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July 28, 2011

In the Farm Belt, Working for Progress for Farm Animals

I am in the Midwest this week for the latest stretch of the book tour—in Des Moines last night, in Omaha today, and in Chicago tomorrow. All of these cities have had storied roles in the history of animal agriculture, with their stockyards coming to define these Midwest metropolises and their relationship to the animals and natural resources flowing in from the hinterlands.

In the 20th century, these cities grew and changed, and the stockyards were shuttered in place of neat and clean office buildings and condominiums. Only monuments to them now exist. These metropolitan areas and their economic activity have become more diversified, but the agricultural economy is still well represented here, though it’s more through commodity trading, banking services for farmers, and equipment manufacturing to facilitate increases in productivity and efficiency to meet the enormous food demands in our fast-growing world. Here, agriculture now shares the stage with insurance companies, health care, high-tech, financial services, construction, and other business enterprises of the 21st century. Yet these are the cities where many of these debates over the future of animal agriculture must be engaged, and that’s one big reason why I’m here now, pushing the conversation ahead with all concerned parties.

White chicken
iStockphoto

In Iowa and Nebraska, I’ve been talking about the agreement reached a few weeks ago between The HSUS and the United Egg Producers, the national trade association for the egg industry. Both states are top egg producers, with about 70 million laying hens, so it’s an especially relevant topic. It’s an agreement that over time will double the space for laying hens, provide enrichments to the housing for the birds, establish other important animal welfare standards, and create a national labeling program to give consumers better and more standardized information. As I told the Omaha World-Herald, neither side got all it wanted in the agreement, but both now have a roadmap to follow that is good for agriculture and better for animals.

Despite this kind of constructive engagement—which the folks in Washington, D.C. might learn a thing or two from—there are still those within the agricultural sector who operate by the same old mindsets and polarities. They snipe without warrant at The HSUS, and they consider the UEP an apostate for even agreeing to sit down and work out terms for a constructive way forward.

Such parties continue to trot out the false claim that The HSUS wants to put all farmers out of business, even when we embrace a pathway forward for animal agriculture. They cling to their rhetoric even when the facts don’t support the argument. It’s stubborn denial, and I can only conclude that these people are either so brainwashed that they cannot see fact from fiction, or they just don’t want to see improvements in animal welfare in America. They want stasis even though they live in a fast-changing world. They don’t recognize that there are a raft of new players in the debate over food policy in America, and that their views matter, too.

Sorting out the problems and correcting the excesses that have developed in the last decades won’t be easy. But the process of problem-solving and policy-making must move ahead. And stubborn refusal to engage is only going to impede progress and will result in bad outcomes for farmers, for animals, and for the nation as a whole.

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