I’ve had a couple of conversations with producers recently about criticism of the beef industry in urban media and public perceptions of beef production. I’m also on a virtual ag media panel for the Advancing Women in Ag conference slated for Nov. 24 to 25, and one of the questions we were asked to cover is how ag women can connect with the non-farming public.
I don’t see my role, or the role of Canadian Cattlemen magazine in general, as advocating for the industry to the public — we are here to inform you, not to persuade consumers. However, for the record, I do believe that beef producers in general are doing a bang-up job of protecting natural landscapes. Part of that belief is bolstered by reading and hearing about the work undertaken by producers across the country, and their growing partnerships with environmental organizations. But it’s rooted in my experience growing up on a cow-calf operation, and time spent roaming pastures from the northern Great Plains to the Parkland to the Boreal regions, and even some foothills.
Unfortunately, we know public perception is often just the opposite. In late September, a producer texted me several articles and opinion pieces that included criticisms of the beef industry’s environmental record. Some of the articles did include quotes from people in agriculture, but it wasn’t cheerful reading.
Another producer I chatted with this fall wondered about suing media outlets that publish misinformation. It’s a suggestion I’ve heard from time to time. In Canada, it is possible to sue media for libel, but it’s not super easy and likely to be very expensive. Journalists have some protection as long as the information is of public interest and they’ve tried to verify it. The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has a concise, helpful article titled “Defamation, libel and slander: What are my rights to free expression?” You can find it online by searching “defamation” on their website.
Even if there was a viable case, I’m not sure suing a journalist or media outlet would improve the public’s perception of the beef industry. Monsanto certainly didn’t score any points suing the late Percy Schmeiser for a patent violation after Roundup Ready canola was found in his field in the ’90s. That lawsuit basically turned Schmeiser into a hero for the anti-GMO movement and Monsanto into the corporate villain.
I think the industry is better off viewing journalists as potential allies against misinformation. I’m not claiming that media culture is perfect or that journalists don’t make mistakes. But the credo of the profession is to report in a fair, balanced way, so unless it’s an opinion piece, the article should include perspectives from the livestock industry and/or its supporters along with its detractors. If there’s an issue with a piece and it seems likely to influence many people, forward it to one of the beef organizations. Or send a note yourself. Be direct but polite about the correction. You can suggest experts to contact for future stories or a followup. You can also offer to write an opinion piece or do an interview yourself, if you’re comfortable with that.
It’s also worth noting that there are examples of balanced reporting and positive opinion pieces about the beef industry. It’s probably worth forwarding your appreciation of and suggestions for sources and future story ideas to these outfits, too.
On the reasonably balanced side, The Globe and Mail ran a piece this fall on regenerative ag titled “Want a more sustainable food system? Focus on better dirt.” It mentions the role of cattle in a regenerative system. On the outright glowing side we have “Meet the Canadian farmers fighting climate change,” published by The Narwhal, and “Canadian ranchers protect native grasslands and species at risk,” published by Canadian Geographic. The morning I wrote this (Oct. 21), I read an opinion piece on CBC Saskatchewan’s website penned by rancher Adrienne Ivey titled “Rural issues matter in this Saskatchewan election, no matter where you live.”
Some producers have found success reaching out on social media. We ran a piece in the Sept. 28 issue, written by Tara Mulhern Davidson, that shared insights from two producers who do this well (“Connecting farms, facts and feelings through storytelling”). I don’t see much point in arguing with the animal rights activists, but there are plenty more people in the middle. One suggestion is to start with your own non-ag interests; if you’re a runner, join an online running group. Or if you like cooking, find a group of cooks online. As we’ll all be spending more time at home this winter, it’s not a bad time to try this out. Just avoid non sequiturs — share your ag experience only when it’s a natural fit for the discussion.
I still think there is a lot to gain by leaning into a relationship with media outlets. An article in the Globe and Mail still carries more credibility than a random Facebook post, and there seems to be growing interest in agriculture in this country. With some patience, tolerance for other opinions and tenacity, I think the beef industry and its supporters could shift the current narrative. It’s certainly worth trying, as it beats the alternatives.