The Animal Agriculture Industry’s Perspective On Advocates & Cage-Free Reforms
Animal advocacy organizations consistently face opposition from agricultural groups when attempting to prevent and reduce the suffering of farmed animals across the United States. These industry groups generally want to limit the development of higher-welfare practices and maintain or increase subsidies to animal agriculture. Meanwhile, advocate groups want to enforce stricter farmed animal welfare standards and reduce subsidies to animal agriculture.
In the companion to this report, we dig into the methods by which advocates are tackling subsidies and welfare standards. However, there is also relatively little information available on how the animal agriculture industry (or “Big Ag”) perceives, portrays, and reacts to advocate tactics, including those that target farm subsidies. In order to examine how the industry responds to advocates’ efforts, we reviewed a small sample of industry publications, the findings of which are outlined in this report. We hope that this will help animal advocates prepare for Big Ag’s response to their work, and thus be more effective in strategizing to help farmed animals.
- Big Ag has become increasingly concerned about animal advocacy’s impact on their industry over the past 10 to 15 years, particularly with respect to cage-free reforms that increase the cost of production. Inhumane practices like caged housing are a form of indirect subsidy, saving producers money by allowing them to overcrowd animals and increase their production. Industry concern about cage-free reform has intensified over the last decade, following a string of successful cage-free corporate campaigns and, more recently, statewide cage-free bans. They appear to be most concerned about state-level legislative action, writing “after you’ve got 9, 10, 11, 12 states that [have] passed laws, all of a sudden you will bring the industry to its knees.”
- A variety of strategies, similar to those of animal advocates, have been employed by Big Ag to challenge, overcome, or reverse the progress of cage-free reforms. These include agriculture groups lobbying to establish cages as a national standard, organizing at the local and federal level to block animal welfare legislation, and endorsing enriched cages instead of cage-free systems. Understanding industry counter-responses to the successes of animal advocacy can help advocates adjust their strategies to build on existing achievements.
- Animal agriculture portrays itself as pro-science and animal advocates as anti-science or reliant on emotional manipulation. Trade publications present farmed animal producers as caring about animal welfare and following scientific practices that are typically supported by animal welfare scientists and veterinarians. In contrast, advocates are described as being ‘anti-science’ and using evocative footage in their opposition to current farmed animal welfare practices.
- The industry relies on a narrative of farmer and consumer choice to support the continued use of inhumane practices. In this “freedom to farm” narrative, farmed animal producers have a right to farm however they like, even with inhumane methods. The industry also argues that consumers, especially lower-income consumers, have a right to choose lower-priced animal products. Tactics used by animal advocates to increase the price of animal products, such as cage-free reforms, are therefore portrayed as harming farmers and lower-income individuals.
- Industry writers portray their interactions with animal advocates as a “high-stakes battle” where industry actors are at a disadvantage. For the readers of these trade publications, animal advocates are portrayed as more powerful, more professionalized, and less honest than industry actors. Industry actors cast themselves in an underdog role and emphasize their responsibilities in supporting and uniting a range of small-scale farmers to “fight a powerful enemy.”
- Big Ag is more concerned about changes to direct subsidies in the energy sector than in animal agriculture. These trade publications didn’t discuss direct loans or payments from the government to animal agriculture, implying that the industry isn’t concerned with these subsidies being threatened. Instead, the industry appears to be more concerned about how subsidies for corn-based biofuel have resulted in higher corn prices, thereby increasing the cost of animal feed.
Implementing higher-welfare changes (e.g., cage-free) at the state-level is perceived as a major threat by industry, suggesting it is a strong strategy but also one where we should expect legal challenges like the one against California’s Proposition 12. As noted in Faunalytics’ (2022) report, legislative change takes time and often encounters failures along the way. Be aware that lobbying for animal welfare regulation in states that are less reliant on animal agriculture may be painted as a dishonest tactic by industry actors, akin to those used by the National Rifle Association, as is the use of out-of-state advocates in lobbying efforts. Advocates should anticipate and guard against these challenges as much as possible by relying on local support and support from parties who are invested in agriculture when pushing for state-level welfare changes.
These articles attempt to create an underdog narrative, wherein animal advocates are a powerful, professionalized threat to ordinary farmers. This is likely intended to foster a sense of unity (which they also describe as crucial) and cooperation from small-scale farmers and other supporters who might otherwise oppose the corporate monopoly in animal agriculture. Supporting and acknowledging the welfare of small-scale farmers alongside that of animals may help to challenge this narrative and increase public support for farmed animal welfare issues.
The industry is trying to portray animal protection as causing economic challenges for lower-income consumers and reducing consumers’ freedom to choose. Advocates may want to get ahead of this claim by developing strategies and narratives around the increased choice that comes from supporting plant-based agriculture as well as the tactics Big Ag uses to coerce small farmers, the public, and government into supporting their economic monopoly.
Collaborate with animal welfare scientists and veterinarians who are sympathetic to the cause of animal suffering.
Big Ag frequently criticizes animal advocates as being “anti-science” and emotionally manipulative. To reduce this negative stereotype, advocates can consider working with scholar-advocates like Our Honor and The Kimmela Centre, so that advocates have more empirical support behind their welfare asks.
Investigate how other lobbies can contribute to de-subsidizing animal agriculture and consider whether to support them.
As one example, these articles suggested that industry stakeholders are concerned about how subsidies for corn-based biofuel will increase costs to animal feed and thus lower their profit margins. Some types of energy subsidy or future subsidies in other industries may provide avenues to challenge animal agriculture indirectly, though caution is needed to ensure that harms don’t outweigh benefits.
The purpose of this project is to understand how the animal agriculture industry perceives advocates’ strategies and tactics to drive change. This report is a companion to Reforming Animal Agriculture Subsidies: A Guide for Advocates, for which we used interviews to learn about advocates’ strategies to reform farm subsidies.
Applying These Findings
We understand that reports like this have a lot of information to consider and that acting on research can be challenging. Faunalytics is happy to offer pro bono support to advocates and nonprofit organizations who would like guidance applying these findings to their own work. Please visit our Office Hours or contact us for support.
Behind The Project
The project’s lead author was Jack Stennett (Good Growth) and supported by Jah Ying Chung (Good Growth). Drs. Andrea Polanco and Jo Anderson (Faunalytics) reviewed and oversaw the work.
We would like to thank several advocates who provided valuable input about this research throughout the process. We would like to thank an anonymous funder for their generous support of this research.
At Faunalytics, we strive to make research accessible to everyone. We avoid jargon and technical terminology as much as possible in our reports. If you do encounter an unfamiliar term or phrase, check out the Faunalytics Glossary for user-friendly definitions and examples.
Research Ethics Statement
As with all of Faunalytics’ original research, this study was conducted according to the standards outlined in our Research Ethics and Data Handling Policy.