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Being a good guy doesn’t always pay June 21, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Livestock farmers often feel under the gun to prove to a wary public that they aren’t all sadistic animal abusers. But they don’t always understand why. Paraphrasing the statements of several farmers I’ve met, their reasoning goes something like this: “I have to treat my animals well. If I didn’t do the right thing by my animals, they wouldn’t produce. If they weren’t productive, I’d be out of business.” Dan Koster, a conventional pig farmer in Illinois whom I visited a year ago, added a bewildered lament that the public just didn’t get it – “That story doesn’t fly anymore, and I don’t know why, because it’s a fact.”

Is it a fact? Can we trust that business incentives, which motivate farmers to prize (depending on the species) fast growth, good muscling, or prolific milk production, thereby motivate them to treat their animals well? Or are there ways to trick nature – to systematically get away with treating animals poorly yet still get the goods that we are after in the end?

A year of research has led me to believe that the link between what used to be called “good animal husbandry” and financial success, while it probably existed a couple of generations ago, has been severed. Yes, studies still show that, for example, dairy cows whose milkers call them by name outproduce dairy cows whose milkers don’t give them such personal attention. But this higher productivity, while economically beneficial, isn’t ultimately enough to tilt the financial scales in favor of animal welfare, for two reasons. First, in many cases animals no longer need to have high welfare to be productive. Second, even when high welfare leads to high productivity, providing the conditions for it may be so costly that the expense outweighs the dollars gained.

First things first: indeed, fifty years ago, it was generally the case that you had to give animals minimally decent treatment to ensure their productivity. Since then, the widespread use of antibiotics (in all species and breeds) and growth hormones (in dairy herds) has conveniently eliminated the need to do so. True, antibiotics don’t solve all problems, but they do allow you to get away with a lot more foot infections, open sores, and respiratory diseases than you used to. So, rather than having to prevent these scourges by providing animals with, say, natural flooring, fresh air, and space to move freely, you can stuff them in concrete pens breathing ammonia-saturated air and they’ll still grow like weeds. And you’ll come out ahead financially, because antibiotics cost less than welfare-friendly amenities like spacious pens, straw for the floor, and trained workers experienced in animal care.

Secondly, the productivity of the animals in your herd is only one financial consideration, which must be weighed against other financial considerations to achieve the highest profit. In some livestock specialties, it is more profitable to have a slightly less productive herd than to invest in the infrastructure required to raise a more productive herd. The broiler chicken industry is a case in point. The cost of each egg or baby chicken is negligible relative to some of the other costs borne by chicken producers. Huge barns and modern ventilation systems, for example, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and labor costs are also relatively high. Therefore, the most cost-effective arrangement is to crowd as many birds as possible into each building, and spend as little human time as possible looking after them, even though doing so will cause more birds to grow sick and die before they can be sold. A few dead birds, though they reduce the productivity of the flock, represent just pennies of unrecouped costs compared to the vast sums of money that investing in better buildings and people would require.

So no, farmers don’t have to treat their animals well to make them productive, and no, the animals don’t have to be maximally productive for the farmer to be maximally profitable. We consumers cannot rely on financial incentives to align the interests of farmers with the interests of the animals they keep. Instead, we have to do a little legwork to find the farmers, or brands, or certifications, we can trust to do more than race to the low-cost bottom; and we have to be willing to pay a premium for them to do it.

The USDA Challenge to Fischer Family Farms June 10, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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This week see my article for Heavy Table on how proposed changes to slaughter and processing regulations might endanger small farmers. Plus, some pretty pictures of piggies!

The trials and tribulations of a 100% grassfed butter company June 4, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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This week see my article on Pastureland dairy at Simple, Good, and Tasty for a look at why a butter maker with unflagging local support almost went out of business due to the vagaries of the skim milk market.

What’s wrong with this picture? May 27, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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This isn’t really the picture I wanted; I had to download it from random web images. The picture I really wanted was the photo I should have taken (but didn’t) cruising up Minnesota State Highway 52 North this past Tuesday. What I saw was the perfect storm: a lone tree in the middle of an otherwise empty field, about half as leafy as the one shown above, and a whole herd of dairy cows plopped down under it, maybe seven times as many as in the photo here.

Now that you’ve got your imagination around that, what’s wrong with it? The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. No doubt that plot of land was owned by a small dairy farmer trying to do right by his cows, letting them out to graze. (I will admit that the grass in the field was a lush green, not the brown dust you see above.) No doubt they had plenty of room to roam around, plenty of time to chew their cud, and plenty of low-key companionship from their fellows. In the middle of the day, however, instead of capitalizing on the simple pleasures of bovine life, these cows decided to crowd together like they were in a feedlot worthy of Food, Inc. Why? Because cows overheat easily, and it was an unseasonably warm and sunny 90-degree May day. And the pasture had no other shade. No other trees, no man-made tarps, nothing. Cows in a more natural setting would find the trees by whatever creek was nearby or wade right into the water, but these cows didn’t have that alternative. So they heaved their thousand-pound bodies next to each other to take advantage of every leaf of sun cover available.

Which is why the conventional cattle industry has a good point when they say that confinement inside barns is a plus for animal welfare. Barns are typically dry and temperature-controlled (although in sometimes rudimentary ways) and therefore do remove one perennial source of discomfort for all species: the vagaries of the weather.

But the beauty of it is, we really don’t have to choose between letting cows graze naturally and giving them the shelter from the elements that they would naturally find if not limited to the acreage a farmer happens to own. The best farmers, like two that I met in the past week, do both. Jeff Jump of the Scenic Central Milk Producers’ co-op in Boscobel, WI has a barn and a pasture, and it’s open access for the cows. They get to choose where they want to be. Michelle and Roger Benrud of Benrud Dairy in Goodhue, MN rope off tracts of their tree-lined stream-front property and manage it specifically for the cows’ use on hot days. (Since the Benruds pasture their cows outside in Minnesota winters, too, they build windbreaks out of hay bales so the animals can avoid stinging winter gales.) Kudos to all the farmers out there who are doing it right, and exhortations to all my readers to, as always, KNOW YOUR FARMER.

PETA under the farmer’s gun again May 20, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I lamented in a prior post the livestock industry’s defensiveness in the face of attacks by animal welfare organizations like PETA and the Humane Society. Wish I could say that they’ve started to see the light, but apparently molting chickens are not the only ones kept in the dark.

The latest tirade against the animal welfare movement comes from a Minnesota dairy farmer, Josh Tharaldson, in a letter to the trade newspaper The Farmer.* Tharaldson resents PETA’s release of a 12-point plan for humane dairy practices which followed an exposé of abuse at a Pennsylvania Land O’ Lakes supplier.  Farmers are an independent bunch and don’t like to be told how to run their businesses by flaky-minded soft-hearted city-dwellers, and Tharaldson is no exception. He correctly points out that some of PETA’s recommendations, like having a vet come out once a week to check herd health, are completely unrealistic: “…there wouldn’t be enough vets in this country to do that, and hiring uncertified individuals would only worsen the problem.”

But what about some of PETA’s other suggestions – my personal favorite being farms installing video cameras of their animal handling areas that are monitored by independent third parties? Well, Tharaldson has better ideas. In response to PETA’s reliance on hidden cameras to document animal abuse in its undercover investigation of the Land O’ Lakes dairy, Tharaldson says “…the placement of a hidden camera on someone’s property without their consent is unethical and invasive…” And, in case you didn’t get the hint, PETA, “Trespassing is against the law.” What should PETA do if not conduct undercover investigations? “…overall, the farmers in this country really care for their animals and wish that PETA would find a different cause to worry about; maybe they should create a plan that addresses the treatment of the homeless people in the United States.”

Among all these suggestions for PETA, what suggestions does Tharaldson have for dairy farmers themselves to prevent the sorts of abuses that have been documented over and over (and over, and over) again by hidden cameras like PETA’s? None. Zip. Zero. He notes that “most” farmers care about their animals; but what about the ones that don’t? And what about the corporate-owned dairies that are not operated by traditional farmers at all, and that supply huge quantities of milk, cheese, and yogurt to ordinary Americans?

Tharaldson has no solution for the animal abuse that inevitably happens in an industry which simply lacks the incentive to prevent it. He has a solution for the negative PR such abuse carries with it, though, and that’s to prevent anyone from seeing it. And he’s not alone; his reaction is typical of the poultry, pork, beef, and dairy industries. Until animal agriculture fesses up that it has a problem, and starts to do something about it (something more than corporate whitewashing, that is), PETA and its like are the only check against abuse that the animals at its mercy have. News flash: the best way for the industry to get PETA off its back is to fix the problem.

*The Farmer, March 2010, p. 10

Can organics feed the world? May 11, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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Robert Paarlberg pointedly decries the Luddite sympathies of elite Western foodies in a recent piece in Foreign Policy. In “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers,” Paarlberg argues that today’s trendy push to make food sustainable, which he defines as “organic, local, and slow,” hampers our ability to solve a more important food problem: world hunger. Defenders of sustainability, swayed by romantic visions of pre-industrial agriculture, want to take us back to the days before artificial fertilizer and genetically-engineered seeds. If successful, they will prevent the developing world from taking advantage of the huge productivity gains that those tools bestowed on the West, thereby ensuring a future as dogged by hunger as its past.

Paarlberg makes several good points, including that farmers in the developing world need access to improved infrastructure (like better roads to bring products to market) and that they would benefit from food-safety improvements such as reliable refrigeration and packaging. Of course, none of these points would be denied by any advocate of sustainable food, so Paarlberg is attacking a bit of a strawman here. I’d like to focus on one of his more controversial views, which centers on the “organic” part of sustainability. Paarlberg states that organic farming is not friendlier to the environment than conventional farming; that, in fact, it’s worse for the environment because it requires the use of more land to grow the same amount of food. If we force organic practices down the throats of developing nations, then, we aren’t relieving their hunger, and we’re actually speeding up the degradation of their natural resources.

Paarlberg cites two reasons for rejecting organic farming. The first is that without the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is not allowed under organic standards, developing countries would need a lot more animal manure, which means they’d have to do a lot more land- and resource-intensive animal grazing. Oddly, to support this argument Paarlberg uses statistics from the US:

Less than 1 percent of American cropland is under certified organic production. If the other 99 percent were to switch to organic and had to fertilize crops without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that would require a lot more composted animal manure. To supply enough organic fertilizer, the U.S. cattle population would have to increase roughly fivefold. And because those animals would have to be raised organically on forage crops, much of the land in the lower 48 states would need to be converted to pasture.

This is neither true of the US nor applicable to the developing world. Not true of the US because cattle are not the only source of manure. Currently, excess manure produced by conventional livestock production (especially swine production) results in both miles of manure lagoons and toxic overapplication of manure in areas adjacent to livestock facilities. Redistributing this manure to crops that are currently artificially fertilized would greatly reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer, but fertilizer is so cheap relative to the cost of transporting manure that doing so is not financially sound. (Pricing the environmental externalities of artificial fertilizer into its cost would address this problem.) Nor is Paarlberg’s point applicable to the developing world. Meat consumption in the developing world is forecast to rise dramatically through 2050 simply due to increased demand as populations become richer, not because of the need for natural fertilizer.* Nonetheless, with more abundant meat comes, inevitably, more abundant shit. One might argue that meat consumption won’t rise without a prior rise in conventional, non-organic, crop production to feed the engine of intensive animal agriculture, but there is an alternative: the development of farms which raise both plants and animals in a self-sustaining balance (more on that below).

Paarlberg’s second argument against organic methods is an oft-repeated one: that organic crop yields are lower than conventional yields, so farming organically requires more land to produce the same amount of food. In his words, “Organic field crops also have lower yields per hectare. If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined.” Implication: organic techniques in the developing world would require massive deforestation there.

Even proponents of organic, such as the folks at the Organic Center, agree that organic crop yields are generally lower than conventional yields. However, it’s important to realize that most organic agriculture still makes use of low-performing monocultures. All the organic lettuce we Whole Foods shoppers get from Earthbound Farm comes from land that is dedicated purely to lettuce production, and producing monocultures this way results in soil that is lower-yielding. Superior yields have been produced by farmers who reject monoculture crops in favor of so-called “stacked” production methods that rotate plant and animal species frequently, but since these efforts are so new and small in scale the evidence remains purely anecdotal. In sum, we shouldn’t write off organics because they are often grown in monocultures with comparatively low yields; we should continue to explore higher-yielding ways of producing organically.

In any case, even though organic yields in the West are typically lower than conventional yields there, they are still far higher than conventional yields in the developing world. Michael Pollan, that foodie guru, cites a University of Michigan study in his New York Times essay Farmer in Chief demonstrating that adoption of modern organic practices in the developing world could increase food production by as much as 50%. It would seem that feeding the world and sustainability are not mutually exclusive goals.

Having said all this, I’m not insisting that organics are the way to go. The moderate in me says that there are almost certainly cases in which a judicious use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is part of an optimal food production system. But we do need to get a lot closer to the organic ideal. Paarlsberg misses his mark in dismissing that project as no more than misguided foodie elitism.

*UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, p.10.

Why animal lovers should eat meat May 2, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Greetings from Turkey, where I am currently on holiday. Plenty of free range chickens are running around my pension (and pretty much everywhere else in town) in Cirali.

In my absence, I invite you to take a look at the article I wrote for Simple, Good, and Tasty last week on why animal lovers should (or at least can, with a clear conscience) eat meat. Enjoy!

Book review: Eating Animals April 22, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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Once I read this book I had to forgive Jonathan Safran Foer for stealing my original blog name for its title. (For a brief moment in time before it became From Animal To Meat, this blog was called Eating Animals.) Well, since he was working on the book for a couple of years before the blog even became a twinkle in my eye, I guess he didn’t really steal it, but still.

Eating Animals is pretty wonderful, in a grim, gory, factory-farm exposé sort of way. From my own research, I’d say Safran Foer’s descriptions of the revolting underside of conventional livestock production are not sensationalized but merely accurate. He also stresses, and often has statistical data to back up, the depressing frequency of inhumanity. For example, he notes that welfare auditor Temple Grandin reported in 1988 that she’d witnessed “deliberate acts of cruelty occurring on a regular basis” at 32% of the slaughter plants she’d visited. After over a decade of supposed improvements, reviews and audits in 2005 and 2008 revealed inhumane treatment at 26% of chicken slaughterhouses and 25% of cattle facilities.*

What I find even more intriguing about EA than its revelations on factory farming, though, is that Safran Foer asks tough questions about the purportedly humane alternatives. Unlike Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who uncritically champions small-scale, back-to-nature farming, Safran Foer examines these methods with a gaze just as penetrating as the one he applies to factory farming.  What he finds is that in almost all cases, even the most compassionate farmers still brand, castrate, and dehorn their cattle, or rely on unscrupulous breeders to supply their stock. For him, this is a reason to turn away from eating meat and advocate vegetarianism. (Why he doesn’t take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion and promote veganism, I’m not sure. His failure to even mention it is a disappointing omission.)

This is where I part ways with Safran Foer. He would subject the livestock industry to an impossibly high standard – guaranteeing a completely pain-free life and death to its animals – to justify consuming its products. But no life, whether on the farm or in the wild, whether animal or human, is completely free from suffering. That inescapable fact does not imply that no life is worth living. If the lives we provide farm animals are reasonably good, the unattainability of perfection should not keep us from breeding, raising, and, yes, killing them for food.

Respectful disagreements aside, thanks and kudos to Safran Foer for confronting the issue honestly and thoughtfully. I just hope the title of his book doesn’t deter those who perhaps haven’t been as reflective about their own omnivorous habits from picking it up.

*pp. 255-256.

Cradle to grave April 16, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I’ve just started flipping through Jonathan Safran Foer’s pro-vegetarian tome Eating Animals (book review soon to come).  I was primarily curious about Safran Foer’s point of view on putatively ethical methods of raising farm animals. We all know we should avoid factory-farmed meat, but with the budding renaissance of farmers markets and CSAs giving us access to humanely-produced meat, why would one still plump for vegetarianism?

Safran Foer takes as a case in point the production of broiler chickens. (That is, chickens raised for meat, not for eggs.) No matter how conscientiously farmers raise their chickens, he notes, virtually all farmers get their starter eggs or chicks through the mail from massive hatcheries that don’t bother themselves with inconvenient moral standards. So even though Clucky may be living it up on farmer Joe’s sunny pastures, her parents and grandparents back at the hatchery didn’t have it so good. And if you buy Clucky from Farmer Joe, you are supporting not just him, but the hatchery where he gets his birds and all their detestable factory farm practices.

Having made this case against the ethical credentials of even humanely-raised poultry, Safran Foer goes on to profile farmer Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry, who breeds chickens himself without the assistance of commercial hatcheries. Safran Foer admits that Reese offers a cradle-to-grave ethical option; so it does exist, after all. However, Safran Foer claims Reese’s is the only ranch that can make this claim. Is this the case? While it is true that most chicken farms buy from breeders rather than breed themselves, I find it hard to believe that all breeders operate conventional factory-style hatcheries.  In particular, the tiny size of the heritage poultry market would make it difficult for heritage breeders to operate on the scale of conventional factory farms. However, I don’t have any evidence to prove that, even if smaller in scale, they are ethically any better. The best thing to do if you want to continue to buy Clucky and her peers is probably to probe your farmer on the source of her chicks and, if necessary, call her breeder and ask about their practices. If you’re lucky enough to find a farmer who breeds herself, one note: she may have had no choice but to buy from a conventional factory-style hatchery just to start off her first generation of birds. As long as she is now breeding successive generations independently, that shouldn’t be a reason to walk away. A one-time bargain with conventional hatcheries strikes me as an acceptable price to pay to become independent from them forever afterward.

If anyone reading this knows of breeders who stick to humane practices, please comment!

Industry self-policing: contradiction in terms? April 9, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Growing public awareness of conventional animal agriculture goes hand in hand with growing public disgust with conventional animal agriculture. Some farm sectors, realizing this, have decided to pre-empt the latter by voluntarily adopting animal welfare programs. I guess they figure that if they can convince the public that they actually give a crap, and that they’re doing something to improve the conditions under which animals are raised, perhaps the public won’t pass referendums like California’s Proposition 2 banning poultry battery cages, veal crates, and gestation crates for pigs.

Are industry-led animal welfare initiatives anything more than a PR stunt? Let’s start to answer that question by looking at the National Pork Board’s PQA Plus certification program. “PQA” stands for “Pork Quality Assurance”, and this original version of the program was designed purely to improve food safety, not to improve animals’ lives. In 2007, according to the Pork Board, they updated the program and added the “Plus” to its title to

…reflect increasing customer and consumer interest in the way food animals are raised. PQA Plus was built as a continuous improvement program. Maintaining its food safety tradition to ensure that U.S. pork products continue to be recognized domestically and internationally as the highest quality and safest available, it also provides information to ensure producers can measure, track and continuously improve animal wellbeing. With PQA Plus, pork producers have another tool to demonstrate that they are socially responsible.

So the PQA Plus program gives something to producers – information so they can measure and improve animal wellbeing. But does it require anything of producers? It does – to get the certification, producers must undergo training and site assessments. Do they have to pass the assessments? Uh, no. Apparently, requiring that their members actually meet the standards upon which they are being assessed would be just a little too radical for the Pork Board. As Mark Whitney of the University of Minnesota extension school clarified in an article in The Farmer:

The assessment is not an audit or pass-fail test. It is an assessment resulting in suggestions on how to improve the current operation. It provides potential areas to add value to the operation, but does not define how and when these can or should be done.*

So much for our piggy friends. On the other hand, in 2005 the main industry body governing egg production, the United Egg Producers (UEP), resolved to prohibit its members from force molting hens through starvation/thirst, which had been common industry practice. According to the UEP, 83% of all US egg producers have since eliminated force molting. One can always wonder whether the annual audits that supposedly check compliance are genuine, but here industry has certainly taken a step in the right direction.

*The Farmer, July 2009, p. 8

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