Editor’s Take: The court of public opinion

It could be a case of be careful what you wish for.

In recent days, many in the Manitoba agriculture sector have been lauding the passage of two pieces of provincial legislation intended to protect farm operations.

There’s the enhanced trespassing laws that remove the requirement to confront trespassers and limit liability if a trespasser is injured on your property. Few have found any basis to quibble with those changes.

But the one that’s much more likely to stir future controversy is Bill 62, which enhanced biosecurity measures, and is being criticized as an ‘ag-gag’ law by opponents.

It’s hardly surprising that animal rights activists don’t like the bill. It will hamper their activities, and they say it’s overly broad and is a thinly veiled attempt to muzzle them.

A farmer might look at their dislike of the bill and think ‘good.’ But farmers also need to realize that these sorts of legal protections come at a cost that’s measured in lost trust, according to some recent research.

As our Geralyn Wichers reports in our front-page story of the June 17 Co-operator, some British Columbia-based researchers looked at how these sorts of laws changed public perception of animal agriculture.

What they found should give the industry pause for reflection. They looked at the situation in the U.S., where these sorts of laws were first proposed and instituted. They found that few knew about them, but once they learned about them, they didn’t like them much.

The most troubling aspect of the study was that it seemed to undermine the natural trust most citizens have in farmers, and that loss of support crossed a lot of lines. It made city dwellers and rural residents wonder what farmers were trying to hide. It converted small ‘c’ conservative and liberal alike to skeptical and untrusting.

The basic problem seemed to be a form of the Streisand effect. That refers to the entertainer’s legal attempt to suppress a photograph of her home in Malibu, California, which had the unintended consequence of publicizing the very information she sought to suppress.

Boiled down, most of the survey subjects hadn’t given the issue of livestock production much thought, and were somewhat sympathetic to farmers and skeptical of the motivations of the protesters. But once the concept of an ‘ag-gag’ law was thrown into the mix, the question became, ‘What are farmers trying to hide?’

The second piece of the puzzle is the way these laws can also suddenly lend activists a megaphone to amplify their claims.

In the same story, Wichers spoke to a legal scholar who noted that the laws have a documented history of doing “… more harm than good… ” to agriculture in the end.

Jodi Lazare, who teaches law at Dalhousie University, said loss of transparency was an issue, but so was the publicity that could come from any legal challenges resulting in the laws.

Essentially these laws can convert protesters from being nuisances at the side of a road, and make them into legal participants who convert the courts into a platform to promote their ideas to the general public by way of the media.

Suddenly consumers, the majority of whom choose to eat meat, that had been driving by protesters and wondering, ‘What are these nuts up to?’ will be fed their views on the evening news. More might wonder if there’s something to it, since the agriculture sector seems to want to silence them.

Whether the laws survive what seems like an inevitable legal challenge is unclear. The first battle is going to be in Ontario, where animal rights groups have already begun the process. Some legal experts say the various laws have some clear-cut constitutional problems. Others say that the issues amount to a bit of fiddling around the edges, but the laws themselves will stand.

What is clear is that, if it’s misplayed by the sector, even a victory might eventually feel like defeat.

Agriculture protection laws are an attempt to deal with the pressing need for biosecurity in the face of unwanted visitors proactively. But they’re only half of the solution. The industry must be proactive on another front.

They’re going to have to be militantly transparent in their operations, to stave off any whiff of seeking to hide things from the public.

They’re going to have to engage in a dialogue — not a monologue — about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and why it’s the right thing to do.

As part of that dialogue, they’ve got to be willing to listen to their critics, and even prepared to make changes to address at least some of their concerns.

If they’re not able to pivot and take the PR offensive, there’s little doubt that their critics will.

Animal rights groups are increasingly well funded and sophisticated and they’ve learned a thing or two over the years about playing this game.

In a world with burgeoning protein options, animal agriculture needs to get this response right.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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