Stop being nice, animal ag activist says
A leading lobbyist thinks farmers and ranchers are "too nice" to those who oppose them and that more needs to be done to fight their influence.
"Our voice in Washington is shrinking and the unfortunate thing is we can't do a damn thing about it," said Steve Kopperud, senior vice president of Policy Directions, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm specializing in agriculture issues.
Kopperud, who for 18 years served as executive vice president of the American Feed Industry Association and is the founder of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, spoke at the recent Nebraska Governor's Ag Conference at Kearney.
"The problem we face is that of all critical industries we have, agriculture is being told to go backwards," Kopperud said. "Why is agriculture not being praised for embracing safe and modern technology for feeding not only this country but most of the known planet?"
The reality of U.S. and world food production is that two-thirds of North America cannot support crop production, Kopperud said, meaning a switch to a vegetable-based diet, as animal activists insist on, cannot be physically done.
"This is why we have animal agriculture. It is the single most efficient protein conversion unit we can come up with. That does not absolve us from professional, top-notch production practices."
Kopperud then described the opposition to those practices producers face from groups like the Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Consumers Union, the Center For Food Safety and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"These groups demand the abandonment of technology that keeps you profitable and on the farm. It is the loss of production equipment, loss of antibiotics to keep animals healthy, to biotechnology, to you name it, they believe that these things will tip the planet on its axis," Kopperud said.
Talk to everyone
Producers are weak against these groups, he said, because they are not talking to consumers, processors or retailers.
"We have lost relationships that in previous decades kept us all together and moving forward. We now have wedges and chasms between all parts of the food chain. That has to be addressed.
"What happens if we don't address them? We have to know that Nebraska is one of nine states that is not in serious meltdown. If we lose this battle, the success story ends."
Kopperud credited producers as part of an entire food chain in Nebraska driving the rest of the state's economic machine that is Nebraska, which is why returning livestock production to 1930s technology is a mistake.
"It is bizarre. What is ironic is that the groups I've listed and scads of others are the ones who have denounced consolidation in the agriculture sector," Kopperud said. "What they want is that consumers should only purchase from small producers, local producers meaning from under 100 miles of where you live. These people are called locovarians. It should also be natural and organic. I can guarantee you that if we switch to this system it will be hellaciously expensive."
Kopperud targeted much of his remarks against HSUS for its work toward initiating a U.S. horse slaughter ban and PETA for its work in developing tactics against food retailers and restaurant chains.
"The unintended consequences of this national campaign to ban horse slaughter waged by HSUS is that we now have over 110,000 neglected and abandoned horses in this country. There has not been one word from any activist organization as to how we will care for these animals," Kopperud said.
"HSUS, with their leader Wayne Pacelle, is a very savvy organization. They go up on the Hill and say, 'We're not like PETA. We're a dog and cat spay and adoption group. We advocate animal adoption, so don't listen to the crazies, we're the moderates. When you cut away the rhetoric, the agenda of HSUS is similar to that of PETA. There's an old axiom in the animal welfare industry. If you cannot regulate producers out of business, you can cost them out of business, make it so expensive to do business that they'll have to get out."
Kopperud blasted the Quizno's sandwich shop chain for its recent move to sell products from crate-free pork and free-range eggs as part of a green initiative, saying the firm caved in to pressure from PETA on these issues.
"You want to explain to Quizno's that free-roaming animals dump everywhere," Kopperud said. "You can't control it and it's an environmental hazard. How green is that? I bet what happened is that PETA walked into their offices and threatened them with pickets, negative ads and boycotts.
"McDonalds at least has grown up and takes action according to science, but that the world's largest fast food chain even responds to some of these idiots drives me nuts."
Stand with, in front
Kopperud said producers and their groups need to stand with those being attacked by activists.
"It should be the automatic response of any restaurant chain that gets a contact from these people to call the Farm Bureau or Cattlemen or Pork Producers. We have a moral obligation to stand with them and, in a sense, to stand in front of them," Kopperud said. "Nobody can battle activists like the men and women in this room. You do for a living every day what is being attacked."
But, he also said producer groups should abandon current practices of using celebrity endorsers for food products.
"When you do the polling, nobody comes out looking better than farmers and ranchers for production practices as well as quality and safety. Yet, we hire celebrities to sell product and spent not one lousy dime to put your face on the product and the process," Kopperud said. "The public wants to know their food doesn't come from some faceless, nameless factory."
Kopperud calls this a battle for hearts and minds.
"If you wish to stay in business, you need to get off your butt and start talking to consumers, politicians and the media. This is not about educating anyone," Kopperud said. "What they want and deserve is assurance that the people who produce food in this country are responsible and professional.
"They deserve that assurance and we're not giving it to them. When we are attacked, we normally call the PR agencies and ad agencies and make these yahoos go away."
It's understandable for food companies and restaurants to behave this way, because all they have is their brand. Producers need to work harder, he said.
"The only people they hear from is the other side. They see documentaries like Death on the Farm and Food, Inc. and wonder what's happening here with their food."
In the end, Kopperud said, producers need to put a face on the food on people's plates.
"We have to fight back. When Pacelle opens his mouth, you have to fight back," Kopperud said.
"I'm only good at scaring the crap out of you. You are good at telling your story. Tell it."
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.