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September 20, 2007

Something Must Give for Farm Animals

This morning, I spoke at a day-long conference at the U.S. Department of Agriculture named "Food Animal Agriculture in 2020," the latest symposium organized by the Future Trends in Animal Agriculture coalition.

chicken's face
© iStockphoto

Scheduled speakers were drawn principally from the ranks of industry, animal science departments at agricultural schools, and from the USDA itself—with most of these institutions having a decided orientation toward intensive confinement systems and a demonstrably poor record on meeting the welfare needs of animals. It's been their drive for greater efficiency and productivity—and a view that the animals are mere commodities—that has resulted in a harsh and often merciless approach to production agriculture during the past 50 years.

Pigs, chickens and other animals are overcrowded in barren, filthy pens and sheds or confined in cages or crates so small that they can barely move. Some of the other serious problems within agribusiness include the grossly inhumane force-feeding of birds to produce foie gras, excluding poultry from the protections afforded by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and inadequate transport standards.

The industry lobbyist I debated today, when the question was posed to him, could not name one single practice in the entirety of animal agriculture that he thinks ought to be phased out on animal welfare grounds, even though there are a laundry list of problems that are evident to any discerning and mildly objective observer.

While animal agriculture has become more inhumane during recent decades, American attitudes toward animals have moved in the opposite direction. Two-thirds of American households have pets. There are more than 70 million wildlife watchers. There are 200 million visitors to America's national parks. Every state has strengthened its anti-cruelty statutes, with 43 states now treating malicious acts of animal cruelty as a felony. Concern about animal welfare is ascendant.

This social contradiction and disparity—a broad-minded and deepening societal concern for animals and the harsh industrial conditions that now dominate many animal agriculture sectors—cannot last forever. Something must give. And if current trends are an indicator, things are breaking in the direction of concern for animals—including 160 universities opting to purchase cage-free eggs rather than battery cage eggs, Florida and Arizona voters favoring bans on gestation crates, Oregon lawmakers banning gestation crates, major veal producers pledging to stop confining calves in crates, and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck adopting a series of important reforms at all of his operations.

American animal agriculture will continue to change, and the actors within the industry have the ability and intelligence to do so. But there are knee-jerk forces within the industry that resist even the most modest changes. They lack vision and creativity, and see moral and technological innovation as a threat rather than an opportunity. If those voices prevail, the industry is likely to continue losing control of its circumstance. Change is likely to be forced upon them through the purchasing preferences of major retailers (who sell their food to the American public) or through the policy actions by lawmakers and voters, and they will do no favors for their colleagues and partners in their business.

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