Commentary: Pay-per-spew

A college tour is paying students a buck apiece to watch a new video not some rock stars but a ‘worst of" collection of alleged animal cruelty video clips. The review? Two thumbs down.

Give the animal activist community high marks for creativity which is a nice by-product of having a job where pretty much all you do is sit around and try to dream up ways to leverage your message, without having to actually produce, grow or market anything of value.

This time, the folks at the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) came up with a novel way to market their biased perspective on livestock production, while at the same time appearing to be oh-so altruistic: They're paying people to watch doctored footage of animal cruelty, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Acknowledging the existence of animal cruelty is unpleasant, and getting people to actually watch footage of it is understandably difficult," the story stated. "The folks at FARM found one way: Pay them."

That's right: A national tour began a couple weeks ago, with the goal of screening a graphic "Farm to Fridge" video, edited from hidden-camera footage showing cows, chickens and pigs at factory farms and packing plants. According to the newspaper, participants are paid $1 to watch the four-minute video, displayed in a vehicle equipped to host up to 32 simultaneous viewers.

The idea, the FARM spokespeople are openly admitting, is that watching such a video will persuade viewers to permanently reduce the amount of animal products they consume in their diet, with the unspoken goal being that on some bright, shiny day in the near future, we'll all become committed vegans, livestock will revert to free-ranging wildlife, the skies will clear, our national health issues will become ancient history and the millions of people currently working in meat and poultry production, processing, marketing and foodservice and retail operations will be happily employedpicking organic berries and tending backyard soybean plots.

Because that's the "vision" the activists behind the 10 Billion Lives Tour (named after the estimated 10 billion animals annually raised for food) embrace: Show people clips of the harshest conditions possible, then extrapolate that such scenes would all go away once people make a simple and consequence-free decision to stop eating animal foods.

That's no different than showing clips of combat and the wounded veterans injured in the battles and postulating that if only we choose peace, all that carnage will be a thing of the past.

Change without consequences

That's not to equate war with animal husbandry, but rather to suggest that when snippets of a complex and multi-faceted panorama are edited down into a bunch of  "worst-of" clips, it's relatively easy to persuade people that change if it could be accomplished with little or no impact on people's lifestyles is both desirable and do-able.

For instance: You could show videos of a logging operation, with trees crashing down, chain saws and diesel engines roaring and a once-pristine forest being reduced to mountains of slash and muddy hillsides. Such scene would convince plenty of people that the wood products industry consists of horrible profiteers bent on destroying our precious wilderness, and if we'd only stop using paper bags and reading newspapers, we could preserve our forests and savebillions of wildlife from starvation.

It would be equally inaccurate to show such a video without also acknowledging that without the building materials and paper products which are renewable resources, by the way that are essential to our economy and our lifestyles, we would be dealing with other, even greater problems, and that replacing those products would create all sorts of other environmental issues that would be potentially worse than any issues related to logging.

Yet such willful naivete is exactly the premise behind FARM's video sideshow: Show people the worst of an industry, and imply that it all goes away if people just make some simple dietary changes that will have nothing but positive impacts on all the "big picture" issues of animal welfare, environmental impact and personal health and well-being.

There won't be so much as a single second of discussion about the economic, ecological and nutritional consequences that the disappearance of animal husbandry and meat consumption would create. That's why FARM's tour stops only in college towns, such as Eugene, Ore., and Sacramento, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, Calif. That way, they target the single, white female demographic that comprises the majority of the animal rights activists and veggie believers, a sincere but naïve audience that swallows the "no meat makes everything better" argument at face value.

There is one item of interest in the newspaper story: So far, according to the tour coordinator Jeni Haines, FARM's presentation has drawn only slightly more than 2,000 viewers. So not only is the stunt costing them money, but the exposure seems to be somewhat limited.

In fact, I'd wager that virtually everyone who collected the free bucks were either slackers willing to waste four minutes to earn a free dollar, or diehard veggies who already believe that eating meat is the root of all evil.

I doubt that too many people underwent a conversion on the spot, although Haines claimed that "detailed follow-up surveys" showed that video viewers "consume 10 fewer animals per year and that 60% of viewers maintained their pledge to eat fewer animal products."

I don't know how they can claim such statistics when the tour has only been underway for a couple weeks, nor can I understand how an LA Times reporter didn't ask exactly such a follow-up question.

But those stats are simply another gratuitous attempt by the meat haters to dodge the hard questions that do need to be discussed regarding the real issues related to meat production and food security, optimal nutritional and environmental protection.

That's a lot more offensive than a bunch of undercover videos.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.