Farmers need to control the narrative

Farmers need to control the narrative


Opinion
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Australians are taking a keener interest than ever before on what happens to animals on farms.

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Lynne Bradshaw.

Lynne Bradshaw.

ANIMAL activists have farmers on edge. 

After several recent highly-publicised incidents involving a dairy farm, a piggery and an online map of farm locations, farmers are fearing who’s next and asking why?

I’ll say up front, RSPCA condemns law-breaking activities and we don’t support groups that campaign against farming. 

We support farming as long as the animals are treated humanely when alive and when slaughtered. RSPCA also has a good handle on public opinion about animal welfare, which is why we’re not surprised about a recently released Federal government commissioned report by consultancy group FutureEye.

‘Australia’s Shifting Mindset on Farm Animal Welfare’ gives an insight into why there’s an increase in activism. 

It identifies concern about how farm animals are treated. 

Alongside this, it says there’s distrust of government agencies charged with regulating farm animal welfare and the livestock industry is too secretive about on-farm activities. 

These factors are driving growing outrage about farm animal welfare.

That sounds like the report’s authors surveyed activist groups and echoed their views. 

But the report isn’t referring to the views of activists but the results of national surveys and focus groups of everyday Australians.

And, in a wake-up call for producers, the report found a growing section of the public sympathises with activists. 

Indeed, 76 per cent of Australians say whistleblowing by activists about farm animal welfare should be encouraged, with 20pc undecided and only 4pc disagreeing with the whistleblowing.

Australians are taking a keener interest than ever before on what happens to animals on farms.

 Yet an increasing proportion are quite uninformed about farming practices. 

Those who are not well informed and suddenly confronted with farm animal welfare issues are most likely to respond with demands for extreme measures to resolve their concerns. 

Practices seen as unnecessary and that do not seem to provide a benefit to the animal cause most concern.

According to the report, there’s distrust in both the Federal Department of Agriculture’s ability to properly oversee farm animal welfare and of industry’s failure to properly address animal welfare issues. 

Livestock production is seen as secretive and whistleblowing activists are the only way Australians can find out what’s going on with animals on farms. 

One focus group participant in Perth put it this way - “There is no willingness from the government to act, they are backing the farmer rather than the welfare of the animal”.

The report looks at the stages in which a society’s views evolve. 

With farm animal welfare, Australia is at the “challenging stage” when activism intensifies. 

This has developed rapidly over the past eight years with key incidents driving growing public outrage. 

These include shocking revelations over the way Australian cattle were slaughtered in Indonesia in 2011, highly publicised documentaries confronting people with on farm animal treatment and slaughter, whistleblowing exposes of live sheep suffering onboard export ships and attempts to stop undercover investigations via proposals for ‘ag gag’ laws in some States. 

Like demands for stronger trespass laws, the public sees ‘ag gag’ as trying to shut them out. 

This issue is bigger than a few activists invading farms in WA.

The increase in animal-based activism is part of a global trend and shows no sign of abating. 

Farmers will never convince the vegan activists that using animals to produce food and fibre is OK, no matter how high the animal welfare standards are, but this is not the audience farmers need to appeal to. 

The FutureEye Report found 95pc of Australians view farm animal welfare to be a concern. 

There was no difference in views between people in capital cities or regional towns.

Government regulators and the livestock sector must show meaningful leadership.

 That means actually doing something to improve animal welfare and making information about what’s being done publicly available. 

Australians want real animal welfare improvements.

 Locking the farm gate and refusing to change because “we’ve always done it this way” won’t fly any more.

RSPCA works with some of the more progressive industry bodies nationally and improvements are being made. 

Australian Pork Limited is proactively working towards getting sows out of stalls with more than 80pc of gestating sows now in group housing. 

Dairy Australia is also aware of public concern about some practices on-farm and is in the early stages of developing animal welfare solutions. 

And there are others.

But, the majority fail to read the public mood. 

Egg Farmers Australia clings to cage egg production systems in the face of majority views that cages should be phased out. 

Likewise, some in the sheep industry still maintain that subjecting sheep to the cruelty of live export is necessary and acceptable, when the public has emphatically rejected the trade as cruel and unnecessary

On the plus side, the FutureEye Report found farmers still enjoy support from the community. Farmers are seen as trustworthy and hardworking but that image is chipped away every time people see images of extreme confinement production systems like battery cages and sow stalls or heat stressed sheep on ships. 

Failure to act on animal welfare will see farming lose its power and influence in the community and strict new regulations could be forced on livestock production. 

Right now, activists are taking control of the agenda and the message away from farmers and gaining influence over Australians, especially young people.

Being proactive on animal welfare won’t make the activists go away overnight but greater trust between the broader community and livestock farming means the average Australian will be less likely to support activists and they will become irrelevant and unnecessary. 

  • Do you agree or disagree with this column? Email your thoughts to darren.odea @fairfaxmedia.com.au
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