Thursday’s Thoughts: Farm Animal Welfare

June 10, 2010

If you want a hot issue to debate, farm animal welfare qualifies.  The rhetoric is heated on both sides of the debate, and even within the opposing sides there is disagreement about what’s right.

What “sides” am I talking about?  The biggest talkers on this issue are agribusiness on one side, and the Humane Society of United States on the other.  But there are a lot of other people and organizations with a stake in the debate one way or another.  As a matter of fact, I would say everyone in America has a stake in this, whether they realize it or not.  What happens is going to impact what kind of food is available, and how much it’s going to cost.

And everyone eats.

The gist of the problem is the HSUS says farmers are not treating their livestock humanely.  To change this, they have already helped push through legislation in California that sets a deadline for all eggs produced in the state to be produced in a cage free environment.  Considering California has the 5th largest egg-laying industry in the United States, that’s a victory indeed for the HSUS.

According to a report out of the University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center, however, production of eggs in cage-free systems will cost 30 to 40% more than it did with the present caged systems.  Some of the reasons given are because of higher feed costs, higher hen mortality, higher direct housing costs, and higher labor costs per dozen eggs.

I understand the increased cost for housing and labor to care for chickens in a cage free environment.  If you can’t stack the cages on top of each other, it means you’re going to need more space.  But I scratched my head a little on the first two.  Why does it cost more to feed hens that are not caged?  That doesn’t make sense to me.  Well, I guess they’d be getting some actual exercise, so maybe burning more calories.

But why would there be a higher mortality rate?  It seems to me there should be a lower rate, UNLESS they cram so many hens into a small space that they are essentially creating a feed lot with hens.

And that’s the rub.   You can’t put the same number of chickens that used to be in cages in the same space to run loose and expect them not to fight, peck at each other, and stay disease free.  They’ve got to have some space!

All this means that eggs will be more expensive to buy.  It also means that states without the restrictive legislation can produce more eggs and ship them profitably to states with the stricter guidelines.  And that means using more gas to ship eggs to other parts of the country.  It’s a tangled web of consequences, no matter how you look at it.

Of course egg-laying chickens are just one battle.  The HSUS sees problems with the cattle industry, pork production and so on.  They say the animals need to be treated by their definitions of humane, and they’ve got the dollars to lobby and see things are done their way.

Having won their battle in California, they moved on to Ohio, the second largest egg producing state in the country, to do the same thing.  Voters didn’t go along with their agenda at elections last year, and instead passed an amendment that resulted in the creation of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board to create rules for the care of farm animals.  There is a diverse group of people on this board, with farmers, veterinarians, educators, researchers, the head of a food bank, and the president of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty of Animals of Cincinnati.

However, HSUS doesn’t feel like this board can do the job, and continues to push their own agenda.

The thing is, right or wrong, the HSUS has the big budget to do what they want.  People continue to send money to them, thinking they are helping homeless dogs and cats.  But the accounting estimates vary from less than half of 1% to 4% of money sent to HSUS going to shelters.  That would mean at the most generous estimate, for every $10 sent to the HSUS, only 40 cents actually goes to pet shelters.  That leaves $9.60 out of every $10 sent for the HSUS to use for salaries, and yes, lobbying.

That’s a lot of money when you consider in 2007, the HSUS had a budget of $120 million.  That would mean $4,800,000 for pet shelters all over the United States.  And according to a presentation in 2009 by the executive VP of the HSUS, there are about 3,500 shelters in the United States.  That would be a mere $1371.42 per year for each shelter…  and $115,200,000.00 for everything else, including lobbying.

People need to be more aware of a lot of things.  Even if the above figures are not exact, they’re close enough they need to have a better idea of how the money they send to the HSUS is being used and if they don’t agree with the HSUS policies, donate directly to local shelters instead.

But they also need to have a better idea of how their food is produced.  I don’t agree with what the HSUS is doing, because I think it’s deceptive that most people believe they are donating money to take care of homeless animals, and it’s going to lobbying and other things instead.

However, for the most part, I’m not a fan of agribusiness either.  The HSUS has some valid points, because in many cases, animals are NOT being treated humanely.  There is certainly a case for wondering how humane it is to keep chickens in tiny cages and the practices entailed in mass production of not only chickens, but many other food producing animals.

People also need to be more aware of the true value of food.  Here in America we want the best available, but we want it cheap.  We want high wages and low prices in the grocery stores.  We want the farmers to make a living, but if we can’t buy food cheap, well, let the government subsidize the farmers.  (Never mind where the government gets the money!)

And consumers need to be aware there is another way.

There are producers out there changing over to sustainable farming systems that minimize damage to the environment, produce food in a humane way, and frankly, produce a superior product.  But until we are willing to pay higher costs for foods, realizing that the cheap food has hidden costs, agribusiness will go on with business as usual.

To quote Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“Cheap industrial food . . . only seems cheap, because the real costs are charged to the environment (in the form of water and air pollution and depletion of the soil); to the public purse (in the form of subsidies to conventional commodity producers); and to the public health (in the cost of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease), not to mention to the welfare of the farm- and food-factory workers and the well-being of the animals.”

Grass-fed beef, pastured poultry, crops raised without huge amounts of pesticides… it can be done.  And given the incentive, farmers on the biggest farms would find ways to change how they produce food if the consumer demanded it and were willing to pay for it.

But first the consumer has to understand how their food is being produced, how it impacts the environment, the animals, and the quality of the food they eat, and in the end, their own health, so that they are willing to see the true value of the food they eat.

Farm animal welfare is just the tip of a very large iceberg of complex issues.

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