Against the breathtaking backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, I am practicing how to kill cattle. Unfortunately, I’m a terrible shot. This much is evident from my target practice sheets, with their undeniable lack of bullet holes.
When I posted this same picture to Facebook, I got an immediate and incredulous response, particularly from friends who had known me in high school and college. Why was I shooting cattle? Why was I upset about missing? How could I – former vegetarian and European history major – be shooting a gun?
To me, the entire exchange was a perfect microcosm of a much larger cultural schism between those who understand the realities of livestock production, and those who don’t. These realities can be jarring for people whose only contact with livestock comes in the form of a plastic-wrapped hamburger patty. For such consumers, the blood, death, feces and carcasses that fill media images capture the attention and prompt the imagination to run wild in dark places. If this is your only window into livestock production, then I understand how you may come to feel negatively towards the meat industry.
These dynamics, however, place the meat industry in a very difficult position. At the same time that consumers are clamoring for increased transparency about the source of their food, they themselves are becoming increasingly disconnected from the reality that their meat was once a living, breathing animal that was raised and killed to provide that same meat. The industry is thus in the unenviable position of explaining a sometimes distasteful and brutal process to a largely naïve consumer public.
There is so much room for misinterpretation within this endeavor. Which brings me back to target practice, and shooting a rifle in the Canadian Rockies. Did you know that scientists have used MRI machines and cadaver heads to identify the most humane way to euthanize cattle? The goal is to create sufficient concussive force such that the bullet hitting the forehead renders the animal unconscious before the bullet pierces the skull and continues its destructive path to the brainstem, where death occurs. It is a humane death, and one that I was attempting to execute in the Canadian Rockies. As a future veterinarian, I want to be able to euthanize an animal in the best way possible. If this necessitates use of a gun, then I will get over my distaste of guns and learn how to shoot humanely -- with the proper bullets, the proper angle and the proper distance from the animal. My greatest fear is not the gun, but failing to properly use the gun on a suffering animal.
And do you know what my second greatest fear is? It is the fear of being misunderstood by my vegan friends on the East Coast because of a picture that I post on Facebook. It is the fear of being dismissed out-of-hand by my food-producing Colorado friends because I did not grow up on a farm and therefore don’t have “street cred” (maybe more appropriately “cowboy cred”)! And at a fundamental level, it is the fear that the cultural divide in which I find myself will prevent us, as a society, from having any meaningful discussion about the future direction of livestock production. If this happens, everyone loses – consumers, producers, animals and the environment.
Because without well-intentioned dialogue between producers and consumers, we lose the immense value that comes from the constant back-and-forth of a system of checks and balances maintained by multiple parties with diverse motivations and concerns. Producers and consumers both play important roles within such a system. For instance, livestock producers have legitimate concerns about the animal welfare and food safety implications of consumer trends such as completely antibiotic-free meat. On the other hand, consumers play an important watchdog role, keeping the industry on its toes and helping to weed out bad actors and less-than-optimal production practices such as use of antibiotics purely for growth promotion. To lose this delicate interplay would be to lose an important driver of continuous optimization of the livestock production system. In the case of antibiotics, I fear that a lack of dialogue could move us to a place where I, as a veterinarian, will be unable to treat a sick animal with life-saving antibiotics. Or, alternatively, that producers will walk away from the table and stop funding voluntary, yet critical research on alternative management strategies to antibiotic use – an area that they are currently pursuing with the help of researchers at CSU. Without dialogue and trust between the food-consumers and food-producers, I fear that the pendulum will swing way too far towards one side or the other.
So let’s work together to prevent that from happening – as some people already are. For instance, outreach programs are cropping up across the US to engage urban youth in farming and agriculture. But understanding is a 2-way street, and it would be great to see “reverse outreach” programs as well, in which kids from rural backgrounds spend a summer in the city, or learn what it’s like to rely solely on public transportation or buy their weekly groceries from a corner store. As columnist Charles Blow wrote in a recent opinion piece, “It’s easy to demonize, or simply dismiss, people you don’t know or see…[and] nearly impossible to commiserate with the unseen and unknown.” What are some ideas that you have for bridging the divide between rural and urban communities?
As agriculture becomes increasingly segregated from most of society, it is my belief that we all have a responsibility to engage in the delicate and important dialogue between the food-producers and the food-consumers. I would challenge you to self-reflect on your relationship with agriculture. What kind of consumer are you? Do you want to know the story behind your steak, or do you prefer to eat it in “blissful ignorance”? Maybe you are a vegan and can contribute your unique experience to the conversation. Whatever your dietary choices, can you identify any preconceived ideas that you hold about “the other side”? What are some questions that you would like to ask someone who may have a very different viewpoint on agriculture? Do you think there are ways that we can get over our mutual mistrust? I would love to hear your thoughts!