In summer 2015, video footage showing the maltreatment of sheep in Argentina went viral, with the animal rights organization PETA accusing the network Ovis 21. Once seen as a sustainability pioneer in the industry, Ovis 21 became a pariah overnight and large customers ended their cooperation with the network. Suston’s reporter Karen Hensel interviews the founder Ricardo Fenton on what has happened since.
The sun stands vertically against the steel-blue sky and a strong wind sweeps over the grasslands on the vast estates surrounding the Estancia Montedinero. On this farm, located in the province of Santa Cruz on the southeastern tip of the Patagonia region, 14,000 sheep of the type
“Merino Multiproposito” are bred on 26,000 hectares of land. The Estancia Montedinero is owned by the fifth generation of the Fenton family.
Ricardo Fenton, a red-haired man wearing sturdy leather boots and a plaid shirt, studied and worked in Australia and New Zealand before returning to Argentina in 2003. With him, he brought important innovations in sheep husbandry. Back home again, he invited the agronomist Pablo Borrelli to found an organization that could introduce this knowledge at a regional level in their part of Patagonia. Their mission was to develop a more sustainable method of sheep farming and wool production, focusing on grassland regeneration and biodiversity. Ricardo Fenton, today Sheep and Wool Manager of Ovis 21, explains:
“Traditional farming in Argentina was not concentrating much on sustainability back then. We saw the need for an organization that could spread knowledge of holistic land management, especially to prevent land erosion and help farmers with flock improvement.”
When PETA published its video footage in 2015, they chose an alarming title with the world famous outdoor brand in focus:
“Patagonia’s ‘Sustainable Wool’ supplier exposed: lambs skinned alive, throats slit, tails cut off.” Among the accused sheep farms were two members of Ovis 21.
The company Patagonia had begun cooperating with Ovis 21 in 2011. One of the reasons for this cooperation was another campaign by PETA, which exposed the painful process of mulesing sheep on Australian farms. Mulesing is not used in sheep farms in the southern end of South America.
On Patagonia’s website, there was a long list of achievements linked to Ovis 21. Shortly after PETA published the footage in 2015, Patagonia released a statement in response: “We begin an urgent investigation into the practices shown in PETA’s video and commit to working with Ovis 21 to make needed improvements, reporting back to our customers and the public on steps we are taking.”
Five days later Patagonia announced it would cease working with Ovis 21 as the cooperation could not assure animal welfare. Other big wool purchasing companies like Stella McCartney soon followed their lead and cut ties with Ovis 21.
But was PETA’s criticism of Ovis 21 fair? At one of the farms exposed in the video, the footage didn’t show any apparent mistreatment. The other farm was expelled from Ovis 21 after further investigation. When the magazine Ecotextile News investigated the case in January 2016, the reporter wrote “This is far from a black and white story.” Furthermore, in response to Patagonia’s claim that it would rebuild its wool program and look for a wool partner that could ensure a strong and consistent approach to animal welfare while also fostering healthy grasslands, the reporter concluded that maybe it already had one.
An unheard voice?
How does a company, or a network of companies like Ovis 21, react when it is hit by an international media storm like this? Can it make its own version heard in the turmoil? And how does the company find its way forward? These are questions I want to ask Ricardo Fenton when I travel through the Santa Cruz province in Patagonia. But as phone coverage is scarce and Ricardo Fenton is constantly visiting the different farms, this proves to be easier said than done. At last, we get in touch and Ricardo Fenton can tell his story – a story he says no one really bothered to listen to.
“We felt powerless in the publicity storm. It was very sad to see that our organization was blamed, and that the media was not interested in informing people about what Ovis 21 actually stands for. It was obviously unreasonable to blame Ovis 21 for the brutalities exposed by PETA.”
So, what does Ovis 21 actually stand for? Ricardo Fenton says he gladly would have explained that Ovis 21 is comprised of five people working on education and training, setting standards for holistic land management methods, and preserving grassland areas in Argentina. The network consists of 160 member farms, as well as technicians and accredited professionals. They learn from each other and support interested farmers to help them improve what Ricardo Fenton calls holistic skills for managing their land and flock.
“We have developed the Grassland Regeneration and Sustainability Standard (GRASS) together with Nature Conservancy, which assesses sustainable land management. 54 of our member farms have achieved the GRASS certificate already and use their land in a non-destructive way, totaling a land area of approximately 1.3 million hectares.”
He additionally points out that Ovis 21 is a voluntary network, not a controlling organization. “We don’t know every property personally.”
What impact did the scandal have on Ovis 21?
“It has been a disappointing time for us, with many negative consequences. Due to the media attention, we lost a lot of data regarding the certifying of land, as members decided to exit or not join the network. We also saw that environmental organizations distanced themselves from Ovis 21. Members that worked hard with improving sustainable land management within our network suddenly were looked down upon. So, you could say that the action had a negative impact on sustainable land management in our region.”
Animal welfare also in focus
One reason why Ovis 21 thinks that the media coverage was unfair was that the organization had never claimed that they control and certify animal husbandry on their farms. The main focus of Ovis 21 is on certifying sustainable grassland management and stopping the ongoing land erosion in Argentina and its neighboring areas. But this doesn’t mean that Ovis 21 neglects animal welfare, says Ricardo Fenton.
“We teach flock improvement, give shearing classes and share our best skills to achieve animal welfare out on the member farms. But it’s quite obvious that it would be an impossible task for five people to constantly inspect 160 properties with over a million sheep in total. We trust our members to put the knowledge that they gain in our workshops into practice on their farms. “I want to make it clear that members of Ovis 21 are pioneers when it comes to improving skills and ways of working towards sustainability. In general, these are open-minded farmers who are willing to change. They are not people who are likely to engage in animal mistreatment, as I see it. But to check animal welfare on the spot is up to each farmer – or some other organization with resources to take that responsibility.”
In what respect do you see the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) as a valuable certificate?
“RWS plays an important role in improving the conditions of wool production globally, and we fully support their initiative to find a global language for sheep farmers, technicians and the wool value chain. One general challenge with defining global standards is that they are set in relation to the average global situation. The demands of OVIS 21 members regarding land management, for example, are much higher than that required in the RWS. However, our teaching complies with RWS requirements – it did so already before this standard actually existed – and we recommend the RWS certification to our members. Many of them are putting it into practice on their farms and are attaining the certification. We don’t require our members to be RWS certified though, it’s a voluntary decision.”
So how will Ovis 21 proceed in the future?
“As we are convinced of the benefits of our work, we are continuing just like we have always done. We will concentrate our attention on where we are needed and will give advice, support and knowledge to those who call us for help.”