Social Movements Not Always Scientific, Producers Told

“They don’t really want to understand what’s going on.”


What do you do if people have concerns about agriculture that are not based on fact?

Dr. Terry Whiting served up that conundrum last week to a national egg producers conference in discussing how social movements can affect farming.

The answer to his question? Probably not much.

People will believe what they want to. Sometimes there’s not a whole lot you can do about it, said Whiting, a veterinarian and provincial manager for animal health and welfare.

“They just don’t want to know the truth. They don’t really want to understand what’s going on,” he said following his July 5 address to the National Egg Producer Conference.

Where does that leave the farmer? In a tough spot, Whiting admitted.

During a lively, opinionated talk, Whiting said societal trends are shifting. Things which once were largely unrestricted are now becoming regulated.

For example, smoking tobacco, which used to occur just about anywhere, is strictly curtailed today.

And using animals for food and entertainment, which once had few restrictions, is coming under intense pressure, Whiting said.

The reason is moralization – attributing moral qualities to things or activities that were previously morally neutral, he said. In other words, converting preferences into values.

Once you’ve moralized a certain behaviour, it becomes amenable to legislative action, such as banning smoking in the workplace.

The key to moralization is being able to demonstrate the risk of injury to other humans (again, smoking), said Whiting.

But how do you moralize animal husbandry, where the link with direct human injury is weak at best?

This is where moralization requires varying justifications from a diverse range of groups, Whiting said.

For example, there are so-called ethical vegetarians, representing a diffuse social movement fuelled by personal feelings but no political connections.

On the other hand, there are “social-cause activist groups” – highly focused movements using the direct approach to bring about change.

Whiting said these groups see lobbying government as ineffective because it takes too long. Instead, they go directly to manufacturers and scare them into making changes (e. g., Burger King’s animal welfare policies).

Most social movements use science to bolster their arguments. But there’s science and there’s science, Whiting told his audience.

He defined real science as the systematic approach of challenging what we believe to be true with evidence collected from the real world.

Then there’s junk science, which Whiting called a systematic approach of compiling anecdotal information to support your personal bias.

There are also “ologies” (criminology, sociology) which claim scientific authority. And there are “isms” (Marxism), which are faith beliefs, not science, Whiting said.

All of these become strands in a thread leading ultimately toward legislative change, he said.

You start with things that are not as you feel they should be (ethics), convert them to an “ology” (science), then to an “ism” (faith) and finally into legislation (dogma). Once something becomes enshrined in law, it’s very difficult to reverse, Whiting said.

That’s the way livestock production has gone in the last 20 years – from a largely unregulated industry to one in which activities are permitted but regulated, he said.

And a lot of that is due to the moralization of things that were once considered morally neutral (pesticides, animal husbandry, etc.).

Whiting later said surveys show the majority of shoppers don’t particularly care how their food was raised; they just want a low price.

However, social change is often achieved by minorities, he added.

As an example, he cited Prohibition, which most people really didn’t want. But it was driven by a relatively small, highly focused and politically effective movement. [email protected]

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