I’ve seen a number of articles, blogs, etc. lately in the animal ag press encouraging producers to stand up verbally to attacks on the industry by animal rights groups. At the extreme, some of these groups are calling for conversion to veganism. The vast majority of Americans are not going to become vegans or vegetarians. When the animal ag industry focuses on fighting the extremes, it tends to allow us to avoid the more pertinent and difficult issues relating to the way large-scale animal agriculture has evolved.
In the name of “efficiency”, many sectors of the industry have gone down a slippery slope of incremental changes in animal husbandry. Like the frog heated slowly to boiling that will die rather than jump out of the pot, our industry has slowly adopted practices that my agricultural ancestors would be horrified with.
In many cases, a practice is put into place that incrementally improves “animal welfare” over the existing condition, given the current production situation. An example is de-beaking chickens: Through a combination of changes in genetics (commercial chicken strains are more agressive than their flock-living ancestors) and living conditions (higher densities of chickens per square foot), chickens will peck at each other. It is better to remove the chicks beak than to let them peck each other to death. And so welfare studies will report that chickens are better off with de-beaking than intact.
If the industry’s current mass-production practices are so defensible, why is it that they are not routinely pictured in educational or promotional material from the very industries that use them? The egg industry uses images of hens on nests. The chicken industry pictures chickens that still have their beaks, the milk industry uses images of cows out on pasture.
Temple Grandin makes a statement in her most recent book (Animals Make Us Human) about why she is still in animal ag. She also states that if her career had started now, as opposed to when it did, she is not sure she could have seen past the current welfare situation present in many large-scale chicken, hog and feedlot operations.
We, as an industry, have lost the middle ground between animal stewardship and ag-business. Individual producers are, as a whole, conscientious caretakers of the animals in their charge. Somehow, in the translation to larger and more efficient production, however, we’ve lost our connection to the subjects of our stewardship, and often to the employees who are involved in that production. IMHO, this is what our industry needs to address more urgently than preventing a mass conversion to veganism.
N.B. This post was prompted by “The sin of animal agriculture“, a blog post to which I felt compelled to reply.