen Lobbyist” to “Building an Effective Campaign.”

These developments show the importance of farmers working together and finding strength in numbers, said Thomson, who encourages producers to join their industry organization, from the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Farmers also need to disarm their critics with transparency, from speaking up for agriculture to educating consumers and addressing their concerns about how farmers and ranchers care for their livestock and raise their crops.

“Since our industry is under attack by wolves in sheep’s clothing, we might as well draw the line now. There are people lining up to make money off of animal welfare, and I’m tired of letting the activists bring the fight to us.

“We’ve come a long way to improve animal welfare, and I’m ready to take the fight to the activists.”

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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