WASHINGTON, D.C. — Old conversations about animal welfare and diets were examined in new ways with experts from across the animal agriculture industry gathered earlier this month in the nation’s capital for the Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit.
The 17th annual conference saw attendees from all areas of animal agriculture, from fisheries to supermarkets. The two-day event focused on new information about new and old topics, and much of the discussion around animal welfare involved providing information to consumers and a new research report that argues the extreme activists are terrorists.
A report released in 2014 concluded that activists releasing animals on farms isn't eco-terrorism, but Nicole Drumhiller, program director with Intelligence Studies at American Military University, said the study was incomplete. For one thing, researchers didn't interview any of the victims.
When Jason Roesler, director of public affairs at Fur Commission USA, asked Drumhiller for help after his minks were released, she found other victims and sent surveys.
Of the 86 returned, about half of the respondents said they lived within a mile of their businesses. About half had been threatened with something other than death, had property vandalized and had property damage. Cyber-attacks, death threats and raids were also common for about 25 percent of respondents.
About 60 percent were worried about being the victim of terrorism as a result of being associated with fur, Drumhiller said.
The main goal of the activists was to harass, scare and change the behavior of the families involved in fur, she said, adding this is the definition of “terrorism.”
Other speakers last week reported that meat would not be taken off the table of the American family anytime soon. For the last 20 years, the number of people identifying as vegan or vegetarian has remained about the same.
But companies promoting veganism and vegetarianism have increased marketing campaigns. Leah McGrath, a registered dietitian, and Amy Myrdal Miller, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder/president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting, discussed the new terms being used and tried to define them.
Some terms – like plant-based or meat-free – may be used instead of vegan because some people, like former President Bill Clinton (who reportedly still eats seafood) and celebrities, don't want to be associated with extreme activists, McGrath said.
About 86 percent of vegetarians do start eating meat again, she said, usually for the same reason they stopped. Issues might involve health or the environment, that cooking skills have improved, a social stigma – or bacon.
“We're already doing plant-forward menus as a society. We just have to think about it more,” Miller noted.
Part of the reason more plant-based meals are being consumed is because people are trying different ethnic foods that may not have much meat in the diet, she explained. Some typical “meat” foods, like burgers, are adding plants to the meat.
For instance, studies show blending mushrooms into a beef burger improve the taste, texture and smell. When marketing the blended burger, companies tend to focus on the better taste and better for health than on the mushrooms added, she said.
McGrath said the loudest voices against meat in a crowd aren't likely a livestock farmer's customer. Farmers should try to ignore those voices and focus on the customers, and on ways to collaborate with other meat proteins, plants, seeds and nut farmers – making them allies, not competitors.
“It's not about one part of the plant, it's about the whole plate, a balanced plate,” she added.
Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of communications for Animal Agriculture Alliance, said the conference was the biggest yet and everyone attending reported they enjoyed the speakers.
“There have been a lot of these issues simmering in animal agriculture for several years. Discussions around antibiotic use aren't new, discussions around animal welfare certainly aren't new ... There is increased consumer questions, increased interest in what we do and how we do it and what food is available,” she said.
The summit was a chance for stakeholders in the industry to learn about the issues, how other sections of animal ag might be handling issues and how to increase consumer awareness.
“All our different industries are at a different point in dealing with these. We can all learn from one another, get best practices, get resources, and that’s why it’s so important to keep those lines of communication open,” Thompson-Weeman said.
Some videos from the conference will be made available on the website at www.animalagalliance.org