*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]
ANIMAL agriculture enthusiasts spent a great deal of digital ink last week discussing multimedia mogul Oprah Winfrey's episode dedicated to how meat is processed and her subsequent "vegan challenge."
Let us establish two key facts. First, I did not watch the show. Second (and the root cause of fact number one), I am not a fan of Winfrey.
Winfrey challenged her crew -- 378 people in total -- to eat a vegan diet for a week. The crew members were encouraged to abandon any animal-derived protein at the behest of author and vegan activist Kathy Freston.
Here is the shocker of the day: I am in no way opposed to this latest affront to animal agriculture and my preferred diet of mass quantities of lean, animal-derived protein.
When I first heard about Winfrey's vegan stunt, my natural response included those little hairs on the back of my neck standing straight up. I am not a fan of hers and have been openly skeptical of her motives and cult-like following since the Texas beef debacle more than a decade ago. So, why am I now ambivalent to her shenanigans?
Two reasons: First, while I admit that Winfrey has an extremely large and passionate following, most people are naturally geared toward a diet and lifestyle involving animal proteins. Look at the developing world: As incomes increase, people naturally desire "better food." In terms of energy and nutrient density, it is extremely difficult to top lean beef, pork, poultry and fish.
The second reason I am somewhat dismissive of this escapade is that I think one of our greatest weaknesses as a food-producing nation is our pride and ego. We are extremely proud of our agricultural heritage, and rightfully so. As farmers, ranchers or food processors, we tend to develop a bit of a hero complex. How many of us (me included) have a bumper sticker that says something to the effect: "Had a good meal today? Thank a farmer."
On the other hand, have you ever seen a bumper sticker that says, "Drive a car today? Thank a union member." Perhaps you used a cell phone today and thought, "Gee, I need to thank the phone company for that outstanding reception."
I admit to more than a little sarcasm in the last paragraph. I, like you, am extremely proud that I grew up on a small farm and still own a herd of cows. My lifestyle and career would be much different had I not grown up with cattle and the responsibilities of farm life.
Having said that, if we allow ourselves to react viscerally every time a talking head like Winfrey suggests an alternative diet, we weaken our position in the minds of consumers. When we rear up and protest the mere suggestion of a diet without animal-based foods, we increase the odds that a consumer will say, "Wait a minute, maybe there's something to all this vegan propaganda."
Most of us know far too little about our bodies and our diet. Even then, we typically understand far less than we actually know. My personal belief, based on my own academic research and consultation with certified physical trainers, is that a diet without animal-based foods is incomplete at best and potentially dangerous.
With that in mind, we need to continue opening our farms and food processing facilities to consumer inquiry and even scrutiny. As Cargill proved in the Winfrey segment last week, increasing our level of transparency with consumers increases our credibility. That type of political capital pays dividends when facing sworn enemies of food animal production.
As a postscript, one of my closest friends is an Winfrey fan (there's no accounting for taste, I suppose), and I often tease her about being what I call a "closet vegetarian." When I heard about the episode last week, I expected her to lay on a torrent of commentary and criticism about my meat eating and producing ways.
On the contrary, largely because of Cargill's openness with the Winfrey team, my friend walked away with an extremely favorable impression of meat production. She was particularly impressed with the steps taken in beef harvest to keep the cattle calm and treat them humanely throughout the handling process. The level of knowledge and understanding she exhibited about beef processing after watching the segment was extremely impressive for a layman.
If one person walked away with a positive impression of meat production, how many of the millions of Winfrey fans did the same?