Friday, October 9, 2009

Who Makes Decisions About Animal Welfare?

Consider this excellent musing on the formation of public policy, and try to think about it in terms of animal welfare. Who decides how eggs or pork will be produced? Who decides whether cattle will enter a feedlot? Who decides whether animals will be raised at all for food?

Pleasant Comments About United Egg Producers

Last week I attended a Media Field Day held by the United Egg Producers. The idea was to have the media tour cage and cage-free egg farms and then attend information sessions features speakers by UEP affiliates, such as economic consultants hired by the UEP and the UEP Scientific Panel.

I have been studying egg production for over two years intensely, so I was excited at the prospect of being able to actually see the farms. I had been trying all summer but no farm would let me visit. Both the cage and cage-free facilities were almost exactly what I expected, with the cage-free being more impressive than I thought it would be.

The information sessions were straight-forward and honest. When describing and defending the cage system, one of the scientists blatantly described the disadvantages, describing how the cage restricts behavioral needs of the animal. The point is that while the UEP affiliates were indeed lobbying for the UEP, they were honest and forthright. I applaud them for this, and I wonder how straightforward their opposition would be?

I am sincerely appreciative to the UEP, so in return, in this post I am going to make some pleasant comments about the UEP. These comments are statements that I sincerely believe, where I am purposely leaving out any comment that is in opposition to UEP. For readers who think I am being too soft, I urge you to remember that the purpose of this posting was to be honest but soft. Here goes...this is Bailey being as pro-UEP as he can be...

Bailey's Pleasant Comments Regarding the United Egg Producers

The United Egg Producers (UEP) are truly placed in a difficult position. They have been producing cage eggs for decades, and there is little doubt that cage eggs are what consumer prefer (at the currently prices in which they are sold). UEP producers sell both cage and cage-free eggs, and cage eggs dominate the market with cage-free being little more than an interesting novelty. While the UEP has a customer base that clearly prefer cage eggs, they are being placed under considerable pressure by certain groups to cease cage egg production, and convert fully to cage-free eggs. In short, they are being forced by interest groups that represent a small minority of consumers to cease selling the very product that their consumers desire. I do not envy the UEP and the setting they must operate.

It is also worth pointing out that the UEP has a number of very prestigious animal scientists, who tell the UEP that cage production is humane. Let me repeat this. Although powerful animal groups are seeking to ban cage egg production, some of the most prestigious and knowledgeable people in the world in the area of farm animal welfare blatantly assert that cage production is humane.

Thus, we have a situation where egg customers primarily desire cage eggs, and some of the foremost experts believe that cage egg production is humane. How is the UEP expected to do anything other than fight animal advocacy groups who attempt to ban cage egg production? When animal scientists are telling them that cage egg production is humane, how is UEP supposed to do anything other than argue that the animal advocacy groups "true" agenda is to rid the world of animal food production?

Finally, given the fact that the vast majority of consumers want cage eggs and the fact that many animal scientists assert that cage egg production is humane, should cage eggs be banned based on the research of two agricultural economists named Bailey Norwood and Jayson Lusk? If one book called Ham and Eggonomics argues that "educated" consumers actually desire cage eggs over cage-free eggs and argues that cage-free eggs are "more humane", is one book enough to outweigh all these other considerations?

I can honestly say that while I hope our upcoming book does well, I do not desire for it to receive the undeserved acclaim and allegiance that certain books about food today receive.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Egg Farm Video

I've been suggesting to the United Egg Producers that they upload videos of cage and cage-free production for some time. They have arrived! They have some very nice videos showing clearly what the farms look like so that readers can contrast UEP videos, which will show the best side of egg production, to videos from animal rights groups, which will show worst side of egg production. Those videos are injected in parts of the Feedstuffs Foodlink video below.

Egg Housing Transition Study

Feedstuffs recently ran a story about an economic study detailing the impacts of a nationwide shift from cage to cage-free egg production. Last week I attended a presentation by the economic firm conducting the study, and can say that they generally did a good job with the analysis. A narrative of the results is shown below.

However, there is one area in which the analysis could be improved. The study, conducted by Promar International, detailed the costs of a nationwide switch to cage-free production, but they ignored the benefits. My research (detailed in an academic working paper and a forthcoming book) provides a good deal of evidence suggesting that consumers as a whole prefer cage-free egg production, and when educated about egg production, the value they place on cage-free eggs over cage eggs is greater than the cost premium. Put differently, we find that although cage-free eggs do cost more to produce, educated consumers are more than willing to pay this cost.

There are many more complicated issues to consider, and I am not trying to persuade readers to support a nationwide ban (I do not support/oppose anything). What I am saying is that a study that analyzes the cost of a policy without considering the benefits will always be somewhat misleading.

Excerpt from Promar Study...
Such a transition would increase the cost of eggs for consumers 25% or more, would increase the cost of eggs for government nutrition programs $169 million per year and could increase egg imports from virtually zero now to 7 billion eggs per year, according to the study, commissioned by the United Egg Producers (UEP) and conducted by Promar International, an economic consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

The Pollan-Singer Travesty

If you keep up with food and agricultural news (and gossip) you will likely agree that Michael Pollan is everywhere. From The Omnivore's Dilemma to Food, Inc. he is providing fodder for debates about how food is produced. Some worship him as the prophet who discovered a capitalistic conspiracy, and some consider him an enemy to truth. Like him or not, we all know him, and his books and movies are talked about by large numbers of people.

As an economist I am not a Pollan fan because he exploits the natural tendencies of some people to oppose capitalism for false reasons. Although the U.S. provides people with the potential to have the most healthy, inexpensive, and delicious diet of any human society, some people choose to neglect the healthy part. A business can only produce what the consumer wants, so businesses provide unhealthy food for people who want unhealthy food. Pollan then blames our health problems on the companies, not the consumer. I have tried to read Pollan's books but find the narratives either illogical or sensationalized. Because I feel one can only become less informed by reading Pollan, I have not finished any of his books and do not allow my students to read his books for Honors credit.

The book that I love is one no one is talking about: The Way We Eat by Peter Singer. Animal welfare is undoubtedly the most important issue in agriculture. In The Way We Eat, Singer provides an accurate, logical, and thorough depiction of how animals are raised for food. He dwells on the bad parts, failing to mention the many ways in which animals like cattle are raised humanely, but that is not his job. His job is to bring attention to problems in livestock agriculture, and he does it without logical fallacies, sensationalizing, or by misleading the reader. As someone who has worked on farms and studied the issue, I can say that his book is factual enough to be the centerpiece of a debate.

(Note: I'm not saying I agree completely with Singer on everything or that I support any particular animal rights or animal welfare agenda...I'm merely saying that Singer's book is logical and researched enough to serve as a narrative to debate around, and that the implications of farm animal welfare are important enough that the topic deserves much attention)

If animal welfarists and animal rightists are correct, we are imposing incredibly cruelty upon farm animals daily. Are they correct? That is what we should be debating--not whether corporate agriculture is making us sick. So why does Pollan get all the attention while Singer is relegated to the small minority of animal rightists readers?

The reason is simple: people care largely about themselves (e.g. obesity) and they like blaming other people for their troubles, and Pollan delivers this need. Singer wants us to consider the suffering of other sentient beings and to take responsibility for our role in whatever suffering exists. If our society desires to become a more compassionate and ethical people the first step is to cast aside all works by Michael Pollan and begin studying and reading The Way We Eat. That, at least, is my plea to every American who cares about ethics and who cares about food. Farm animal welfare is the most pressing agriculture issue, and we have only begun to have a real dialogue. Put down Pollan, pick up Singer, and join the Ham and Eggonomics discussion on the state of farm animal welfare!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Broiler Production Background

Hello AGEC 1114 Students! Below is a good video on the broiler industry.

Or, if you don't want to like the broiler industry, try this video.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Thoughtful Comments From A Reader

I often make analogies between the rearing of animals and rearing of children, arguing that just as we do not prohibit the rearing of children despite the fact that some will be abused, we should not eliminate animal food production based on the fact there are producers who abuse their animals. One reader left a very thoughtful response which I thought was worth considering, so I pasted it below. Enjoy!

With any analogy there are maybe 2 or 3 likes and 41 differences. I don’t want to be the pesky commenter that picks out every difference, but I want to comment on your child-raising/animal-rearing comparison to make a point about your conclusion here and in other postings.

You’re probably correct that most consumers who watch investigatory farm footage assume that the spotlighted farms are bad apples (if for no other reason than to absolve their consumption choices). But that is a faulty assumption. I think you would agree that the great majority of animal suffering in animal agriculture – particularly in CAFOs, but also in smaller operations – results not from callousness or careless management, but simply from built-in production models designed to minimize cost and maximize productivity (e.g., chickens cannot be optimally grown without selective breeding that causes extensive welfare issues). Most welfare issues thus emerge from production systems and are often irremovable without systematic reform (e.g., no matter how well a battery-cage facility is managed, hens will lack the space to engage in many natural behaviors).

So unless a CAFO investigation video depicts problems that can be directly linked to individual actions independent of system-wide features, it is only fair to assume that the problems are (roughly) representative of operations of comparable magnitude and design (which as Anthony clarifies are not the majority of farms, but account for the majority of animal production).

But then can we say that CAFOs are the bad apples and are exceptional to smaller operations? They are indeed extreme examples, but even smaller farms generally commodify animals into sellable products, in the sense that farming practices are designed to optimize efficiency of animal production within certain parameters. For instance, in this pig operation, which is idyllic as they come, farmers still cut corners that hurt animal welfare:

Child raising, in contrast, is not an economic institution and children are victims of individual abusers not systems of production. With child abuse, culpability lies squarely with the parents. By contrast, in the face of systematic mistreatment of farm animals, consumers must accept that such systems are driven by their demand and must accept personal responsibility. That is why, while it makes little sense to swear off child-bearing in reaction to child abuse, it is reasonable to swear off animal products in reaction to the intrinsic economy of raising animals for food, at least in non-subsistence agriculture.

Generally, I am a huge fan of your writings for your thoroughness, nuance, and impatience with bias. That said, I think you are too quick to dismiss veganism as extreme or unreasonable without closely examining its merits.

Overview of Egg Industry for AGEC 1114 Students

This blog entry contains an overview of the egg industry for my AGEC 1114, Introduction to Agricultural Economics, class.

Overview of the Egg Industry

The breed of chickens used for egg production is an entirely different breed used for egg production. The egg production process starts at the hatchery, where hens and roosters breed naturally in a cage-free environment. Male chicks cannot lay eggs and they are not profitable to grow for meat, so they are killed soon after birth. The slaughter process can be viewed here. The female chicks are then sent to an egg farm, where 95% will be raised in a cage facility and the remainder are raised in a cage-free or free-range setting. (Show videos of cage and cage-free production, the UEP would not let me post them of free-range production available here).

Before the 1950's egg production took place on rather small, free-range farms. The hens were given access to the outside partially because the feed formulations in those days (animal nutrition was a nascent science at the time) were lacking in certain nutrients. The hens had to have sunlight for Vitamin D and to forage for nutrients lacking in the feed. Over time scientists learned how to formulate feed containing all the hens' nutritional needs. They also learned that it was less expensive to raise hens permanently indoors. By providing a constant, comfortable temperature, protecting the animal from predators, reducing the animals' movements so that they don't burn much energy, and and other technological advancements the industry reduced the cost of production. Between 1950-today those who did not transition to these factory farms had to go out-of-business because their costs were too high. The low production cost also led to a greater supply of eggs, and lower prices. These hens are egg factories; they will start laying at 17 weeks of age and until they are spent (slaughtered, harvested, whatever word you like) at 115 weeks of age. During this period she will lay more than 500 eggs.

The welfare of hens has received much attention lately. Let us discuss the pros and cons of the various available egg production systems.

Cage System - the hens are housed in a small, barren cage with five other hens for their entire lives. Their biological needs are met in that the house provides them with a comfortable environment, protects them from predators, and the cage protects them from aggression by other birds. Still, they must have their beaks trimmed at an early age to reduce aggression and injury from fighting birds (the trimming causes significant pain, but when done properly the pain is not permanent). The disadvantage is that birds undeniably have biological needs. They strongly desire to walk and move around. Yet the cage only provides 67 square inches per bird when the bird needs 75 square inches just to stand comfortably (and much, much more to flap their wings). The hens desire to utilize perches, forage for food, dustbathe, scratch in the dirt, and lay eggs in nests, but all of these needs are denied in the cage system.

Cage-Free System - the hens are housed in a large flock (greater than 20,000 birds) without a cage. The birds have two to three times the space per hen than in a cage system. To meet their biological needs they are given an area to scratch in the dirt for food, perches, and nests. The disadvantage of the cage system is that the large flock size encourages aggression. Birds regularly injure and cannibalize one another. For example, the mortality rate in a cage-free environment is 7-15% compared to 3% in a cage system. Beak trimming is performed to reduce injury and mortality, but mortality is still higher in the cage-free system compared to the cage system.

Free-Range System - birds in a free-range system typically have all of their needs met and are happy birds, were it not for predators. Some farms have lose 25% of their birds or more to predators.

Economics, Efficiency, and the Environment - the cage system is the less expensive system because it requires less inputs for each egg produced. This means that less water, pesticides, corn, and the like are used to produce an egg. Those who are concerned about the environment sometimes tout the efficiency of the cage system because it produces less environmental pollution than cage-free eggs.

Public Debates - in the last ten years the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has begun a campaign to ban cage egg production. For example, they arranged a petition to allow a ballot initiative in California which essentially asked taxpayers if they wanted to ban cage egg production. It passed with a large majority of Californians. A similar effort may pass in Michigan, but through the legislature and without a referendum. The HSUS is undoubtedly trying to ban cage egg production everywhere they can. The egg industry, represented by the United Egg Producers (UEP) argues that cage egg production is humane and that the real agenda of the HSUS is to ban the eating of animal products. The directors of HSUS are typically vegan and can be considered animal rights activists. However, the HSUS membership is largely comprised of meat-eaters and the HSUS board is filled by both vegans and meat-eaters.

Cage-Free Egg Production - a market for cage-free egg production does exist, but only comprises 5% of egg production. Part of the reason is that the premiums charged to consumers at the grocery store is often three times more than the higher cost of cage-free production. If grocery stores charged a price more consistent with the cost of production the market for cage-free production would be much larger. The current environment is one where the UEP and HSUS are battling over whether cage egg production is banned, but one in which there is very little effort on anyone's part to actively promote cage-free production. That is, the battle is being waged on whether we force consumers to consume cage-free eggs, not a battle for market share between cage and cage-free egg production.