Activists take misguided aim at animal ag

The publication is slick, vibrant and well designed. At first glance, it looks like just another food-focused, recipe-laden magazine offered free at grocery stores to inspire customers to cook Pinterest-worthy meals.

But this particular magazine has a much different agenda—trying to convince folks to go vegan, a diet that cuts out any animal product. This so-called “Vegan Starter Kit” was put together by the anti-agricul­ture organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). An MFA customer picked up the magazine in Concordia, Mo., and mailed it to me with this request: “I’m hoping MFA can do something to counteract this propaganda. While it looks nice, and will certain­ly catch the attention of city people, etc., so much (all) of it is ridiculous.”

She’s right on all accounts. The first page of the publication tells readers that going vegan saves animals, protects the environment, slashes health risks and saves money on grocery bills. Later, the magazine purports that going vegan will help alleviate hunger because more than half of the world’s crops are used to feed livestock, not humans. “When millions are starving worldwide, it’s wasteful to funnel edible food through farmed animals.”

The claims stop short of world peace.

The shaming tactics continue with headlines attempting to humanize animals, such as “Fish are just like us,” and “I am not bacon. I am a living being, just like you.” A ma­nipulated image of a pig with a dog’s head asks the disturbing question, “Would you eat your dog?”

Unfortunately, these ploys help such misguided messages get through to some people. According to its website, PETA filled requests for nearly 316,000 free copies of the Vegan Starter Kit in 2018.

While the magazine passively pushed PETA’s agenda, the organi­zation often takes a more aggressive approach. A perfect example is a billboard PETA recently placed in Kansas City and St. Louis that promotes veganism by capitalizing on this spring’s devastating floods. The billboard features a Holstein cow surrounded by water with the message, “Stop Eating Meat! They Die for Your Cruel and Dirty Habit.”

The distasteful advertisement un­derstandably sparked outrage among farmers and nonfarmers alike. Social media responses called it “sickening,” “low” and “heartless” for PETA to use the flood in its self-seeking propaganda. Missouri Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Mike Deering said, “Farm and ranch families love their animals. It’s their life. When disaster strikes, they put it all on the line to save their live­stock. We have zero tolerance for the hate and ignorance of PETA.”

I have no beef with people who want to eschew meat. It’s their right to eat what they want to eat. What I do have a problem with, howev­er, are people who don’t extend us omnivores the same rights. And like Deering, I have no tolerance for us­ing fearmongering to take advantage of a tragic situation for selfish gain.

The reality is that it’s nearly impossible to effectively counteract PETA propaganda. The organization is large and loud. It relies on shock and awe to get its messages out to a public that’s largely uninformed about agriculture. PETA brought in more than $56 million last year and spent nearly $15 million on “public outreach and education.”

This is the challenge agriculture faces. How can we possibly explain the truth or reverse the rumors on such a large scale—especially when we’re focused on providing food, fiber and fuel for the world’s rapidly growing population? We won’t resort to the same type of provocative publicity stunts that the activists employ, and our time and money are better spent caring for those animals they’re so worried about .

The good news is that, despite the hype, animal-rights activists actually have limited influence on consumer preference. While there seems to be more vegan and vegetarian restau­rant options and alternatives to meat and dairy in the grocery store, peo­ple still overwhelmingly consume animal products. In fact, a 2018 Gallup poll found that fewer than 1 in 10 Americans say they adhere to a plant-based diet.

While it may be futile for the ag industry to go toe-to-toe with extremists, what we can do is keep promoting positive, accurate messages about modern farming practices. We can show and tell how producers respect their animals and the environment. And we can take every opportunity to tackle misinfor­mation and share the truth.

I, for one, won’t let PETA or any other organization make me feel guilty for championing the farmers who raise livestock and eating the meat they produce. In fact, I’m look­ing forward to a summer filled with grilled steaks, burgers and brats.

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