Animal farming: A moral vocation

Animal farming: A moral vocation

MANY in the swine industry, including myself, have experienced a champion who believed in them and paved the way for them to follow their dream. This is a testimony to the passion our industry has for people and pigs, along with a concern for feeding the masses.

Still, in a new and cynical way, these qualities have been called into question recently by activist groups, as Rick Berman states, in creating "common knowledge myths" about who we are and the ethical justification for pig farming.

This reality was verified at a private meeting I attended at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pa. The topic was the ethics of animal agriculture. The panel consisted of a well-known philosophy professor, animal scientists and the chief executive of a major U.S. animal activist group. I was the pig farmer in the group, and there also was a dairy farmer from Pennsylvania.

Basically, the activists have identified a weak spot in agriculture's position on animal production, and their attack has shifted from science to morality. As I visited with colleagues at this meeting, it became clear that we do not understand this tactic. In my humble opinion, the activists are winning arguments with untruths by creating these "common knowledge myths" that have affected our business greatly.

Kevin Murphy said it best in his blog post, "Where Have You Gone, Moral Champion?"

"So, while agriculture sits nestled in the warmth of its scientific bunker, distracted and infuriated by HSUS (The Humane Society of the United States) arguments based on emotion, HSUS suddenly flanks and moves to the high ground of morality," Murphy wrote. "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 ... 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."

We farmers are engaged in a noble and honorable vocation. Most of the top 25 systems in the U.S. are family farms that have grown from humble beginnings and now have an impact on the global food supply in astonishing ways. It is time for us, as an industry, to take the offensive and communicate the moral justification for what we do. Three concepts come to mind.

* Power of vocation. In his landmark book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah identifies what is corroding our culture as primarily "expressive individualism." We see this in the attack on animal agriculture and the concocted ethic that activists bring to the argument.

He states that "to make a real difference," there would have to be "a re-appropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one's own advancement."

Many of us have chosen our vocation out of a sense of calling in response to something bigger than ourselves and for the greater good of mankind. That needs to be the "common knowledge" message when people think of farmers.

* Power of transparency. Transparency builds trust, and if we believe that our vocation is noble and good, we will not be afraid to show it to the public.

The Dairy Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms began a wonderful public tour of dairy farming in 2004. Since the doors opened at The Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms, more than 60,000 people have visited the farm to see pigs. The overwhelming response has been positive. In fact, 99% of the people walk away with a confidence that pig farmers are doing the right thing.

In his presentation at the Leman Swine Conference, Paul McKellips said the social demographic most opposed to animal farming and animal testing is women ages 24-55 who are liberal in their politics, well-educated and urban dwelling. When shown the outcomes of animal testing for medical cures for breast cancer and other diseases, however, 80% change their view from negative to positive regarding animal testing.

The majority of guests to The Pig Adventure fall into this social demographic, and transparency is having the same effect with respect to pig farming.

* Necessity of human exceptionalism. Our vocation requires us to breed, feed and kill animals. What gives us the permission or right to do so? What makes us different from an animal? We, as an industry, need to answer these questions in conjunction with science. The stakes are high, and the need for a cogent moral justification for animal protein has never been greater; human life ultimately depends on it.

What makes humans special? All major faiths promote the teaching that humans have greater significance than animals. Nowhere is it clarified greater than in the Holy Scriptures: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth'" (Genesis 1:26).

In his book A Rat Is a Pig Is a Boy, Wesley Smith puts it this way when arguing from the point of an evolutionist perspective: "The idea that human beings stand at the pinnacle of moral hierarchy of life should be — and once was — uncontroversial. After all, what other species in the history of life has attained the wondrous capacities of human beings? What other species transcended the tooth-and-claw world of naked natural selection to the point, at least to some degree, we now control nature rather than being controlled by it?"

The fight has moved beyond science and economics, and our activist opponents have succeeded in finding our weakness and exploiting it. The use of ballot initiatives and "common knowledge" myths to pass legislation that harms animal care and production for the pig industry are bad enough and, ultimately will take food from the poor. This is a hard thing that many of us are uncomfortable talking and thinking about, but we must do the hard thing.

My partner often says to me, "Don't bring me problems; bring me solutions." What is the hard thing we must do?

* Allocate budget resources. We need to aggressively engage consultants who can craft moral and philosophical messages that resonate outside of our industry. We are great at revving up the troops at producer meetings regarding science and production. What we need are consultants who can write and engage the general public on the philosophical, religious and moral dimensions and legitimacy of animal agriculture.

* Be transparent — for the reasons mentioned above.

* Collaborate with academia in crafting the message of moral legitimacy of animal agriculture. This should be a key element in the curriculum of every animal agriculture degree.

My fear is that by failing to see how the battle is fought, we may sacrifice the future of our industry. My hope is that, as an industry, we can seize the opportunity for communicating our noble identity and service to a public that needs to hear this message and is willing to listen.

*Jonathon Hoek is vice president of pig production at Belstra Milling Co. Inc.

Volume:85 Issue:50

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.