“It’s not what the celebrities say that’s important, it really should be what the science says.”
– KARIN WITTENBERG
Brian Sterling wants Al Gore to love cows. But the cattleman and chair of the environmental committee for the Manitoba Cattle Producers’ Association also looked inward for some of the blame for the vilification of cattle.
He said while environmental activists like Gore and David Suzuki are quick to lay blame for greenhouse gas emissions on cattle, they jet around the world creating emissions of their own ignoring the benefits of cattle production.
He doesn’t think either of these men do this on purpose, but blames his industry a little for not launching its own positive campaign of information.
Speaking to the Manitoba Conservation District Association convention in Brandon, Sterling said it’s easy for people to get caught up in causes without having all the facts. All too often, celebrities perpetuate some of the myths.
“Celebrities hate cows,” he said, citing Oprah as someone who has continued to vilify the animals.
The problem is, the celebrities are “rich and famous,” and have money and publicity to lend to their cause.
Celebrities speak out because people will listen to them.
So what does Sterling suggest farmers can do to counter this negative publicity? “If we’re not rich and famous, we need to use science,” he said.
Espousing the message of the “New Way of Thinking,” theme of the conference, he put down the “old way” cattle farmers thought – “leave me alone, I’ve always done it this way, mind your own business.” That doesn’t work anymore. Sterling said cattle farmers need to embrace science as a friend and advocate.
He advised farmers to support and encourage research and to stay on top of what these scientists find out.
Giving a message of hope, he said there are plenty of Manitoba scientists working in the area of livestock research as it pertains to the environment.
As the science becomes harder to ignore, the celebrities will have to move on to other causes.
He warned that one of those causes is animal welfare. Because it has become a priority with customers farmers should be aware of this.
“We can no longer be oblivious to concerns of the consumers,” he said.
If consumers want to know that the animals were humanely raised and slaughtered, farmers must prove they can deliver.
Sterling previewed a small video produced to show cattle ranching in a good light. Images of kids, dogs, cattle and horses graced the screen. The positive image is to be the beginning of a new way of thinking.
Sterling said these images and sound science supporting deliverable net offset benefits will be key.
“We all need to work together,” he said.
He said concerns might eventually be overthrown by common sense.
Good intentions, bad results
Using an analogy about wild horses in Nevada, he said the horses were a problem for cattle producers as they devoured pastures leaving nothing for their cattle. As word got out that some farmers were shooting the wild horses, a campaign to “save the wild horses” was launched. People were only too happy to adopt a wild horse and move it from farmers’ fields to their own little acreage. Then they found out how quickly the horse ate all the grass available and soon needed to have purchased feed and hay.
“All of a sudden, gates were left open,” he said.
Sterling’s point? Many good intentions have disastrous results.
Karin Wittenberg, associate dean of agriculture and food science at the University of Manitoba said the MCPA is on the right track funding many research projects. She praised the fact that they have involved many different stakeholders.
“What that is providing is a good platform to get the stakeholders aware of what the potential linkages are, what the synergies could be in terms of policy or communication strategies and where there may be some trade-offs,” she said.
Strategies should be assessed in terms of long-term gain. Wittenberg said cattle producers would play an important role in these gains in the future.
She praised the industry for addressing issues they have walked away from in the past.
“What we do in the media tends to be very short term. But when we’re talking about the environment, we have to have a long-term view. It’s not what the celebrities say that’s important, it really should be what the science says.”
She said producers and scientists should also ensure that practices and knowledge are shared between provinces.