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Even the Rational Folk Can Be Taken In PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Tuesday, 02 August 2005
AFF Sentinel Vol.2, #37

George Will Falls for Scully's Angst

Time, attention and money spent on turf wars cuts into one of the reasons we have organizations in the first place - to provide both offense and defense for the industry's long-term prosperity.

A perfect example could be Matthew Scully's book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy. Because Scully is a conservative and a former presidential speechwriter, the essay he wrote called, "Fear Factories: The Case for Compassionate Conservatism - for Animals," in Patrick Buchanan's magazine The American Conservative caught the eye of conservative columnist George Will. The article disturbed Will enough that he read Scully's book.

The result was a misguided Newsweek column from a disturbed - but misinformed - Will. He also told readers to view photos on Farm Sanctuary's web site. Part of an attack on all species of mainstream farm production, the beef photos show mostly downer cattle and the veal ones show outdated veal production methods - not ranch scenes or even representative feedlot situations. Do- gooders often lump all of production agriculture together and attempt to force emotional reactions, legislation and regulations on everyone.

The following are excerpts from the letter the AFF sent to Newsweek's Letters to the Editors column:

As a fan of George Will's ability to consider facts, apply rational thinking and recognize emotion for what it is and not substitute emotion for reasoning, I was very disappointed in his "The Last Word" column of July 18. Matthew Scully may be a great writer and a good conservative speechwriter but it appears both he and Will are out of their area of expertise when analyzing animal agriculture.

To use those photos as typical U.S. agriculture reminds me of the Communists years ago taking photos of the drunks and derelicts outside our homeless shelters and addicts in the ghetto streets and telling Soviet citizens how much better off they were than the typical American.

Feedlots follow a standard of allowing 100 to 200 square feet of space per animal - but I can assure you the animals will be laying much closer than that density by choice, leaving open spaces at other corners of the pen, responding to their herding and protective instincts.

By comparison, would Scully consider outlawing the inhumane stacking of thousands of people in small rooms 15 or 20 stories in the air and calling them apartment buildings or college dorms?

Scully and Will fall into the trap of well-meaning people who have not been around animals in a production agriculture setting enough to understand how animal sensitivities differ from ours. Give a cow a windbreak, enough feed and a water source and she can not only survive but thrive in a North Dakota winter... That is a totally different level of sensitivity than humans could exhibit outdoors with no clothes under the same conditions.

Since science has not yet learned how to quantitatively measure sensitivity and pain, we must go by empirical observation. Things like weight gain, increases in size and sufficient nutrition and energy in excess of maintenance for reproduction are signs that an animal's nutrition and behavior needs are being met -- which includes the proximity of like animals to be comfortable.

Will also refers to Scully's call for elemental animal "husbandry" and veterinary ethics standards to be applied to "corporate" farmers. Animal science is taught in land grant colleges across the U.S. and carried back to both family, corporate family and corporate farms across the country. In fact, the larger the operation - corporate or not - the more likely that both specialist nutrition consultants and veterinary consultants are on staff to add to farmers' efforts to make the animal's world as good as it gets.

People can read Scully's book, but they are not going to learn much about U.S. production agriculture. They will learn more about projecting human feelings, needs and concerns on animals that would have no idea what we were talking about - if they possessed the ability to talk, communicate concepts or consider rationale.

I agree with Scully that "reason and morality" must guide us in how we treat animals. But we must use that reason to make sure we truly understand both animals and humans - and grasp the difference.

I respectfully suggest Mr. Will research the facts and apply his considerable reasoning power to evaluating the world beyond extremist web sites featuring atypical accidents and books by authors knowledgeable in areas other than the subject of the book.

There were other issues raised in Will's column we didn't even discuss in the letter. Scully raises the issue of animals' "emotional capacities," which to me is typical of people unfamiliar with animals equating instinctive behavior with "emotional" feelings.

Scully contends, and Will seems to agree, that "animal suffering on a vast scale is a serious issue of public policy." And they appear to take for granted that "cruelty to livestock by the billions" is a fact.

I think these kinds of assumptions are due to a mistake people make of putting themselves - with the mind and emotions only humans possess - into the situation of a pig or a chicken or a cow. That is no more valid in real life than the children's stories people make up about animals in a human-like world. Production agriculture is going to have to get people to understand that only humans are humans. Animals are living creatures deserving our care and the respect for life up to the level animals deserve. But animals are not humans. It's something so basic, so obvious, yet something some people just unintentionally ignore or blur - and others exploit and play upon.

Animal agriculture in general, and the more intensely confined species in particular, are going to have to figure out how to deal with people claiming the moral right to "reform" production agriculture. What gives Scully and Will the expertise to fix this perceived problem? Like do-gooders sometimes do, they skip over their lack of expertise and grasp of the facts to the moral "imperative" they feel to do something. It approach is common for liberal activists, less so for conservatives.

The bottom line: even rational, conservative thinkers who would seldom be taken in by politicians spouting reasonable-sounding arguments based on false assumptions can be taken in about animals. Production agriculture is one of those things the American public is probably conflicted about. Many are susceptible to the notion some of the organic and "natural" organizations foster, that the kinds of farms our grandparents ran - now mostly existing only in memory - are the only "right" way to raise food.

One of the biggest battles for American agriculture over the next decade will be for the hearts and minds of our customers, as well as their pocketbook. The education of consumers about what food production is really like and what farm and ranch families are like is part of that story. But the difference between animals and humans and what proper management of animals is also a key issue. Just as most people "eat" a dish first with their eyes and nose, before they actually eat it, so also will we have to work to make sure people's hearts and minds are with us, so their stomachs will follow.

George Will's "The Last Word" column appeared in the July 18, 2005 issue of Newsweek, page 66.

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 24 June 2006 )
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