Industry in the Classroom: How Big Meat and Dairy Influence the Curriculum in Canadian Schools

The following tweet was sent out by the Saskatchewan chapter of Agriculture in the Classroom and became the starting point for this piece.

Saskatchewan AITC tweet

The language used in this tweet conceptualizes a specific view of how animals should be viewed by children. Stating that there are “uses” for “the pig” reduces a sentient animal to a mere object, one whose sole value is derived from her use as a consumer good. While this is a dominant view in the meat industry where animals are routinely exploited for food, Agriculture in the Classroom teaches these ideas to K-12 schoolchildren – ideas that are contrary to values such as compassion, respect, non-violence, and empathy that children are taught to hold as fundamental values, especially towards animals. So what’s going on?

Agriculture in The Classroom

Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) holds itself as the “national voice of agriculture education” in Canada. It has 9 provincial members representing the following provinces: BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. The purpose of the charitable non-profit is the following:

“AITC-C exists to help students across the country understand and appreciate how diverse agriculture truly is. We believe it is important for our future generations to understand that our farmers work hard to produce good food. We want them to see for themselves that our farmers care about the land and animals they grow. And we want to help them understand that there is so much to learn about agriculture in our community and our world.”¹

The following slogan comes directly from the website of Saskatchewan Agriculture in the Classroom:

Young people do deserve to know where their food comes from. This idea is consistent with one of AITC’s five values: “Transparency: We actively engage in dialogue based on accurate, balanced, current and science-based information.” Agriculture is the backbone of our economy and it is important for children to understand the processes that go into the food that they eat. The idea behind AITC is laudable. However, aspects of the actual curriculum are far from transparent, accurate, and balanced. While the information provided about non-animal agriculture is representative of farming, AITC obscures the truth about the realities of animal agriculture to children. It does so by creating educational materials that omit the uncomfortable and violent aspects of animal agriculture, it uses biased industry information to defend against critiques of animal agriculture, and it even goes so far as to characterize animal rights activists as promoters of violence. Looking at examples from AITC’s educational resources provides an insight into how this program is failing to achieve its goal in ‘showing young people where their food comes from’.

Omissions

AITC has a repository of curriculum resources it uses to teach schoolchildren about various agricultural topics. While the materials for teaching children about topsoil conditions are complete and accurate for instance, this cannot be said for the materials used to explain how meat, dairy, and eggs are produced. An example is Journey of the Egg created by the Egg Farmers of Canada, a national industry group representing over 1000 egg farmers across the country. This infographic fails to mention that millions of unwanted male chicks are separated and killed shortly after birth, in a practice called “chick culling” because male chicks are unable to breed and are useless in meat production. This is done through several methods including grinding chicks alive in industrial macerators or gassing chicks to death. The following table is from the National Farm Animal Care Council – Poultry Code of Practice, the industry-created set of guidelines for farming in Canada.

Maceration is demonstrated in this video from Maple Leaf Foods, one of Canada’s largest meat producers.

The mass killing of millions of male chicks is part of the “Journey of the Egg,” yet it is never referenced in the educational resource. It is obvious why, and it is obvious that the above video will never be shown to children by educators. This is part of the broader dark secret of animal agriculture that the industry tries to keep hidden from the public. Revealing this to children will leave them traumatized and have them question if it is ethical to eat eggs. This kind of ethical thinking would be disastrous for AITC’s board members and industry sponsors (see Appendix) that need to ensure these young learners will be their future customers.

Industry Bias

Each provincial member develops their own resources or uses curriculum material created by the national chapter. For example, Manitoba – AITC has two educational resources called Cowspiracy – An Alternative View and Food Inc. – An Alternative View (which includes a url with a notable Kellyanne Conway-esque twist).

Cowspiracy is a documentary that looks at the effects of animal agriculture on the environment, while Food Inc. is a documentary that examines corporate farming’s effects on the environment and human health. The intent of this AITC lesson is to show one side of an argument and then present an alternative viewpoint to help youth develop critical thinking skills. Again, this is a laudable exercise, as critical thinking skills are crucial for youth to develop, especially around a topical and controversial issue like food production.

The problem with these lesson plans are the resources that AITC uses to present the “alternative view.” Many of these resources are industry positions, developed with an obvious bias to defend against any criticisms of the products they sell. Some of the resources that are used to present the alternative viewpoint are from Chicken Farmers of Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Beef Cattle Research Council, American Meat Institute, Monsanto, National Chicken Council, and Meat MythCrushers. This exercise in critical thinking about animal agriculture completely falls flat due to AITC’s use of the industry as the alternative viewpoint.

If children were shown a documentary about the harms of smoking, would it be appropriate to include Big Tobacco industry groups as a balancing counterpoint? Would it be appropriate to use Big Pharma as the balancing view when discussing the over-prescription of opioids and the overdose crisis? This is poor pedagogy and a bastardization of education. Industry has no place in these discussions as they have a product to sell and an agenda to push – they are not a credible viewpoint.

Portrayal of Animal Rights Activists as Promoters of Violence

AITC’s resource “Animal Welfare or Rights” examines the difference between the following terms, in doing so they characterize animal rights activists as promoting violence.

Source: AITC – snapAG Animal Welfare or Rights

The association of activists as being violent is a common tool used by the industry to demonize regular citizens exercising their fundamental freedoms to stand up for justice and speak out against animal cruelty. It is disturbing that this narrative is being taught to schoolchildren as it misleadingly instills fear and contempt for animal activists that are overwhelmingly peaceful in their actions. In fact, it is only because of these dedicated citizens that corporations and producers get charged with animal cruelty on farms. For some examples from an Ontario context, see our Twitter thread here.

It is extremely irresponsible and disconcerting that a non-profit teaching schoolchildren is pushing a narrative that animal activists are violent. We can expect this from the industry, but it shouldn’t come from educators.

On Violence

What is notably absent from these resources is that the meat and dairy industry operates on a model of systemic violence towards animals, where nearly a billion animals are slaughtered every year in Canada. Violence is not exclusive to humans, yet activists are being portrayed as promoting violence while the meat and diary industry is free from scrutiny in its mass slaughter of defenseless animals, both on farm and in slaughterhouses.

For example, would AITC share the following resource from Canada’s Poultry Industry Council and have schoolchildren critically examine if the industry commits acts of violence towards animals? This is an integral part of the animal agriculture story.

Distortions of Reality

The curriculum delivered by AITC has numerous examples where the truth about animal agriculture is either omitted or distorted. For example, the Transporting Farm Animals resource paints a picture that is not in accord with what actually happens to animals during transport.

Animal welfare, the humane treatment of animals, is very important to the people who raise and care for them. Ensuring that farm animals (livestock) are treated humanely during transportation is part of responsible animal care. (Emphasis added)

AITC – snapAG Transporting Farm Animals

This is counter to the reality that millions of animals die on transport trucks in Canada every year. With stories like Canada’s Livestock Transportation Rules ‘Worst in the Western World’: Advocate, Torturous Journey for Animals to Canadian Plates, and Legalized Cruelty: the Gaps in Canada’s Animal Transport Laws, we wonder if AITC is telling the full truth of what actually happens on transport trucks in Canada to schoolchildren. We looked at Statistics Canada and Ontario Government data to look at how many chickens die in transport trucks in just one month, in one province. Do the children know this? Should they?

What about the resource on Dairy Farming? There’s no mention here about how dairy cows are repeatedly inseminated, their calves separated from their mothers shortly after birth, and the young male calves are either killed after birth or sent to be slaughtered for veal. The examples in these resources are numerous. Children are taught a rosy, biased, and distorted picture about animal agriculture, when in reality it is filled with the incredible suffering of billions of farm animals.

Industry in the Classroom

The resources in AITC are designed to promote a specific view of animal agriculture to children. If children knew the truth about what actually happens to animals in farms, on transport trucks, and in slaughterhouses, they would all be begging their parents to stop feeding them meat, dairy, and eggs. The truth about this industry is horrific and it is kept secret for a reason. That’s why Alberta has recently passed the first Ag-Gag legislation in Canada, Ontario is following suit with their own Ag-Gag bill, and a federal MP has introduced an Ag-Gag bill that would include jail time for citizens exposing systemic animal cruelty on farms.

With the heavy industry presence involved in AITC, it is unsurprising that animal agriculture is portrayed in such a positive light in the curriculum – the industry has a lot at stake in a time when consumers are shifting to eliminate meat, dairy, and eggs from their diets. Parents, teachers, and school boards need to critically evaluate the presence and messaging of AITC in their classrooms, and ask themselves: should the meat and dairy industry have this much influence in teaching our children?

Much has been written about the meat and dairy industry’s powerful lobby groups and involvement in matters that they should stay out of. When Canada’s Food Guide was being developed by Health Canada, there was intense lobbying by industry groups to have their say.

In the past, health advocates have said previous versions of the food guide showed the influence of powerful food lobbies, most notably those representing dairy, meat and juice. Health Canada’s attempts to insulate its officials this time did not stop industry groups from trying to shape the latest revision.

Globe and Mail – January 23, 2019

This pressure by industry groups was also examined by the Walrus, which looked at the challenges of teaching health and nutrition in elementary schools knowing that the meat and dairy industry was pushing to shape the Canada Food Guide.

“It is flawed,” says Elizabeth Campbell, who teaches grades 2 to 6 physical education and health at Pierre Elliott Trudeau elementary in Gatineau, Quebec. “Because it is the product of marketing by the meat and dairy association. They do a lot of lobbying. They have a lot of influence over policy decisions. They did heavily influence the last food guide.”

The Walrus – November 12, 2019

The little cartons of milk in schools across Canada? Big Dairy is behind that, despite recent Canada Food Guide recommendations. What if someone files a human rights complaint over an egg and dairy allergy in schools?

Ms. Glover also complained of a double standard — while peanut products are essentially banned from the school, the same restrictions don’t exist for milk and egg products.

National Post – School faces human rights complaint over student’s egg, dairy allergy

Knowing how much lobbying the meat and dairy industry does in Canada to influence policy, AITC is an inconspicuous tool for this industry to shape the narrative about animal agriculture and create future consumers – no lobbying required. These industries have managed to work their way into and exploit one of the most vulnerable spaces in society: the classroom.

Less industry, more education

Children are taught to love farm animals. They learn the sounds they make, read children’s books with animals, and watch movies where animals are the main characters. Teaching children that it is okay to “use” them is counter to fundamental understandings of dignity, consent, autonomy, and respect for an individual’s life. Teaching them that animal agriculture is humane is a dishonest distortion of reality. If the full reality of animal agriculture is too disturbing to teach to children, it shouldn’t be taught at all.

Instead, children should be taught about compassion and treating animals with respect. They should be taught that pigs are social creatures and are more intelligent than dogs. They should be taught that each individual chicken has a unique personality, that they have social hierarchies and want to experience natural behaviors like all other animals (is it too much to ask for a chicken to see natural sunlight even once in their life?). Children should be taught that mother cows and their calves form strong and lasting bonds, and that taking children away from their mothers at birth is unethical, regardless of species.

It is deceitful and dishonest to promote industry misinformation to children, especially in a space like the school classroom. This is a space for learning and education, not for Big Meat and Dairy to impose their agendas on malleable minds. Adults have the capacity to discern industry lies and can avoid their products if they choose. Unfortunately children do not have the same ability to do so. It is the responsibility of educators to ensure children are being taught truths, and that the industry does not control the narrative inside school classrooms. Going back to Saskatchewan AITC’s statement: “Young people deserve to know where their food comes from.” We agree. They do.

Children deserve better. And so do the animals that they love.

Appendix

Below are tables of 1) board members that have ties to major meat and dairy industry groups and 2) major sponsors of AITC members. This information was found online from AITC member websites and are not exhaustive lists of all board members or sponsors – some information about provincial members was not readily available.