Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of strategic engagement for Animal Agriculture Alliance was the first speaker in the Colorado Livestock Association’s seven-part virtual meeting series.
Thompson-Weeman said responding to activist threats is one of the key actions to take in securing the future of your operation as well as protecting the reputation of the livestock industry. She said there is no shortage of opportunities to set straight the record when it comes to false narratives and accusations aimed at the livestock industry.
When the Animal Agriculture Alliance was established in 1987, it was partially in response to the growing need for defending the industry against activist action, even then. She did, however, say vegetarians and vegans make up about 5% of the U.S. population, a number that has been steady for decades. The percentage of those self-proclaimed vegetarians and vegans who are extremist activists is even lower. The majority of Americans fall somewhere between the portion of the population with a direct connection to animal agriculture and the small percentage of the population that believes animal agriculture ought not exist.
“Because (so many people) don’t have a direct connection to agriculture, activists are trying to fill in that blank with a version of what we do that none of us here would agree is accurate or depicts what we’re up to,” she said.
This is the same reason, she said, activists don’t present a full-fledged and upfront “go vegan” agenda, but rather capitalize on the public’s disconnect with animal agriculture to make agriculture appear nefarious. In addition to targeting end consumers, activist groups are targeting investors, policy makers, corporations, influential organizations, media, restaurants and food service brands are pressured with disinformation.
“The Alliance has group profiles on more than 175 different organizations that are targeting animal agriculture in one way or another,” she said. The groups are often connected to one another and are well-funded.
The Fence Post Magazine’s coverage of the PAUSE Act was highlighted in the presentation and Thompson-Weeman said she guarantees animal rights activists will again try to make their way to the ballot in Colorado. Ballot initiative states, including Colorado, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Montana, are often targeted by animal rights groups with legislative campaigns.
“You can get 51% of people to vote for just about anything,” she said. “We’ve seen that and experienced that.”
She said it is common to push anti-ag ballot measures in states to set a precedence, as well as to avoid the slow pace of the legislative process. For example, Florida was a target for gestation stall legislation. Not a state with a large pork industry, Florida agriculture groups didn’t vehemently fight it but it’s now setting a precedence for other states with pork industries.
“I know in Colorado, Colorado Livestock Association and other groups were very effective in mobilizing and coming together to respond to the PAUSE initiative earlier this year,” she said. “I can guarantee you it will be back in some form or fashion, and I’ve started to hear that a group called the Animal Legal Defense Fund is going to start running animal legislation in Colorado.”
Unfortunately, a common theme with activist groups is proposing something extreme and outlandish — like the PAUSE Act — that doesn’t pass but is followed by another proposal that, in comparison, looks more reasonable even if it’s still extreme and damaging.
Undercover video and photos taken by an activist posing as an employee remain a popular tactic. The footage, she said, is paired with dark lighting and dramatic music to make it look salacious, or the actions they witness are actually legitimate mistreatment. Rather than reporting that poor treatment to farm managers or owners, the activists allow it to continue in the name of capturing footage.
Drone and “frontline surveillance” to monitor agriculture operations and take photos from the public roadway is increasing in prevalence. She said installing cameras and recording devices is also seeing an increase, particularly in the processing space.
If this occurs, Weeman-Thompson warns not to shoot down a drone. She recommends finding the drone pilot’s vehicle to get a description and calling local law enforcement.
Open rescues, protests, and stealth visits on farms and ranches remain popular with activists, the most recent was a large-scale protest in California at a processing plant. The past year, the alliance has seen an increase in demonstrations at the homes of food company executives. This tactic is especially troubling, she said, making family members and neighbors uncomfortable.
The best defense, she said, is to be beyond reproach in following best practices and adding security and policies for visitors. If there is an incident on your farm or ranch, she recommends gathering information and reporting it to the producer organization and perhaps to the local law enforcement officials.
Morgan County Sheriff Dave Martin said farmers and ranchers are solid resources for his office as they are out and about noticing activities in rural areas. Martin, who’s office has dealt with activist activity in the past, said it is helpful and appreciated when farmers and ranchers contact his office with information about suspicious activity and also when they call with information from trade organizations about potential threats.
Her top recommendation is to contact local law enforcement to have a conversation about concerns with regard to potential threats. Seeking their advice proactively is valuable, as is making local law enforcement aware of the possibility of, for example, a demonstration. Additionally, compiling a crisis response plan with contact information is also time well spent.
“We can not let concerns about what these activists might do stop us from engaging with our customers, consumers, our legislators — that is exactly their goal,” she said. “They want you to be uncomfortable, they want you to be intimidated, and like you can’t be out there talking about agriculture. Talking about it does not make you a target, the fact that you exist puts you on their radar.”