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July 12, 2010

Editorializing for Animal Protection, Agricultural Progress

Two editorials in the past couple of days—both ringing calls for greater protection for animals—provide a study in contrasts. One, in The New York Times, celebrates change in agriculture, where the industry was part of the process of reform. The other, in the Raleigh News & Observer, reminds us that the industry can at times be obstinate and mean-spirited, ultimately not just hurting animals, but also its own standing and reputation.

Pig in gestation crate
USDA
Pig in gestation crate.

The New York Times piece, in today’s paper, lauds the deal brokered between The HSUS, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, and the Buckeye State’s agricultural leaders as a sign of progress for animal protection. The deal provides a pathway for reform on eight issues, including phase-outs for veal crates and gestation crates in Ohio. The Times also celebrated the signing of the measure The HSUS backed in California to require “that all whole eggs sold in the state conform to the provisions of Proposition 2, the humane farming law that was embraced by state voters in a landslide in 2008.” With one out of eight consumers in America living in California, it offers the prospect of national reform of egg industry practices—mainly a phase-out of cage confinement—and is itself an incredible follow-up to Prop 2, perhaps with even more practical implications than the voter-approved law.

“Heartening as these developments are,” The Times noted however, “there is also strong resistance from the industry and from fake consumer-advocacy groups that are shilling for it,” in a not-so-concealed jab at the fraudulent front men at the Center for Consumer Freedom, which the Times exposed in a news story a couple of weeks ago as a personal enrichment scheme for the group’s founder.

Those voices of obstinacy and stasis did not succeed in California and Ohio, where The HSUS worked cooperatively with agricultural organizations to achieve good outcomes. But they did, for the moment, prevail in North Carolina. The Raleigh News & Observer ran an editorial this week that called out the North Carolina Pork Council for opposing anti-puppy mill legislation “solely because the bill was backed by the Humane Society of the United States.” The editorial board said it was a good reform and that the slippery slope logic of the Pork Council would leave us with terrible cruelty, which needed to be addressed. The newspaper said it had a “thought-exercise for the Pork Council.” In noting that The HSUS is backing legislation in Congress to stop the sale of animal crush videos, the News & Observer asked if the Pork Council is “opposed to that bill, too?”, given its tortured logic that if The HSUS backs anything, industry must oppose any such effort.

The general answer for agriculture is that it cannot stand in place. It also cannot hope to gain the trust of consumers when it defends outright cruelty, whether puppy mills, cockfighting, extreme confinement of farm animals or some other abuse that the law should forbid. Agriculture must adapt because the public increasingly sees the issue more and more like the Times described it today: “there is no justification, economic or otherwise, for the abusive practice of confining animals in spaces barely larger than the volume of their bodies. Animals with more space are healthier, and they are no less productive.”

There is no reason that agriculture cannot be commercially successful and also more humane. As the Times wrote, “Industrial confinement is cruel and senseless and will turn out to be, we hope, a relatively short-lived anomaly in modern farming.”

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