TO respond or not to respond and if so, how hard do you return fire?
That’s the metaphysical question confronting agricultural representative groups, not just in Australia but throughout the globe, when challenged by animal rights activists or other ideologically motivated fundamentalist movements that make a living out of morally harassing farmers.
Asked about a recent direct-action protest staged by about 40 chanting, placard waving vegan activists at a steakhouse restaurant in Melbourne’s CBD, National Farmers’ Federation CEO Tony Mahar was ambivalent, but realistic, about the challenging task.
“I respect people’s rights to have their views but when it becomes socially unacceptable and intimidating and things like that, and it starts impacting on a constituent or a consumer or a member of the public’s own views, I’d start questioning it then,” he said.
“I completely respect peoples’ right to have their own views but it’s around what’s socially acceptable and the expectations of the community.”
During the stake-house disruption, the activist ring-leader screamed into a megaphone as the other protesters chanted, held up signs, wore t-shirts promoting veganism with slogans comparing meat consumption to death and violence and acted up for the camera, to try to incite media coverage and reaction.
“What do we want?” the megaphone protester yelled.
“Animal liberation,” the mob replied.
“When do we want it? Now. It’s not food, it’s violence.”
The activist protest reportedly disturbed some of the assembled diners but others just smiled, took iPhone photos or videos of the events and continued eating their meals, largely uninterrupted.
The protest was attributed to two Melbourne-based activist groups with one of them subsequently claiming they plan to hold other similar events to try to force their message onto meat consumers via the media, like trying to shut down abattoirs or confronting venues where meat is sold.
In an obvious statement of ideological intent, the group’s leader said the protesters want to ‘get between the animals and the blade’ in order to stir-up emotions in a bid to end meat consumption.
Their aim is to disrupt places where ‘violence’ is happening to animals, or it’s being committed or ‘consumed’.
“This is a sign of the times,” the group’s leader told a mainstream, prime time commercial television program which highlighted a story on the protest.
But the steakhouse demonstration also stirred-up a healthy debate on social media - as is often the case - amongst the farm sector, about whether such protests need to be responded to, by leaders of farming groups, to counteract the emotive messages and misinformation pedalled by animal rights activists or vegan brigades.
Sure there could be legal action taken against these half wits for this for of protesting? If it was my business having its image defamed I'd be wanting to sue the organisers and participants.— Brayden Calderwood (@Braydocaldy) February 2, 2018
Some say such actions by attention-seeking, anti-meat activists speak for themselves and should just be ignored - to deny their message any oxygen and avoid media coverage.
Others believe upsetting diners who are making legal choices of their own free will, and staging protests where the police are called out to protect law abiding citizens and businesses that are rudely interrupted, should be exposed for what it is.
However, all groups seem to agree on one point – that there’s a real and genuine disconnect between where people think their food or fibre comes from and the actual realty of what happens on a farm or in an abattoir; good or bad.
And the race is on for media attention based on inciting emotions more than promoting facts, to propel powerful messaging that can sway consumers, business leaders and lawmakers.
But at the moment, it seems vegan activists and others are ahead of the game in using the media strategically, especially social media, to expose consumer ignorance and apply public pressure, with often shocking and emotive images, that can incite political change in a range of commercially significant areas like egg labelling, live exports and any number of other livestock production methods.
Mr Mahar said the Melbourne steakhouse protest was part of an “ongoing thing” where strategic choices needed to be made about the allocation of resources, to counteract negative messaging and attacks on areas of farming production, to educate others.
“I think the industry recognises we need to make sure that we put a coordinated voice around this, from the farm sector,” he said.
“We know it’s complex and we know the times are changing and community expectations are changing.
“Militant and aggressive or socially unacceptable behaviour is one thing and informing and engaging with the community around agriculture and farming and where their food and fibre comes from is another issue.
“When I look at it, I look at that behaviour and ask, ‘is it socially acceptable or responsible or constructive?’ and consider that.
“But certainly the industry is aware and conscious of the fact that we need to tell our story and tell all the good things about farming and food and agriculture and farming.”
Mr Mahar indicated the NFF was holding “ongoing chats” about trying to improve strategies and actions, to counteract activist attacks on farmers’ livelihoods.
“These are philosophical views that people hold and so, can we change those views, should we change those views?” he said.
“I’m sort of less interested in that than I am in the industry telling a really positive about agriculture and making sure people understand the industry and what farmers actually do or don’t do and that’s what I think a constructive chat is.
“Changing people’s philosophical views or responding to each and every single act or behaviour is probably beyond our remit - but having an ongoing conversation that’s coordinated and consistent across industry and telling all the good stuff and responding to concerns, that’s where industry can come together.”
Asked if the NFF and others needed to return fire harder at activist groups like the vegan ones who interrupted diners at the Melbourne steakhouse, Mr Mahar was pragmatic.
“These are philosophical views that people hold – we don’t share those views – we respect the right for people to have their own views and it’s a free country,” he said.
“But our responsibility as an industry is, we just need to do a really good job of telling our story.
“We’re not going to respond to every single view or act – we can’t – but what we can do is get out a strong clear message from industry about what we’re doing.
“There’s no way we can go around and hit every single act, or respond to every single piece of literature.”