Thursday, July 9, 2009

As a friend of ag, allow me to weigh in...

Livestock agriculture and animal advocacy groups are in an important battle over how farm animals should be raised. A few years ago, I focused my research efforts upon the farm animal welfare issue because I considered myself a friend of livestock, and I did not like the manner in which agriculture engaged the animal welfare issue. I wanted agriculture to do better, so I have offerred my time. This blog entry is part of this commitment.

Whether the current strategy of livestock agriculture will win in the public perception and the political arena I do no pretend to know. I have enough difficulties being a good economist, that I cannot afford to try and be a good political scientist as well. What I do know is the livestock agricultural agenda is not winning in the intellectual arena.

Consider the recent editorial: Farmers responsible stewards of livestock. Letters like these are getting old and do not reflect the level of enlightenement which I know the authors possess. Livestock agriculture needs to stop repeating its talking points, which are largely designed to make farmers feel better about themselves. Farmers have nothing to feel ashamed about. They are producing the exact commodity the consumer [currently] desires. If animal welfare needs to be increased then it is the consumer who is responsible for demand more humane products and paying the associated premium. Farmers are only doing what every good business is morally charged to perform: producing the good consumers desire.

That said, let us explore why this editorial is an epitome of livestock agriculture's intellectual failings.

Providing good care to the animals on our farms is a second sense within us, because we each have lifetimes of experience doing so. Any good farmer knows that good care also equals profitability. That’s why for years we as farmers have been financing meaningful scientific research through our commodity associations to benefit animals’ behavioral and psychological needs.

When the farm animal welfare debate first appeared back in 1965 Britain, the hypothesis that animal welfare can be measured by productivity and profits was offerred and quickly dismissed in the Brambell Report. Nothing has changed since 1965. Animal welfare is only partially related to animal productivity, and animal agriculture needs to stop pretending it to be otherwise. Moreover, it is arguable that many farmers do not actually understand their hogs needs, and I will offer myself as an example. In my youth I spent considerable time working on confinement hog farms, and it formed a particular impression in my mind about what hogs desire. That impression was later proved wrong when I visited a hog farm that operated under the Animal Welfare Institute guidelines. For the first time in my life, after years of working on hog farms, I saw a hog run. I saw a hog merrily playing in mud even in cold temperatures. At that visit, I realized that I knew how to run a factory farm, but I knew very little about the animals on that farm.

It seems what started with Walt Disney’s personification of animals with Mickey Mouse has evolved into a segment of society that puts the supposed needs of animals above humans. Some people seem to care more about what they call mistreatment of animals than a rash of other societal ills.

These same people are leading the charge across our nation to eliminate livestock agriculture, hunting and even pet ownership. Too often they deliver their deceptive messages as self-appointed experts on animal care. When farmers shrug them off in the face of assault, then the public only hears their exaggerated side of the issue. As they say on the farm, you reap what you sow.

The issue of whether animal welfare should be improved does not depend on whether Wayne Pacelle (CEO of HSUS) is a vegan. I imagine many social workers, after witnessing case after case of child abuse and neglect, wish people would stop having so many children. It would be absurd to suggest that we should not do anything about child abuse because some social workers yearn for a world where parents have fewer (or maybe no) children. It is absurd to suggest that we should not improve animal welfare simply because it will appease those who want us to become vegans. It is equally absurd to assert that giving animals a better life immediately locks us in to subsequent veganism. We can have government without becoming communists, and we can treat animals well without being vegans.

Earlier this spring, when the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) announced it was holding lobbying efforts at over 40 state capitols, including Wisconsin, the Farm Bureau decided it wasn’t going to sit on its hands.

Good. It is important for society that both sides of the issue engage in battle. I am not being sarcastic, this is how real democracy works.

Instead, the HSUS is a slicker version of their friends over at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). As the new, multi-million dollar player of the professional protest industry, HSUS’s playbook is well known. They have successfully passed referendums in other states that ban certain livestock housing practices. Exhibit A of this is California’s passage of Proposition 2 last November. Voters there banned gestation stalls for sows, pens of veal calves, and wire pens for laying hens. It was an example of exaggerated emotionalism winning out over rational thought. Never mind scientific research or economic fallout, HSUS met its goal when emotions ruled the day.

The author is asserting that replacing cage eggs with cage-free eggs or eliminating gestation creates is an example of "exaggerated emotionalism winning out over rational thought." It is here, especially, where my agricultural community is losing the intellectual ground. This statement is made because it has been a talking point used by others, and makes authors feel good about themselves. It is a blatantly false statement! There are scientific studies that show both switching from cage to cage-free eggs and eliminating gestation crates is better for the animals (see here and here), and absolutely zero studies (that I know of) showing otherwise.

There are plenty of good reasons to improve and to not improve animal welfare. The decision is ultimately up to the consumer. It is true that animal advocacy groups are seeking to impose choices on consumers, but when it comes to public goods like animal welfare, that is not necessarily bad, if these animal advocacy groups accurately represent the preferences of their constituents. The suffering of a hog affects compassionate humans irregardless of who consumes the food from that sow. Animal welfare is like the environment, it belongs to everyone and cannot be parsed out like corn.

I beg of you, my livestock agriculture family, who I identify with so strongly, stop using talking points. Start reading. Start listening. Start thinking for yourself. Yes, it does present the danger that you may change your mind. That is the cost of possessing an open mind.