OPINION: YOU'D have to be living under a rock to not be aware of the unusually high morale in the Australian agricultural industry right now.
The scathing attack by animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on the wool industry, calling for a boycott of wool products, illustrates this ironically well.
Anti-animal agriculture campaigns usually incite feelings of stress and dread, not feelings of confidence and victory. So what is different this time?
Compared to 2007, when the wool industry agreed to phase out the practice of mulesing as the result of an ongoing PETA campaign, this time around the industry has walked away relatively unscathed. Public outrage has not only been minimal, but overall, the public appear to support the wool industry.
So, it’s fair to say that we’ve 'won' this time, right? Wrong.
First of all, the positive support from the media played a huge role in stopping the issue from becoming a major issue or crisis, and should be considered an anomaly. We should not be expecting a repeat performance.
The interview by Gorgi Coghlan from Channel 10's The Project of PETA's Australian campaign manager Claire Fryer on Tuesday night is a case in point.
Hearing Coghlan ask Fryer: “Is it fair to tarnish the whole industry?”, and say: “… we’ve got to clarify the difference between systemic abuse, and unfortunately some individuals that did the wrong thing,” was music to my ears, as it probably was to yours.
Then there was the popular news site Mamamia, which also published an article in support of the industry, and posted this message on its Facebook page: “PETA has launched a campaign against shearing sheep. It is violent. It is unnecessary. And it is also complete bullshit”.
Isn’t this what we, as an industry, are always wishing for? For mainstream media to acknowledge both sides of the story, and not damn an entire industry when a negative issue or incident is being reported on? Hallelujah! Times are changing, finally!
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
Gorgi Coghlan grew up on a sheep farm in Warrnambool, Victoria. Her father has been a wool classer for 50 years, her brother is a wool buyer, and Gorgi herself grew up in sheds working as a cook and roustabout. Elissa Ratliff, the website producer for Mamamia who wrote the article, also grew up on a working sheep farm.
How would these organisations have reported the story had they not had reporters directly involved with the industry?
You only need to search the term 'live export' on the Mamamia website to find a number of negative, unbalanced articles since 2011. I remember also watching similar sentiments about the live export industry broadcast on The Project.
Where was the balanced reporting back then? Why did the media think it was fair to tarnish a whole industry each time a incident was reported as systemic abuse?
Secondly, lets look at the actual issue here - shearing. Giving sheep a haircut. The practice itself doesn't exactly turn people to recoil in horror. For the most part, the public understands that shearing does not cause pain, unlike other livestock husbandry practices which such as dehorning, branding, castration, and even slaughter.
Finally, the campaign was being run by PETA. They’re known for their extreme views, so people are likely to be more critical of their campaigns in the first place. How would this campaign have played out it was being led by the RSPCA, which has a solid, positive relationship with the public?
This is not a time to get complacent. We might have ‘won’ the battle, but we’re still losing the war.
We all know that dehorning, branding and castration are next in line to come under fire. Whilst the issues have come up before, and PETA, Animals Australia and the RSPCA all have longstanding policies on the topic, it’s not a question of if it will blow up as a major issue again, but when.
It’s the same with intensive animal agriculture. Campaigns against it aren't going away any time soon, and just because it’s not front and centre in the public discourse doesn't mean we can breathe easy just yet.
This week at Kansas State University, the Farm Animal Rights Movement was paying students $1 to watch a four-minute video about factory farming. The national campaign, which has been running since 2011 and only visits colleges, displays footage from undercover investigations. However, all the practices and conditions shown in the footage are deemed legal by the United States Department of Agriculture.
How long until this model of activism comes to Australia? What are we going to do when organisations start paying people to watch footage of legal, standard practices - whether obtained legally or not - which the public doesn’t understand in context?
How are we going to get the public to develop that understanding, so that when they are asked by an organisation to support a ban in the name of animal welfare, they can make an informed choice - and hopefully support the industry over activists?
We can’t keep relying upon the ‘let sleeping dogs lie, we’ll deal with it if and when it becomes an issue’ strategy.
As you celebrate this victory over PETA, start preparing for the next battle.
Stephanie Coombes was the 2013 Cattle Council of Australia Rising Beef Industry Champion. She is currently living in the United States studying a Masters of Science in Agricultural Communication.