Eating Animals is a three part series by Thelma Lee Gross, DVM. What are our options? is the the third and final article.
Eating Animals, Part 3: What Are Our Options?
In the first two posts I outlined the problems of factory farming systems as they relate to animal welfare and discussed the practical and moral reasons for change. Vegetarianism and veganism provide only partial and impractical solutions, largely because they do not provide a rapid enough correction. What else can be done?
Image credit: Lisa Kyle for the Los Angeles Times
The USDA has established guidelines for organic food in the National Organic Program (NOP) that were implemented in 2002. As some of these guidelines deal with behavioral needs of the farm animal, including outdoor access, and there is third party oversight by the USDA, organic farming offers improved welfare over conventional systems, particularly for pork and eggs. (Farrowing crates and battery cages are not used.) However, there are some loopholes in the guidelines. There are several exceptions to allowing outdoor access for ruminants, notably “inclement weather,” which in parts of the Midwest may stretch over many months. Organic beef also may be fed in feedlots for fattening toward the end of their lives.
It may be difficult to detect substantial differences in welfare as organic farms increase in size. In a discussion of large-scale organic farming Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (p. 161):
“The industrial values of specialization, economies of scale, and mechanization wind up crowding out ecological values such as diversity, complexity, and symbiosis.”
Nevertheless, the organic movement is certainly in a welfare-positive direction, and should be encouraged and promoted on small and large farms alike. Obviously, welfare improvement on larger farms is critical because it impacts a larger number of animals.
One problem with organic farming, in my view, is the inability of the farmer to administer antibiotics. Although the USDA forbids withholding necessary treatment for sick animals under Section 205.238 of its NOP code, in practice, farmers often withhold treatment because it is impractical. Treating sick animals with antibiotics sometimes is avoided since it involves separate housing and handling of the animal, as reported recently in The Des Moines Register. Similarly, organic dairy cows with foot abscesses, a common problem, cannot be treated with antibiotics and kept as organic. Treatment may be withheld if lameness is not severe enough to affect production, or the animal may be destroyed. For this reason it seems preferable to purchase from a company with both organic and conventional farms; sick animals from organic farms can be shuffled to the conventional side if treatment is needed.
Image credit: Sustainable Grub
A practical approach to research in farm animal welfare: the Farm Animal Initiative
Instead of adopting the anthropomorphic approach of some animal rights groups, it is important to discover what an animal actually desires if given a clear choice and to adapt those choices to a practical farm setting. These welfare needs are species-specific and require research to discover and implement. For example, laying hens will learn to push a heavily weighted door to be able to dust-bathe and perch. However, an outdoor environment is not something that chickens will invariably seek, being naturally avoidant of inconvenient weather (“weather weenies” as one animal welfare scientist of my acquaintance puts it). In fact, laying hens often choose to be in shelters but must have access to other welfare enhancements such as litter for dust-bathing, nest boxes, and perches (“furnishings”). Chickens raised indoors for the first five weeks will often not venture out of doors into grassy areas when they are provided. Thus “free range” may be more of a marketing tool than a real enhancement for poultry.
The Farm Animal Initiative (FAI) in the U.K. tests animal welfare-enhanced systems on their for-profit farm, using field research in a commercial setting, and with industry backing (including TESCO and McDonalds Europe). This approach keeps practical issues for the farmer, such as ease of management and economic feasibility, on the table from the beginning. As described in The Future of Animal Farming, the FAI studies welfare systems that can be adapted to economies of scale. The FAI farm has studied environmental enrichment for pigs in group systems in which aggression is minimized and therefore tail docking is not needed. They have found that tree-enrichment of pastures for broiler chickens attracts more birds outdoors without increasing exposure to bacterial disease (although birds still avoid extreme weather). The farm’s breeding program also selects for animal welfare-enhancing traits in balance with production traits; e.g. broiler birds with slightly smaller breasts and lower-maintenance sheep that can lamb successfully outdoors in all weather. The FAI farm always emphasizes cost-effectiveness of implementation by the farmer, thus ensuring long term success. Such practical, farm-based programs as these are sorely needed in the U.S. and could be funded by industry and animal welfare groups alike.
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Third party inspection and certification programs
An important way to avoid marketing as a substitute for committed improvement of farm animal welfare involves third party independent inspection and certification programs. Several such systems exist in the U.S. and abroad. In 2000 the American Humane Association established Free Farmed Certification (now called American Humane Certification). I was unable to find a description of their standards online; access appeared to be restricted to prospective or active producer-members. This organization is currently being criticized for its support of furnished cages (cages with nests, perches, and scratching areas, as well as more space per bird). Nevertheless, these certified farms practice a higher level of welfare than conventional factory farms.
In 2003 the Human Farm Animal Care organization was formed, which certifies products that have been reared according to its strict guidelines (“Certified Humane”). Their standards are clearly presented online for the consumer and producer and are considered by some groups as the “gold standard” of its type. These standards can be adopted by large farms.
The Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program was begun in 2006. Standards are the most stringent of the three programs; however, only farms owned by individuals or families are accepted for certification, which largely restricts membership to small farms. Although the standards are laudable, it is also critical for large farms to improve their welfare standards in order to affect the greatest number of animals possible. Moderate, incremental improvements are more easily accepted by large producers.
As consumers we can send a clear message to retailers, and thus indirectly to producers, that there is a demand for animals that are raised as animals and not widgets. Consumers are the ultimate supporters of welfare improvements because increased demand in the marketplace sends a strong message to the retailer, which drives demand for these products back up the line to the farmer. This explains TESCO’s support of FAI in the U.K., for example. If we are serious about animal welfare, then we must strive to eat humanely by purchasing food for which production is welfare-driven. Increased cost is often less than anticipated, and seems a fair price to pay to the farmers who are willing to make these changes in their production methods.
Steady advancement in food animal welfare, occurring in the setting of persistent food animal product consumption, may be in conflict with more aggressive groups such as PETA, rejected by many due to positions and actions that are deemed extreme, despite their laudable goals. On the other end of the spectrum of animal welfare consciousness, increased cost of organic and other higher welfare products often is at odds with a fast-food nation mentality. Many people say one thing but pay another. But there are signs that the consumer is coming along. In 2009 voters in California passed Proposition 2, which required all farm animals to be able to stand up, turn around, and stretch their limbs, thereby curtailing the use of swine gestation and farrowing crates, as well as battery cages for laying hens. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger later closed the loophole for egg producers by requiring all out-of-state eggs to be held to the same housing requirement.
The only practical and humane solution is to consume fewer animal products and to be sure they are produced as humanely as possible. This is not a perfect solution—but neither is trying to feed everyone on grains and legumes. Actively influencing others to consume less and make better welfare choices, as advocated by Michael Pollan, may be the most practical and timely option we have. Try to purchase products that are third party certified, or, at the very least, organic. Factory-farmed meat and other products should be shunned, including eggs and milk.
If we, as moral beings, eat animals and their products or live in a world where others do, then we must strive for animal welfare systems that give them more of what they want. In other words, we must honor them with as good a life as possible, even if we personally do not eat them.