I had the good fortune to be invited to participate at the 9th Boehringer Ingelheim Expert Forum on Farm Animal Well-Being, which was held in Montreal in the first week of June. Much of the content revolved around the cattle industry, which is only a small part of my research focus, but it was an interesting mix of talks from welfare scientists, veterinarians, social scientists and other stakeholders. It gave me chance to catch up with a few colleagues from within N America, and helped to remind me that applied ethologists are great people to hang out with, which was something I needed to be reminded of after a difficult couple of years in Indiana.
Anyway, the biggest take-home message for me was the continued disconnect between some within animal agriculture and the consumer. Again there was the message from some that we need to educate the public so that they fall in line with our way of thinking and suddenly become converted to the merits of what may be termed 'intensive' animal production. The way our farm animals are housed and managed is under scrutiny like never before, but to dismiss consumer concerns as the product of an ignorant society that needs education, does them and farming a disservice. A number of the talks and the discussion mentioned one of the all-too-frequent videos of shocking abuse filmed under-cover on a dairy farm in British Columbia, and there is still a reluctance in certain quarters to condemn the farm before condemning the film-maker and the film-maker's objectives or agenda.
Livestock industries are, I believe, working extremely hard to improve all aspects of animal care, health and welfare. But, there has to be total buy-in, there has to be transparency, there has to be third-party verification and there has to be self-reporting/self-policing. Consumer trust is so hard to build up, but so easy to destroy. The damage done to the whole industry by farms allowing such employee behavior and animal treatment is too great to allow blind eyes to be turned. Be proactive not inactive or reactive.