Thursday, October 22, 2015

Animal Welfare

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

Our food choices look a lot different today than they did 70 years ago. Just one or two generations ago—prior to the industrialization and explosion of Big Ag—people living in the United States could feel comfortable assuming that any meat they consumed was raised the old fashioned way—on pasture, and as one member of a relatively small group of animals. But go to a grocery store or a restaurant today, and there are any number of stories that can tell the tale of how your meat made its way onto your plate. In this article, we’re hoping to start a conversation that is driven by one simple query: How do we want our meat to be raised? As we contemplate this question, we’ll consider not only our national production practices, but we’ll also draw in a few examples from around the globe.

For many of us, when the conversation turns to the meat industry and animal welfare issues, certain images may come quickly to mind—birds in cramped cages and “downed” cows, too weak to walk. Documentaries like Food, Inc. and books such as The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food have shed light on the myriad costs—to animals, to the environment, and to our fellow humans—that often accompany the U.S.’ industrial model of meat production. Meanwhile, when we think of responsible eating, we often tend to think of anything but large, feedlot-style production systems.

However, rather than viewing meat production as a binary, composed of either “good” or “bad” systems, we at Harmony Valley Farm look at these practices as falling along a spectrum. At one end, we have a production method primarily guided by a cheap, cram-them-in mentality. Farmers are largely operating within the parameters the U.S. market has set up for them. As we move towards the opposite end of the spectrum, however, we find that animals are afforded more entitlements, albeit to varying degrees. Their cages and pens may be larger, and their diets may consist less of grains and more of grasses and bugs. They may even be so fortunate as to be recognized as sentient beings—capable of feeling emotion and pain—that are deserving of a pleasant life. On this end of the spectrum, animals are typically able to exhibit their natural behaviors. Chickens can flap their wings, roam and scratch. Pigs can socialize, flop onto their sides and forage. Cows, as ruminants, can graze on pasture, interact with their fellow herd members and experience fresh air.

If we zoom out and look at meat production from a mainstream, market-based perspective, however, choosing to treat animals as sentient beings is not yet highly rewarded in this country. Should a farmer choose to operate from an animals-as-sentient-beings standpoint, the burden of this choice primarily falls upon their shoulders and it is not always the cheapest road to travel. As Farmer Richard mentioned to me earlier this week, Harmony Valley Farm’s 15 pigs are all raised on 20 acres of pasture, which gives them the opportunity to freely roam, socialize, graze and root. The vegetable scraps and organic barley and flax they’re given are delivered daily by hand. Although these practices are all in line with pigs’ natural behaviors, this is not the way all pigs are raised.  We prefer to reside on the end of the spectrum where animals are treated with respect for their innate characteristics.  Did you know that cows and pigs like to have their heads scratched behind their ears?  If they trust you and are accustomed to your presence, you can move easily among these large animals!  We recognize the animals we raise for meat are not our pets, nonetheless we treat them gently and with respect so they do not live in fear of human touch or presence.  This creates a much more pleasant environment for them to live in and allows us as animal handlers and feeders to work amongst them more safely.  When an animal is fearful, they will react to that feeling and can do serious damage in an effort to defend themselves.

If we expand our scope and take a look at this conversation in a more global context, sadly we see that the U.S. is fairly far behind when it comes to the welfare of our animals. For instance, a growing number of countries—including the entire European Union and, most recently, New Zealand—have extended legal recognition to animals as sentient beings (McIntyre, 2015). In publicly acknowledging that animals experience both positive and negative emotions, these countries have not only made it easier to prosecute animal cruelty, they have also demonstrated to the world that they are willing to place their morals and the wellbeing of animals above the bottom dollar. In turn, with the support of the government, the market is more favorable to discerning farmers and consumers alike.

Meanwhile, innovative approaches to raising animals can be found worldwide—including here in the U.S. Imagine a piggery (though this set-up works with cows and chickens, as well) that produces no runoff or odor and attracts zero flies. In Mountain View, Hawaii, you’d find such a system. Operating in accordance with Korean Natural Farming (KRN) animal husbandry methods, this system incorporates a layering schema, whereby four feet of bedding—primarily consisting of twigs, logs, and green waste—serves as host to an active microbial, aerobic environment, kept dry by a vented, overhanging roof and an open-sided building plan. The lactic acid added to this system digests the pigs’ waste, thereby neutralizing the smell and maintaining a healthy environment. Once this system is up and running, bedding doesn’t need to be changed, only added to every few months (Prell, 2015). Farmer Richard encountered such a system when he was visiting Germany several years ago. Imagine his delight when he discovered that his hosts had established this set-up directly off of their kitchen! Contrasting this with what we are most familiar with in the U.S.—CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations—is a powerful exercise that demonstrates very succinctly the range that exists along the animal-rearing spectrum we spoke of earlier.

When it comes to animal welfare standards at play in the U.S., broad, sweeping change is possible. However, at this point in time, I would argue that farmers and consumers are primarily on the hook when it comes to working towards this change. Farmers who decide to raise animals humanely, in a system where they can exhibit their natural behaviors, will continue to depend on consumers who choose to opt out of the mainstream, cheap meat mentality—and are able and willing to pay a premium for this. As the world—along with a selection of our own farmers—continues to provide us with examples of what is possible, we can stay strong in our convictions and strive to tip the scales to favor a higher and more just standard for the animals that some of us choose to consume.

McIntyre, S. (2015, May 17). Animals are now legally recognized as ‘sentient’ beings in New Zealand. Independent. Retrieved from

Prell, J. (2015). Better pig farming: Zero-runoff, no-smell, no-fly piggeries. Acres, U.S.A.

1 comment:

NotThatKindOfFarmer said...

Very nice article.
Looks very interesting to me.
Thanks for sharing with us.