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The Scary World of Animal Welfare Extremists

What is this strange world that we live in; where people tell us what we can and can’t do with our animals? Where people happily thrust upon us their expectations of us, in managing the welfare of livestock? Put simply, it is the modern world. One that the farming community needs to come to grips with.

I hear talk of “Vegan Extremists” who just don’t want anyone to eat meat and how “they are just trying to shut all of us farmers down”. Certainly, they exist. They are very well organised, tech savvy and do an exceptional job of promoting their cause. They can spread their word quickly, effectively and wield great influence, given their relatively small percentage of the Australian population.

In actual fact, they are only a very small subset of the group of everyday vegetarians and vegans. A Roy Morgan poll in 2016 found that vegetarians and vegans now make up 11% of the Australian population. That means two things… 89% of the Australian population eat meat and the “extremists” are only a very small percentage of the total population.

Just a very noisy group perhaps? So why should we care about them?

The average lamb and steak loving punter on the streets has no interest in becoming a vegan or vegetarian, but what they do share with their vegetarian and vegan mates, is a growing interest in the welfare and wellbeing of animals. These are our consumers. The people we rely on to buy our products and pay the high prices we are currently enjoying.

Just for this moment, forget about the “extremists” and think solely about your consumers; both here and overseas. What would they want? What are their expectations when it comes to animal welfare? Even if your welfare practices are very good, there are always things that we could do, to better align ourselves with the values of our consumers. A simple rule to apply across your farming business, is to ask the question “what would the consumer want me to do in this situation?” or “what if 60 minutes filmed this?”.

I don’t particularly want to be the welfare evangelist amongst the sheep consultant community, but I also don’t want our industry to continue with a ‘head in the sand’ approach to taking on animal welfare issues. Nothing infuriates me more than hearing a farmer say “yeah but if they get us on this one, what will it be next? They will be chasing us on something else!”. Of course, they will. The word for that process… is progress.

Our consumers want to see innovation and an industry that strives for continual improvement in farming practices and animal welfare. They want to continue to enjoy their consumption of meat, knowing that it has been produced in the best possible way. While you are at it, a bit cheaper as well. They may be asking a lot, but they are our customer. Despite what many believe, we don’t get to dictate to them.

For the first time last year, we had clients trial pain relief for lamb marking (docking & castration). Not because they thought it would make them more money, but because they believe it is the right thing to do. This year we have a number of clients looking to use it for exactly the same reason. The right thing to do.

So, while the discussion in our industry continues to revolve around the “extremists”, stop and think about the often-unheard majority that sits beyond them. The average punter on the street. What do they want? We cannot afford for them to become the forgotten voice in the discussions around animal welfare, and to make assumptions on their behalf is dangerous. We don’t want them stuck silently unhappy in the middle of an argument with extremists and farmers yelling at each other from opposing sides. That simply cannot end well for agriculture.

The farming industry can be a very insular place, with likeminded people only ever talking to one another, reaffirming each other’s views. Without external perspectives, change on a welfare front simply wouldn’t happen to the same degree. We are all guilty of becoming desensitised by day to day, on-farm activities. So, take the time to stop, think and listen to people outside of your farming bubble.

I’m not saying snuggle up with a vegan… but we could do a much better job of finding out what our consumers really want, what their expectations are and adapting our practices to better align with their values. We shouldn’t be defending ourselves against our consumer, we should be aligning ourselves with them.

There is a huge opportunity awaiting our industry if we get this right and listen to the often-unheard majority. Animal welfare, productivity and meat-eating quality are not mutually exclusive. Get one right and in most cases the other follows as well.

We have so much opportunity in front of us. A future to be excited about, rather than a past to cling to. Don’t be afraid of change, embrace it. Be the future you want.

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