Livestock sector not plugged in to welfare debate

James Nason, 12/05/2011

It is a sign of the times, and an indication of how effectively animal welfare groups are using social media to influence public opinion against livestock production.

In late April, journalist and animal welfare campaigner Ruth Ostrow sparked a flood of anti-farming commentary when she used her column in the Weekend Australian newspaper to denounce the use of hormonal growth promotants (HGPs) and intensive feeding systems in livestock production.

Her column took issue with comments by Sydney University veterinary professor Dr Ian Lean protesting Coles supermarkets’ recent decision to stock only HGP free beef.

Dr Lean had described the decision as a cynical marketing move, and said it created incorrect impressions about the quality and health of beef without scientific justification. He believed most consumers would not support Coles’ position if they knew the real story.

“I say he is wrong,” Ruth Ostrow wrote in her Weekend Australian column, and then pledged to put the question to her readers on her website and to publish their comments in response.

Readers who visited her website were met with the following statement and leading question: “A controversy is brewing and I need your comments for a letter to the meat industry. Would you prefer hormone-free, free range meat, or are concerns about food shortages more important than compassion to animals?”

The website also contained a scrolling list of recent Twitter messages sent by the journalist. They included direct appeals to the large online communities of animal activist groups such as Peta, Farm Sanctuary, Animal Rights, and Voiceless to add their comments to the online debate. “Please help me stop abuse of animals in the meat industry,” she tweeted to each group.

There was no sign of similar twitter appeals to livestock farming groups encouraging their members to join the forum.

While this would have helped to create the perception of a balanced debate, the journalist can hardly be blamed for not sending equivalent twitter messages to the relevant national livestock representative organisations: the National Farmers Federation and Cattle Council of Australia have confirmed to Beef Central that they don’t yet have twitter accounts.

It is a revealing insight into the Australian livestock sector’s lack of currency in the modern communications landscape where social media campaigns driven by animal welfare groups are increasingly undermining public perceptions about farming.

This was not a debate on an obscure forum but on the website of a national columnist for a mainstream newspaper read by more than 400,000 people every week.

Within a few days the column had attracted more than 400 comments, many from people identifying themselves as vegans and vegetarians. A central theme of their posts was that humans should only treat animals as they would treat other humans.  Some described livestock production as "murder" and one likened Hitler, Stalin and Pol pot to “saints” compared to the people who oversee food modern production practices.

These selected quotes offer a hint as to the general tone: “Research (not cited) has shown that vegetarians live 10 years longer at least”; “Vegetarianism is the starting point to assessing someone’s intelligence and awareness,” and “at the end of this century we will look back at the age of human carnivores with the same sense of disbelief and horror with which we now regard cannibalism.”

The end result of Ruth Ostrow's "poll" was, predictably enough, a landslide win to the animal rights position. After four days she tweeted the victory: “90pc of people respond in favour of hormone-free free-range beef”.

There may have been serious questions about the methodology behind such a survey result, but that did not stop the author from portraying it as a legitimate representation of public opinion on the issue.

A popular strategy by animal welfare groups is to use Twitter and Facebook streams to encourage supporters to flood online debates and polls to create an impression of strong public support for their position.

In late April for example a rural news website ran a poll asking if readers supported calls by a Sydney academic for animals to be granted land rights.

Noting that the vote was not going its way, the Voiceless group sent an urgent tweet to its membership encouraging them to turn the tide: “Many NO votes have been submitted! PLEASE vote YES in poll: Should native animals get a say on property rights?”

So why isn’t the livestock industry fighting fire with fire? Why aren’t more national farm representative groups harnessing the power of online and social networking media to ensure the wider public is kept aware of the many genuinely positive stories farmers have to tell?

On the Ruth Ostrow blog it was left to a handful of individual producers, veterinarians and people identifying themselves as meat loving consumers to provide small pockets of defence for the livestock farming industry.

One cattle producer who participated in Ruth Ostrow's blog, Dale Stiller from Gulugaba in Queensland, said he believed the urban rural divide was fuelling a climate of misinformation and distrust between farmers and city-based consumers.

“Generations of Australians have lost contact with the country. People have no idea what goes on out here. Because they’re basing opinions on a lack of first-hand knowledge, when they see emotive arguments like this they get led astray.

“It is a problem for us because you’ve got the bulk of the voting public in the city, and politicians are led by the nose where the bulk of votes are.”

Mr Stiller, who moderates an online agricultural forum called Just  Grounds, said he believed farmers could use the web just as effectively as animal welfare groups to counter the spread of misinformation about agricultural practices.

He conceded though that farmers first had to overcome a cultural resistance to technology.

“I’m middle-aged, I have neighbours around here who proudly say they don’t know how to use a computer. It is almost as if it is communal conformity not to admit to being able to use a computer, but the majority of farmers do have computers today.

“We used to talk about tyranny of distance, but the internet is the tool that will help us to come together and to really get our voice across now.

“We don’t have to be shy. You don’t have to be that computer literate to put a sentence into a forum like this. Even just to get on there and say you agree with a previous comment helps to show that there is support.”


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