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American ag shies away from its birthright of moral authority

The New York Times set agriculture’s spleen flowing in late March when it, first, announced an essay contest that, in 600 words or less, would at last get to the heart of the issue that’s plagued mankind for two millennia and more: Is it really ethically OK (or not) to eat animals? Then, it doubled down on what much of agriculture saw as insult by snubbing any of the submitted philosophy from real, working animal farmers among the six finalists culled from more than 3,000 entries.

NYTimes1So why bother?” pondered Kansas State ag student and proud product of southeastern Kansas cattle culture Lisa Henderson. “It’s obvious The New York Times doesn’t want to hear our story.”

But here’s a hard question: Why should agriculture expect the Times to permit farmers to dip their toes into its philosophical pool? Have they given the learned editors and the highly anti-agribusiness panel of experts reason? With the exception of a few who have thrown up thin shields against the barbs of criticism using laden words like “ethics” and “integrity” and “values,” with little real moral metal behind them, practitioners of modern agriculture have lost their traditional heritage of moral agency, the ability not only to make moral judgments and take action that comport with morality, but also their authority to speak on such weighty matters.

And if that’s not bad enough, here’s the worse of it: Moral authority hasn’t been wrenched away. Farming has given it away.



'Agriculture's moral authority hasn't been wrenched away. Farming has given it away.'

Yoeman Joe has left and gone away
Few icons in the history of the United States have enjoyed the high public esteem of being synonymous with morality as has the American farmer. Thomas Jefferson favored an economy fueled by agriculture and a government run by farmers. "Agriculture is our wisest pursuit,” Jefferson counseled, “because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness." The farmer, Emerson said a century later, is tranquil, innocent of the cheap and tawdry, unmortified by industrialized man’s slavery to comfort and frivolity; he “stood well on the world,” ever aware of his heroic “ministry” (Emerson’s word; not mine). Another half century along found Farm Journal reminding American farming that it fed the world more than simply “steaks and strawberries, potatoes and pork…,” but sustenance much meatier. “It supplies the country with its moral fiber, sends its pure blood into the vessels of the nation to check waste and make tissue."

Jefferson's yoeman farmer would form the moral fiber of the new nation“America finds the strong roots of its power in the soil of its country,” wrote early 20th Century Germany’s imperial commerce secretary, L.M. Goldberger, “which after every storm, gives unlimited possibilities for the rapid recuperation of the high moral forces that live in the American people.” Strong character, high moral standing in the rural community, and a shared responsibility for their society have been so ingrained in the farmer’s system of morality that even as late as the 1980s, the typical farmer could still walk into a county bank and obtain credit on little more than his handshake, family name, and his word.

Yet suddenly, today agriculture stands accused. For the first time in American history, the moral character of the farmer, industrious and productive, stands serious, open and regular attack.  Allegations of human abuse that borders on modern slavery, undercover videos of barbaric animal cruelty, assertions of degradation to the land and the community, accusations of individual and corporate greed, and more, all attempt to dismiss the modern farmer as the reigning moral agent. Any farmer who dares vocalize a defense, if he's considered either too large or too productive, earns instant dismissal by the critics as an inauthentic flack for greedy corporate barons. Ditto, the organizations that represent farmers. The more they speak, the more suspicious the public grows.

Meanwhile, the well-funded, professionally crafted PR responses from agriculture begin to take on an air of quiet desperation. Responses to attacks on the farmer's character scatter and bounce off one another like a well-struck rack of pool balls:

  • Videos aim to remind each consumer that she and her 187 neighbors would starve if not for the farmer.
  • Social-media mavens scatter the message of farming--any message, and the more the better--to Internet forums and drive-by comment boards.
  • Commodity groups reassure distant consumers that even factory farmers have a heart (unknowable though it may be)
  • Corporate PR shops and commodity group initiatives sing the praise of modern farm science and predict the impending doom of regulating farming out of the United States
  • Professional animal and farmworker welfare advisors issue 100-plus-paged standards and guidelines to reassure consumer that science really means it when it says, for instance, that giving a hen a cage space the size of a letter is just as good as a cage space the size of a legal pad.
  • And more...

All the while, a smart cadre of moral agents have slipped in behind those patchwork defenses, planting credibility bombs with the politician, regulator, media, doctor, teacher and regular consumer citizen. And they succeed by using the simple, refreshing, honest language that's gone missing from agriculture: What's right here, and what's wrong? While these moral agent provocateurs light up the inadequacy of agriculture's response with those bright flaming questions, agriculture's professional communicators can't help but avert their eyes when a farmer suddenly takes up the question of right and wrong, much as they would if he suddenly picked his nose during a national TV interview.


The moral sweet spot of communicating

Though it's become as easy to find an example of this type of moral misappropriation by ag critics as it is to find a Baptist smoking in the church parking lot, some stand out particularly well. Take for example, this interview of Wayne Pacelle, president of the Washington, D.C., animal rights group Humane Society of the United States. Following his series of deft deflections of the agriculturally sympathetic reporter's questions about what HSUS has planned for industrial agriculture and what right the group has to cut private deals with state farm groups, the ag reporter appears to spot an easy score by raising a question that flies the perennial battle flag of modern agriculture: At the end of the day, shouldn't we just trust our scientists? Where does HSUS get any authority on animal issues?

Pacelle’s insightful answer pierces the intellectual sloth of the underlying assumption and reveals the Humane Society's superior strategic direction that's responsible for so bruising agriculture during the last decade.
"The authority comes," replies Pacelle, '[in] that these are moral questions. The Humane Society has veterinarians, it has animal scientists, it has a whole cadre of scientific people. But science alone doesn’t give you answers. Science and values together gives you answers, and that’s where the Humane Society is moving forward…”

Aristotle composite Moving forward, indeed. So while agriculture sits nestled in the warmth of its scientific bunker, distracted and infuriated by HSUS' arguments based on emotion, HSUS suddenly flanks and moves to the high ground of morality. It's a battle plan as old as the Ancient Greeks, in which the father of rhetoric Aristotle taught that three parts should comprise any effective argument:

  1. Logos: Science, logic and reason. For agriculture this often translates to “scientific” reasoning.
  2. Pathos: The art of emotion, based on evoking sympathy, anger, revulsion and other feelings that even farmers experience when watching undercover animal-abuse videos like the one HSUS just released on May 8.
  3. Ethos: The last, unclaimed territory of argument, to make an ethical appeal due to the strength of your sound moral character.

'Agriculture isn't just acquiescing to HSUS in its quest to become the reigning moral agent. Agriculture is abetting it.'

Aristotle posited these as strands of the same cord, woven together for powerful persuasion. HSUS, while by no means the only critic of modern food production who has mastered the mixing of science, emotion and morality, has certainly turned it into a fine art form. Let us debrief two recent victories that show agriculture isn’t just acquiescing to HSUS in its quest to become the new reigning moral agent, replacing the farmer Jefferson so championed. Agriculture is actually abetting it.


Which came first, chicken or egg?
Case in point No. 1: The newly proposed federal laying hen legislation crafted by the HSUS in partnership with the egg-layers' industry group, the United Egg Producers. In trying to justify aligning itself with a group that many animal farmers--not to mention many of his own constituency--considers a mortal enemy of their way of life, Gene Gregory, president and CEO of UEP, has campaigned hard to convince critics that his industry was simply out of good options. "Despite having implemented a science-based UEP-Certified Animal Welfare Program, the egg industry continued to be challenged by animal activists,” he said. Brutal state ballot initiatives, expensive lawsuits, bruising undercover cruelty videos and market intimidation of egg customers has cost American egg farmers millions of dollars, Gregory argues. Anything other than agreeing to move away from a system of housing seen as cruel by groups like HSUS but used by up to 95 percent of laying operations would simply be a costly delaying action, destined to ultimately fail.

UEP-HSUS Fair enough. But in the process of justifying the unholy alliance, Gregory and UEP not only stand by while HSUS gains a moral upper hand that will make the next demands harder to decline, they actually unwittingly move HSUS to the head of the ethical table. Here's why. In what appears to be a near desperate attempt to convince his critics among animal commodity groups and his members that UEP “did not cave” to HSUS demands, Gregory betrays his agricultural roots by whipping out for all to see the group's evidence that they have their own good reasons for promoting a move to enriched cage systems, the HSUS-approved alternative to cruel cage systems. Rest assured, Gregory has said, "the science behind enriched cages is solid.”

Check and checkmate. Gregory's fallback justification by science immediately begs the question:  If egg farmers found the science so compelling for enriched housing, why did they wait to introduce the "less cruel" system only after the prodding by a radical animal activist group? Which came first, the UEP’s scientific enlightenment concerning enriched housing, or the asphyxiating, unyielding pressure of an HSUS legislative headlock?

You can't blame UEP for being realistic about the need to relieve the pressure. But in trying to have it both ways, Gregory forces the critical question: Who should people believe acted first and foremost out of moral concern, egg farmers or HSUS?

Sluggishness to act coupled with the inability or unwillingness to fight the good fight in justifying confining hens in small cages from a moral standpoint will continually enable third parties to claim the position of morally superior. Even worse, it also parades an inability of agriculture to regulate itself based on the higher issues of morality. So while the UEP insists its action doesn’t have a ripple effect on other farmers, it certainly does. The HSUS has shown that it can now co-opt the high moral ground from which it can sternly and authoritatively mandate your farm’s individual management practices from the comfort of its East-Coast, Ivy-League homes. In failing to anticipate how his group was outflanked by HSUS, Gregory has handed over the keys to the moral kingdom, even while appearing to be happy to be relieved of their burden.


Cage closed, or make that, 'crate closed'

Now comes HSUS again to the public May 8, with case in point No. 2 on how agriculture will eventually lose yet another production tool by surrendering agricultural morality.

Playing to press conferences in Denver, Little Rock and Washington, D.C., the group rolled out yet another in a long string of undercover animal abuse videos, this time from a cull-sow operation in Wyoming that sells animals to pork giant Tyson. Several clues in the video, the video promotion and the history of HSUS should make it immediately obvious the strategic target of the group's indignation isn't the horrendously stupid acts of a barn worker caught trying to move a crippled sow by agonizingly bouncing her own two-plus hundredweights on the poor thing's back or another idiotically flinging baby pigs out of apparent workplace frustration. Those are but conveniently provided stage props for HSUS to attack the real evil in the video: The farm's use of the production practice singled out by name as second only in priority to laying hen battery cages--pig gestation crates.

The evil by association is masterfully executed, but HSUS hardly need have bothered. The game is already nearly over on gestation crates. McDonalds pretty well sealed their fate when it announced in a jointly written press release with HSUS in February it would order the suppliers of the 250 million pounds of pork it buys annually to move toward getting rid of crates. Smithfield and Cargill, responsible for at least 30 percent of all processed U.S. pork, have already knuckled under to the group's similar demand, as has Hormel. Others joining the ranks, according to HSUS director of supply chain initiatives Matthew Prescott:  Burger King, Wendy’s, Safeway, Winn Dixie, Quiznos, Red Robin, Subway, and Bon Appetit Management Company. In fact, with the sole exception of Dominos Pizza, no food company has actively opposed HSUS' demand to end the practice among their pork suppliers.

Yet despite those obvious signposts, the pork industry appears to be repeating the same historical mistake made by the egg layers. A decade ago Florida became the first state in the union to amend its state constitution to outlaw the confinement of sows in gestation crates. Four years later Arizona passed a similar ballot initiative. Rebecca Frye a campaign manager for Floridians for Humane Farms gave WorldNetDaily the motivation for this action: “We strongly believe that cruelty to animals is morally wrong – whether you’re talking about pets or farm animals – and gestation crates are one of the cruelest practices found on factory farms.”


'Pork Board has set off in desperate search of the same scientific support that betrayed the egg producers.'

To this day, I have yet to see a joint press release between a branded company and the National Pork Board, a staunch but bloodied defender of crates and one of the most vocal critics of Gregory for his deal with the devil.  I have yet to hear a single employee of the 78-person staff at National Pork Board explain how confining pregnant and lactating sows to crates is morally justifiable, even--dare we say it?--morally preferable. Instead, Pork Board, at the direction of its farmer delegate board, has set off in desperate search of the same scientific support that betrayed Gregory and the United Egg Producers. And even when the board musters the courage to venture up to the edge of the moral chasm and peer in, it falls back to simply resolving that the Board devote its resources to making sure "... pork producers’ values align with public concern about animal well-being..." and that "consumers understand animal welfare and production sustainability issues regarding sow housing."

Welfare standards are no moral defense. They may be important diagnostic tools for a farmer, but they do nothing to answer the moral question: Is it right to confine an animal to a crate for long periods of time? Likewise, "aligning values" with consumers does not begin to get at the heart of what's right and what's wrong about how farmers handle animals, or people for that matter. "Values" is simply can't-we-all-get-along codespeak of the 1960s that so enrages those like cultural critic and author Allan Bloom 30 years ago. It's part of the new-age "...arsenal of terms for talking about nothing—caring, self-fulfillment, expanding consciousness, and so on, almost indefinitely," Bloom wrote. Though he wasn't writing of gestation crates, he describes the essence of the situation farmers find themselves in when they try to "align values" in order to maintain "social license to operate." Such everyone-is-right-because-no-one-is-wrong "drab diversity that teaches only that values are relative" does the opposite of forcing hard decisions about right and wrong. It simply gives them an opening not to make any moral decision at all.

And when given that opportunity, whose values will the average consumer align with, the National Pork Producers' carefully worded and legally vetted statement, or HSUS' visual and visceral images of the literal hand of the faceless moral savior, entering the belly of the beast in order to administer the healing waters from her fingertips to the suffering, the lame, the forgotten? That, my friends, is what an effective appeal to ethos dressed in the garb of pathos, wrapped in the veil of logos looks like.



Presented with that compelling, masterfully crafted, three-stranded Aristotelean argument, how can any pork farmer shamelessly agree with NPPC's whistling past the graveyard statement: "We do not defend and will not accept mistreatment of animals." Impossible. In the vacuum of no moral-based argument from pork farmers, HSUS as co-opting moral agent has successfully defined gestation crates as unbearably cruel, pork farmers condone gestation crates; ergo, pork farmers accept mistreatment of their animals. Until Pork Board can successfully un-define HSUS' moral definition, all other defenses are gone by the wayside. And the statement makes the farmers it serves appear to be lying, to boot. Game, set and match, HSUS.

Blinded by science
scientificfarmer211913I trust and hope that readers who believe in the use of gestation crates and hen cages do not take this as celebration on my part of HSUS victory. Nor do I argue that we concede the fight. I suggest we fight back--now, hard and morally.

What HSUS clearly recognizes about science--a fact agriculture refuses to acknowledge--is that most people don’t understand science. According to a Harris Interactive poll in 2008, over three-quarters of Americans don’t see themselves as science savvy (and I would argue 15 percent or more fudged on their response). Yet you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who defends agriculture arguing that scientific illiteracy means we should not be educating consumers on the science of agriculture. Yet most people are equally functionally illiterate in the language of morality, of right and wrong. And somehow, that sad reality of moral illiteracy is taken by agriculture as reason not to enter the moral argument.

In fact, it calls for just the opposite. It argues for us to get on with the business of morally educating ourselves first, and then our consumers. Absent that moral education, they are as easily manipulated by cheap morality plays as they are by junk science.

Some would say that HSUS and others have effectively wrestled away the moral agency of the farmer. I don't believe that. But agriculture seems all too willing to give it away without a fight, without any attempt to educate themselves or their consumers in the morality of these issues, either because they don’t realize or don’t care they are locked in a moral debate. Imagine, the farmer originally pegged to run our country, whom Jefferson said is “our most valuable citizen” and “God’s chosen people” has now given away his moral agency to another!

The true tragedy for farmers is not the loss of individual farm management practices and tools like battery cages and gestation crates. Their loss will hurt, I recognize. Food will be more expensive; farming will be exported to less restrictive countries. But that's not the biggest cost agriculture faces. From Jefferson to Emerson, Burns to Butz, American culture has always recognized the moral, Judeo-Christian ethic woven into the fabric of the U.S. farmer. HSUS is accusing the U.S. farmer and agricultural companies of the most monstrous injustices, contradicting not only proper care of animals but the sacred principles farmers have always strived to live by. The day that gestation crates and battery cages disappear from barns will be only the beginning. The attack will only pivot to the next question of morality deemed unacceptably old fashioned by HSUS and its moral allies. The time is now for some deep soul searching in the farms and fields, the feedlots and feed mills, the genetically modified seed labs and pesticide plants, the fertilizer applicators and growth-promotant distributors, the antibiotic makers, packers, immigrant employers, CRP recipients, and more. Those who rely on Sola Scientia, that science alone will win the debate, risk all. It's time to begin building your ethical defense. It's time to do it today!



0 # Paul Betancourt 2012-08-31 19:40
There is an implied social contract. If consumers are going to demand producers increase their costs to meet certain standards then we should support these producers instead of turning and buying food from overseas just because of cheaper cost.

Paul Betancourt
Farmer in California
-3 # Christopher Theodore 2013-11-03 22:44
My impression is that you use iconography and language from American farming that in truth has nothing to do with the reality of American farming today. Why there is growing moral force to reform farming is not because of ignorance, as endeavor to suggest but because of the truth of what farming has become. It has become a business in which a few mega companies operate without little regard for the values that most of America cherishes, such as fairness, kindness and accountability. Your writing is devoid of the very moral force that is at the heart of growing demand to reform farming-- truth.

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