By Stewart Skinner
Today’s consumer asks a lot of a modern farmer. Along with enjoying an abundant, safe, and affordable food supply, people have more questions about how food gets to their plate than ever before.
Farmers long left consumer education to companies like Maple Leaf and General Mills given that, more often than not, our products are transformed significantly between the farm gate and your plate. Yet consumer marketing doesn’t always translate into understanding how food gets from the farm to the plate and unfortunately, public education and advocacy are often the first things pushed off the plate when farmers get busy – how can we worry about something like consumer education when there is corn to be planted?
This thirst for knowledge about food didn’t happen overnight. Generational removal from the farm took time, and it wasn’t until the arrival of the millennial generation that being related to a farmer put you in the minority. Layered into this was rapid technological change that transformed what food production looks like. It is understandable to have questions about what is going on when the places that produce your food look absolutely nothing like the books your teacher read in school.
While we farmers grappled with why, where, and how to share the story of modern food production, another group of individuals saw opportunity. Anti-animal activists realized that the combination of consumer questions, social media, and cheap camera technology gave them the perfect vector to advance their agenda of eliminating the use of animals by humans. Eventually farmers understood that we too could utilize these tools. Many have opened virtual doors through YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, and for over a decade an online battle of wills between farmers and anti-animal activists has waged. Personal experience taught that sharing one’s own farm story can be exhausting and being the target of online hate leads to much stress. But never did it result in fear.
Fear is a new phenomenon for us at our farm; as are locked doors, no trespassing signs, and security cameras. Recently, anti-animal activists have become emboldened and are breaking into farms across Ontario. This infinitely small minority of people will tell you they want to improve the lives of farm animals but are never upfront about their true intentions – they will not rest until animal agriculture is eliminated. Until recently, lack of legal clarity meant that activists could break into private property or mislead an employer without any real legal ramifications, and there was little consequence for those who willfully broke laws in their quest to end animal agriculture.
Bill 156, introduced last fall by the Government of Ontario, seeks to provide the clarity law enforcement needs to protect against trespassing and violations of our rights as private citizens. Bill 156 will make it illegal to take a farm job under false pretenses, harass farmers and food plant workers, and will impose stiffer penalties for trespassing.
Anti-animal activists have billed this as an ‘Ag-Gag’ law, saying it will inhibit the ability to expose animal abuse. This is a bold lie. Nothing in this legislation will inhibit concerned law-abiding citizens from reporting suspected abuse. In fact, companion legislation, Bill 136, has already become law and will make it easier to report suspected animal abuse.
Bill 136 will create a specially-trained group of inspectors who report to a newly-created Chief Animal Welfare Inspector. These inspectors have the ability to enter barns suspected of abuse without a warrant and the fines for animal abuse have been increased significantly.
It is understandable that you have questions about your food, and every person has the right to food choice. Farmers will continue to do what they do best: raise safe, healthy and affordable food, and some of us will even have a camera in tow to share what we do with whoever wants to see. Thankfully, Bill 156 means that we can continue to do this, while the fear of having our farms broken into is lessened knowing there are clear consequences for those who willfully break the law to advance their personal agenda.
Stewart Skinner is a local business owner, former political candidate, and has worked at Queen’s Park as a Policy Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @modernfarmer.