The “escalating culture war” between U.S. agriculture and the Humane Society of the United States was featured in an article in this past weekend’s Kansas City Star newspaper.
While the author attempted to be balanced, the article is peppered with numerous clichés that show his hand. Words like “intensive confinement” and, most notably, “factory farms” are used as casually and as commonplace as Kleenex when referring to facial tissues.
A pet peeve of mine is when people so willingly use the term “factory farm”, yet they won’t or can’t define what they mean by it. In reality when people try to define the phrase they often find it starts to unravel, that it’s not so clear cut and they don’t really know what it means.
Of course, you don’t have to get past the headline to clue in to the author’s approach: “Humane Society’s compassion stirs conflict with agribusiness in Midwest.” A quick dissection tells you that the Humane Society is compassionate, while agribusiness is the one driving the conflict.
After all, HSUS is “seeking simply to curb the worst abuses in livestock,” according to its president, Wayne Pacelle. As the old saying goes — if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
But sadly, without extensive digging into what HSUS says and does publicly and what it says and does behind closed doors there’s little reason for the common man to question Pacelle’s statement, especially when today’s food producers are so freely painted with words such as industrial, intensive, factory, corporate and confinement.
What the Kansas City Star article does not mention is that the American Institute of Philanthropy, an independent non-profit charity watchdog group, gave HSUS a C- grade based on the percentage of money the organization spent actually running programs to help animals. AIP also penalized the group for paying excessive salaries to its top executive. The Center for Consumer Freedom (see its HSUS-monitoring Web site) found that according to 2008 taxes, HSUS took in $86 million; and spent $31 million on salaries, $24 million on fund raising, $23 million on political “campaigns and legislation” and $4.2 million for a lockbox company to count its donations. Money that HSUS gave to organizations to actually “help” animals was just $450,000 — or half of 1 percent of its funds. While the 2009 tax returns are not yet available, evidence suggests nothing has changed from the 2008 distribution pattern.
The article does note that HSUS acknowledges that it “does not run local animal shelters and does not make a lot of grants.” Still, a new series of fund-raising ads, mostly running on cable TV, has Pacelle himself implying a link to abused dogs and cats, and the need for more shelters and care.
HSUS defines itself as a “mainstream voice with a mission to celebrate animals and to confront cruelty.” The author outlines examples of some of the animal “treatment” issues that HSUS wants to accomplish and the successes it’s had — “At least six states now have laws banning or phasing out gestation crates.”
Meanwhile, the implication is that agriculture is “paranoid” and is having to defend its practices. In the end, it leaves the reader with impression that agriculture supports puppy mills and cockfighting.
In the end, what is a somewhat balanced article still leaves the public (in this case in the heart of the Midwest) with a more questionable impression of agriculture and food production, and a more positive perspective of HSUS. So it’s clear that agriculture’s efforts to illustrate to consumers its dedication, sincerity and even its challenges, to produce safe, wholesome, consistent and reasonably priced products remain a long uphill climb.