In many parts of the world, especially in Europe and the USA, animal agriculture is under siege. There is a growing segment of animal rights activists that are using animal welfare as a wedge issue, glossing over the fact that top notch animal welfare practices benefit animals, farmers and everyone else in the food chain. Similarly, there are some in the ‘green movement' that have overlooked the fact that much of agriculture engages in practices that sustain or enhance the environment.

Though most points focus on animal welfare, it is important to recognise that modern poultry farming is opposed on multiple fronts by many organisations. Animal agriculture generates huge economic benefits but this will not guarantee its longevity. Regulation, legislation and activism even if well-intended can have a profound negative impact on animal agriculture.

Part of that negative impact can be seen in the chilling effect that increased regulation and activism have on public perception. In democratic nations, if the public does not support what you do, your chances of being around over the long term are poor.

First steps

So what can you do? Start by doing the right thing, and doing it now. First steps should be:

  • implement animal care and handling policies and become certified,
  • train employees about the importance of optimal animal handling,
  • regularly review those policies from the consumer's perspective to see what could be improved, and
  • hold your employees accountable for following your company's policies.

Has your company implemented animal care guidelines? In many European countries, governments outline specific animal care policies. In the USA, every national producer organisation has developed animal care and handling guidelines. Within the poultry industry that includes the National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation, United Egg Producers and the US Duck Council. The guidelines from these groups are available free on their respective web sites.

Consider a consumer's perspective of your business. Are there practices that you use that, from the average consumer's perspective, would seem questionable? If you feel this is possible, but the practices are scientifically valid and supported by your veterinarian association or another credible source, your ability to explain those practices to a customer or consumer is markedly improved. If the practices are not justifiable, it is in your best interest to find alternatives.

Beyond the basics

Next, develop and implement a security plan including a strict hiring policy as well as crisis management and public relations plans.

For years, the Animal Agriculture Alliance (Alliance) has provided sound security counsel to assist everyone in animal agriculture with developing thorough security and crisis management plans. These tips are summarised in an article titled Vigilance is key, available on the Alliance web site.

The Alliance has also hosted a series of anti-terrorism training workshops specifically for the animal agriculture and food industries. These hands-on workshops teach companies how to prevent terrorism, as well as deterring undercover activities, including video surveillance by activist groups.

Your employees can be your best asset in preventing problems if they are trained and empowered to bring concerns to management, whether ensuring that animals are handled properly or preventing terrorist or activist acts against your business.

Make your business a hard target. Activists make their accusations by exposing irresponsibility and telling their version of your story. If you are doing the right things, even if they disagree with you, it will be difficult for them to successfully target your operation.

But always be prepared. Even if your company has adopted best practices, you might find yourself the target of activists' negative publicity campaigns. If this happens, high quality media training and a solid crisis communications plan will be of invaluable assistance in managing the situation.

Taking action

When your house is in order, implement the public relations plan. If you are in agriculture, it is unlikely you are used to speaking with others about what you are doing and you may feel uncomfortable at first. But if you do not tell your story, who will? Remember that a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step, so start small.

Firstly, arrange opportunities to talk with your customers and suppliers about your commitment to animal care and environmental stewardship. Outline the steps you have taken on your farm. You might be surprised with the response. They may offer some helpful suggestions, share your information with others in their organisation or talk to their friends about your efforts. Likewise, be sure that all of your employees understand the company's commitment so that they can serve as representatives in your community. If you share your information effectively, your employees will help spread the message that you are concerned enough about these issues to take concrete action.

Join a group such as the Alliance that promotes the responsible actions on national and/or international levels. Additionally, in the USA, there are state groups like the Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers and Agriculture United for South Dakota, and in Canada provincial groups like Alberta Farm Animal Care and Ontario Farm Animal Council. If a local group does not exist, consider forming one.

Communicate with neighbours about your actions. If you are working to improve the environment, they will be happy about the news. If you are improving animal welfare and anticipate enhanced productivity, neighbouring farmers may be extremely interested in your actions. Be sure to remind them that your family lives in the community too and that you share their values about keeping your community strong, healthy and viable.

Spreading the word

Once you have a foundation of people who know what you are doing, why you are doing it and that you are committed to responsible animal agriculture, communicating to local government officials may be in order. Your government officials may well be part of today's agriculturally undereducated majority. Demonstrate your commitment to responsible agriculture to government officials, explain how your actions enhance the community.

Local government officials whether they have an agricultural background or not may offer a surprisingly warm reception to your commitment to responsible animal welfare and environmental practices within their jurisdiction. If you indicate that you do not support growth at all cost and do not support irresponsible farmers, you will get their attention. A willingness to talk about your commitment may also earn you friends in government who will to intervene on your behalf if that need ever arises.

Work with your state and local officials to strengthen right to farm laws, as well as laws providing penalties against animal rights and eco-terrorism actions. As government representatives become more aware of your positive actions, their commitment to you is likely to become higher.

How do you communicate your story effectively and efficiently to so many different parties on a continuous basis? Creating your own web site that gives your neighbours, customers, suppliers, local officials and other interested parties information about the positive actions you are taking and how your farm benefits the community is one solution. Today, people find just about everything they want to know about online.

When developing your story in person or online keep in mind that your eventual goal is to help consumers understand what your commitment means to them. Point out community benefits such as having undeveloped land, the ability to buy products from local farms, and the benefits your farm brings to the environment and the economy. Because of your farm, consumers are able to enjoy safe, wholesome, high-quality food.

A web site is also a good tool to reach the media but do not rely on your web site to talk for you. Every farm or company should have a chief spokesperson that is trained to interact with media and look for opportunities to share positive stories with local media. At this point, suppliers and customers, neighbours and local government officials may be willing to speak about your actions to verify your story with the media.

What about groups that are generally not in agriculture's camp? How and should you reach out to environmental or animal advocate organisations? If their goals are truly to enhance the environment or improve animal welfare, it may be worth discussing your shared values, however, it is crucial to understand the true agenda of the group before any meeting.

We advise against engaging with a vegan animal rights group or group that does not support animal agriculture at its core. Most likely, you will have only identified yourself as a target for one of their campaigns. So how do you deal with extremist activists? You don't.

The keys to success are following the outlined steps actively tell your story, and stay engaged in telling that story. Public opinion polls indicate consumers are still strongly supportive of farmers but the days when they just assume you are doing the right thing are gone. Now you must prove it.