"One has to wonder if Jutras had recently watched Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, a Netflix documentary with chinook expert Leonardo DiCaprio as executive producer, that accuses the livestock industry of being the worst contributor of greenhouse gases on the planet."
The slogan was obviously more of a catchphrase than an actual warning – turns out America wasn’t crawling with Nazi spies sitting in broom closets, holding drinking glasses up to the wall – but for whatever reason, it stuck in the collective minds of a generation, even though it didn’t really apply in a post-war society.
Ironically, seven decades later, the phrase has taken on an entirely new meaning, and a more legitimate sense of urgency, with the advent of the so-called Information Age. Social media is alive with millions of loose lips, and a lot of them are doing an excellent job of firing torpedoes at any number of metaphorical ships. The agriculture industry is one of their favorite targets.
This new, more dangerous trend of speaking without thinking was illustrated in the Feb. 16 edition of The Globe & Mail. In a section front article that features a huge photo of a hunk of beef hanging from a hook, Deputy Books editor Lisan Jutras interviewed Marta Zaraska, author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat. Jutras begins the introduction to the article with the following sentence: “The Globe and Mail spoke to Zaraska about why we persist in being carnivores, despite knowing that it’s terrible for the environment and not great for our personal health.”
Yes, you read that right.
It’s not the line from Jutras’s article itself that’s the real problem – at any given moment, you can find 20,000 messages on Twitter that are far more misinformed. And it’s not the fact that the assertion is inaccurate - anyone who actually knows anything about beef cattle knows that grazing promotes biodiversity, water filtration and nutrient recycling, and uses land that’s no good for other types of agriculture. Rangelands can sequester up to 200 tonnes of carbon per hectare, and the greenhouse gas footprint of beef cattle is one-seventh of that of the transport industry. As for nutrition, lean beef beats any plant source hands-down for sheer quality and protein-to-calorie ratio, and has been exonerated by a number of recent research meta-studies after years of being demonized by popular culture and the media.
No, what gets up my nose about the error was the casual way in which Jutras wrote it, as if it was a natural fact that everyone knew to be true. If she had said something along the lines of “everyone knows Stephen Harper was the greatest prime minister in history,” the letters page of the Globe and Mail would have been on fire with letters demanding her resignation.
So what’s the difference? People get charged up over politics. Unfortunately, they don’t get fired up over agriculture. It doesn’t make sense – we could live much longer without politics than we could without food – but it’s the reality of the world we live in. This is a fact that people in the ag industry, and livestock producers in particular, need to start taking to heart. And I mean right now.
"This is a message we're hearing over and over again: If we don't tell our story, someone else will."
The only option the beef industry has is to be its own source of information. To that end, the SCA is working on a number of ideas to help reach out to consumers with the right information about beef cattle production, and about beef itself. The first initiative is a province-wide radio campaign that will run during the popular Gormley Show. We hope to promote beef and the hard work that producers put into raising it safely, efficiently and affordably for consumers. We’re also working on our own social media campaigns to make sure both producers and consumers have accurate information they can use to answer questions, both their own and from people in their sphere of influence.
If we want to tell our story and keep myths from spreading, everyone in the industry needs to get personally involved. If you’re not talking about beef in your social media messages, start. If you’re not on social media, get on. If you can’t get on social media, start talking about beef in coffee row. There’s no shortage of people who will try to criticize you for what you do – you need to take every opportunity to show that you’re proud to be a beef producer.
If you need help in any aspect of this, the SCA is always here for you. We can provide you with messaging, direct you to resources for training in public speaking, show you how to use social media, and more. It’s simpler than you may think, but the results can be powerful. There are a number of beef industry “agvocates” out there already, but they need your help. And they need it now.
The industry can no longer afford to ignore the erosion of the reputation it has built over generations in this province. People still love beef – the fact we didn’t see consumers run away from the meat counter when prices peaked proves that – but they need to know the story behind their food. It’s up to everyone to start talking.
Scott Sakatch is the SCA’s communications specialist. Prior to that, he was a long-time journalist and college journalism instructor.