Toward a Humane, Equitable, and Sutainable Food System

Calls for reform of industrial animal food production are becoming increasingly common among scientific commissions, international agencies, activist organizations, chefs, and concerned citizens. There is nearly widespread agreement that animal factory food production must change, yet the prescriptions are not universal. Some favor incremental reforms that would place moratoriums on further expansion of certain types of livestock CAFOs. Others are working for bans against the most brutal confinement methods. Legislation to regulate antibiotic use in animal food production is being seriously considered. Voices are rising for the country to restore tens of millions of acres now under feed cultivation to permanent pastures for grass-fed livestock production. Some animal welfare advocates, such as philosopher Peter Singer and activist Eric Marcus go a step further, calling for a citizen movement to dismantle industrial animal production altogether.

The European Union currently leads the world in CAFO reforms. These changes are rooted in a seminal report produced in 1997 by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), an independent advisory body established by the British government over a decade earlier. The FAWC adopted the principles from the earlier 1965 Brambell Committee Report known as “The Five Freedoms.” These essential principles have become the guidelines and codes of practice for various animal rights, animal welfare, and humane organizations around the world. The Five Freedoms include:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst—by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort—by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury, or Disease—by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior—by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and company of the animals’ own kind.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress—by ensuring conditions and treatment that avoid mental suffering.

The European Union has agreed to phase out the most egregious confinement techniques—battery cages (for laying hens) and gestation crates (for pregnant sows)—by 2012. Some countries within the European Union are also adopting measures to make slaughtering more humane. Moving away from electrical stunning and toward gas-based stunning on chicken disassembly lines is one example. In 1999 Denmark, a leading hog producing nation, placed strict regulations on antibiotic medicines in the swine industry. Requiring a CAFO to become less pharmaceutically dependent imposes limits on the size and scale of confinement operations. This is essential for a country like Denmark, with a finite land area for manure application. The antibiotic regulations were also intended to prolong the effectiveness of these medicines as human safeguards.

Demands are rising for animal food production to become more transparent, with the ultimate goal of making the details of all aspects of production better known to the public. Transparency could take many forms. Slaughterhouses and feeding operations, for example, could be required to install video monitoring systems or agree to unannounced third-party inspections—as is now done by only a number small number of operations on a voluntary basis. CAFO operators could be required to accurately report their usage of antibiotics rather than being able to purchase them by the sack-load and distribute them without a veterinary consult. Actual feed ingredients could be disclosed to the public. Detailed manure distribution records could be required and made more publicly available. Freedom of information within U.S. government agencies could allow the public to know exactly where taxpayer dollars are being spent to support the industry. None of these disclosures would be radical, but the industry is currently trending away from such transparency.

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And yet it is not impossible to imagine a far different food and farming system than the one we have today, beginning with a long-term commitment to pasture-based farming. Many have been advocating for some time for an ambitious transformation in U.S. agriculture: away from soil-eroding feed grains toward deep-rooted perennial pastures; converting large-areas of the High Plains back to grass and grazing operations; diversifying the corn and soybean dominated Midwest. In fact, thousands of family farmers are managing appropriately-scaled, grass-fed meat, dairy and egg farms without raising animals in vile and sordid conditions. A smart pasture operation (SPO)—to pick up on a new phrase—is one of the easiest entry points for beginning farmers in current U.S. agriculture. Start-up costs are relatively modest and markets for healthfully raised animal products are underserved and growing rapidly. These pasture-based rotational grazing systems can be extremely resource efficient, and often have the advantage of not needing the energy- and capital-intensive inputs such as heating, ventilation, and cooling systems, housing construction, imported industrial feeds, and mechanized manure management systems. They rely on sound animal husbandry techniques and integrate farm animals into a healthy landscape, using manure as a source of soil fertility. But this will require whole new generations of farmers willing to join the ranks of this noble profession, and legions of consumers and an financial and production infrastructure to support them.

To that end, many citizens are calling for a much larger and more responsive role for government along the path toward sustainable food production. Reform of USDA Farm Bill programs—which pump billions of dollars and largely establish the rules of modern agriculture—are seen as an essential way to fund the transformation to a pasture-based livestock economy through green payments and other incentives. In 2008, Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author Wendell Berry, called for the launch of a “50-Year Farm Bill” campaign. Jackson, Berry, and a coalition of advocates envision a succession of five-year plans, (the average length of a Farm Bill), to move the country away from highly erosive feed grain agriculture and toward perennial, pasture-based animal systems over the next 50 years. Others see Farm Bill programs as an essential economic engine to help rebuild regional food systems with funds for: organic production research; the preservation of traditional and endangered livestock breeds; start-up capital for farm-to-school and other farm-to-table programs linking local livestock producers with communities of eaters; tractor trailer sized “mobile slaughtering units,” to serve regions where livestock are currently transported great distances to approved USDA slaughterhouses.

Challenging CAFOs will ultimately mean eating fewer animal food products than we do today. There is little doubt that a food system concerned about long-term sustainability, public health, global warming, and global hunger will require that families of four eat far less animal protein than today’s present average of 120 chickens, 4 hogs, and 1 cow (not even counting dairy, eggs, seafood, or aquaculture products). This does not mean we have to embrace a vegan society or renounce animal food products of all kinds. Yet somewhere along this path to reform, the general public’s perception of vegetarianism simply has to change. Meatless meals may one day become a more frequent choice in a significant number of households and school meal programs. Livestock will probably remain essential for farming systems as well as for the human diet for some time. But the shift from quantity of the last century to quality and diversity (in all forms) must become a leading force in a 21st century food and farming policy.

We need action on all levels immediately, from governmental to personal. There is a great deal we can do in our own lives everyday, with the choices we make about the kinds of foods we eat, and what kind of world we want those decisions to shape. The time is now to join at whatever point along the spectrum you find appropriate and push for more local, sustainable, humane, transparent, and just systems of animal food production.



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