Bruce Vincent, a Montana logger turned activist, recently warned the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association leadership team that agriculture may very well become the next cultural piata for the conflict industry. Through his animated and at times emotional address, he prevailed on professional groups working with agriculture to “show up.”
Vincent talked at length how the U.S. lumber industry had relinquished its social license to operate because they lost important battles to well funded, professional litigants he called the “conflict industry.”
“First and foremost,” Vincent said, “we recognized too late that as an industry we were fighting, not leading. What we gained in judicial battles we lost in the court of public opinion. The forest industry finally realized they were the third ring in a three-ring circus and rather than furthering their own cause they were driving the business of detractors.”
Vincent went on to say, “It was our foresters, the trained professionals in our industry, that we finally put on stage. People who could tell people the truth about things they were worried about in a language they understood. The public needs to know the whole story, warts and all. None of us are perfect.” In his view, the veterinary profession as a partner in agriculture must become a credible and important part of telling the story.
“You guys are part of agriculture and the conservation industry,” he said.
Vincent used examples of how the conflict industry represented by organizations like Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) became businesses with multi-million dollar budgets, slick promotion and communication campaigns and a wellspring of legal resources. Intolerance shifted the intent of important pieces of legislation on things like water quality and wildlife from common sense and manageable to the fringe of environmental insanity. In his opinion, provisions that spilled from these issues put logging out of business.
Vincent feels strongly that agriculture is next in the crosshairs. “Animal welfare, water quality and food safety are about to become the next social piatas. Selling stewardship doesn’t make money for the confl ict industry; it takes fear. Agriculture must be prepared to engage fully. Don’t make the same mistakes we did,” he said.
For those bent on creating conflict, the 20-second sound bite with contrasting visuals becomes a tool to conscript the imagination of the uniformed. Big Oil represented by migratory birds bobbing in tailing ponds stands in repulsive contrast to children playing peacefully in sculpted gardens; the panorama of snow-capped mountains and verdant valleys are counterpoints to erosion, presented as the outcome of grazing; clear-cut mountainsides contrasted sharply with stands of old-growth forest cloaked in moss. People are asked to make rational decisions about the far-flung options of “destroy or preserve” without rational debate. Oftentimes, protecting the last best places without regard for the last best people is forgotten when visions collide.
Humans are in a quandary according to Vincent. They want readily accessible, safe, cheap food, but take issue with how it is produce. People want to drive cars, but resist crushing rocks and moving dirt to build roads. Everyone has a computer, yet many resist expanding the ability to generate power. It isn’t simply a pendulum finding middle ground after the big swing because no one knows anymore where middle ground resides.
It is very difficult for the public, most far removed from agriculture, to make informed decisions in a knowledge vacuum. What expectations of choice can be made when many consumers believe “organic” is good yet people like Dennis Avery, director of the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute and editor of GLOBAL FOOD QUARTERLY crusades against organic agriculture, claiming modern industrial agriculture and biotechnology will save the world from starvation and disaster. What good can come of criticism over the use of antibiotics in agriculture when industry is spurned on one hand for using them yet antimicrobial resistance is probably more closely aligned with imprudent use of antimicrobials in humans? While the livestock industry thrives on stewardship rendered in the care of animals, the consuming public must square that with headlines such as the largest recall of meat in American history in 2008 of more than140 million pounds of frozen ground beef processed by Hallmark Meat Packing Corporation and supplied to Westland Meat Company.
Vincent fuels his personal campaign as an activist on three basic truths: First, he fervently believes democracy works, but democracy can’t be a spectator sport. He encourages people to run for office and support those that do. Second, people lead and leaders follow. Leaders need to know what associations and agriculture want, in a language that is understood. Third, show up and weigh in. Write a letter to the editor rather than go home and “kick the dog” when issues arise. Activism needs to be a line item in all our personal business plans.
Vincent’s pet project was an initiative called Provider Pals, a national program with a mission to build understanding between youth and the people who provide raw materials for products found on store shelves. The program, awarded a Preserve America Presidential Award in 2009, encourages middle school classrooms to adopt resource workers such as loggers and ranchers and supplement that experience with urban/rural youth exchange programs.
Provider Pals is Bruce Vincent’s way of showing up.