Kristen Perano 2014-12-29 23:27:22
Reforming Confinement Systems for Food Animal Production Editor’s note: Last year, ASABE invited undergraduate and graduate students worldwide to participate in a newly established Ag and Bio Engineering Ethics Essay Competition. Entrants were asked to submit an essay on an ethics topic of their choice that impacts the practice of professions related to ag and bioengineering, systems, or technology. The finalists presented their essays at the 2014 Annual International Meeting in Montreal. Cornell University graduate student Kristen Perano was awarded first place, and her essay is presented here. Second place went to Martha Priester of Auburn University for “Ethical Considerations of Biofuel Feedstock Weed Potential,” and third place went to Henry Norrell, also of Auburn University, for “Ethical Concerns in Biological and Agricultural Engineering.” Even as many sectors of the U.S. livestock industry continue to expand to meet increased demand from growing export markets, animal welfare remains one of the most controversial topics in modern U.S. agriculture. Specifically, many consumers are concerned about battery cages for laying hens as well as gestation crates for sows. Polls show that 95% of Americans believe that farm animals should be “well cared for” (HSUS, 2014a). California and Michigan have both banned battery cages for laying hens, with California’s Proposition 2, banning battery cages and gestation crates among other practices, passing in 2008 with 63.5% of the vote. Eight states in addition to California have banned gestation crates for sows, and polls show at least 60% support for banning gestation crates (HSUS, 2014a). There have also been voluntary reforms on the part of the livestock industry, with corporations such as Smithfield Foods and many others announcing that they would stop buying pork from producers who use gestation crates. In evaluating the debate about how much space farm animals need, we must consider when animal confinement is justified and when it is not, what role consumers play in the debate, and how constructive dialog can evaluate and implement reforms. Many people are disappointed ... ... to learn that the majority of farm animals are not produced on quaint family farms. Advocates for reform often focus on getting the animals more space or eliminating confinement. In some production systems, the animals may be crowded into small spaces without much opportunity to exercise or to practice natural behaviors. To be fair, though, animals in confinement operations are spared from some forms of suffering, such as facing inclement weather or starving in a drought year, that wildlife frequently face. Some degree of confinement may be necessary to protect animals from disease (as in specific pathogen free hog facilities), predation, or inclement weather. For example, chickens often prefer to remain in their coop rather than go outside in subfreezing weather even when the door is opened. In areas with cold winters, dairy cattle are typically kept indoors while the weather is cold, but the cows are cleaner and more comfortable inside their barns than if they were always outside in the ice, snow, and mud. Thus, some level of confinement may improve animal welfare. Different systems, different levels of confinement Even from one segment of the livestock industry to another, different production systems lead to different levels of confinement depending on the ability of the animals to fend for themselves. Beef cattle are typically raised in large fields and rarely if ever put in a barn. Beef cattle also raise their own calves until the calves are 6 to 8 months old. Dairy cattle, by contrast, may be kept indoors year-round in some operations. They are less able to take care of themselves, often even lacking the instinct to raise a calf. Dairy calves are usually raised separately from their mothers, although most are raised in a calf hutch that is bigger than a veal crate. Lactating dairy cattle need to be milked and fed a carefully balanced diet at least twice a day. Dairy cattle are also more vulnerable to heat and cold stress than beef cattle and are often kept in barns to protect them from the worst of the hot or cold weather. Thus, dairy cattle are raised more intensively and are much more likely to be confined but are also better fed and more protected from inclement weather than are beef cattle. Hierarchies and bonds Larger farming operations also present a challenge in that animals live in larger than natural social groups. Animals naturally form somewhat small groups where all of the individuals know each other and have established a dominance hierarchy, which eliminates constant fighting and allows the animals to form bonds with one another. Larger social groups are especially a problem for chickens, where “cage-free” egglaying systems may mean hundreds of chickens are raised together in a barn instead of a handful of chickens living in a cage together. While the connotations of “cage-free” sound much better, mortality rates are actually much higher in cagefree systems due in part to the disruption of the normal social hierarchy and increased fighting. Laying hens also tend to have brittle bones, and if a hen breaks her leg in a large barn, she could die from being unable to reach feed and water. There is also a higher incidence of many diseases due to so many animals living together (Mench, 2008). Thus, it is not a clear-cut advantage for chickens being raised in “cage-free” barns rather than in battery cages. Although in the future there may be somewhat of a return to locally grown, smallscale farming, it is hard to scale up laying hen production and maintain the same quality of life for the hens as the classic “barnyard flock” on a family farm. A right and a responsibility, reforms and dollars Consumers do have a right to know how their food is produced, but they also have a responsibility to be informed about the issue and not attack farmers based on sensationalized cases or unrealistic demands. In many cases, consumers should also be prepared to pay more than current prices for animal products if reforms are implemented. While some reforms may be economically beneficial (an Iowa State University study concluded that group housing for gestating sows could save money in the long run) (HSUS, 2014a), many times reforms will lead to higher facility costs and thus higher production costs. Thin profit margins in the livestock industry may not be able to absorb even low-cost increases, and especially in the short term, farmers will incur significant costs upgrading facilities. Consumers also often over-report their own willingness to pay more for reforms, as evidenced by less than 10% of Californians buying cage-free or organic eggs but more than 60% supporting a ban on battery cages. Some of this discrepancy may come from uninformed consumers who were unaware of the issue of battery cages when buying eggs, but much of it likely comes from the consumer willingness to pay for improved practices being lower than current price differences. However, some of this may be alleviated by current over-priced niche markets becoming more mainstream. For example, the estimated increase in production costs is $0.35 more per dozen for cage-free eggs, yet the average store charges $1.65 more for cage-free eggs (Norwood, 2011). However, if more cage-free eggs are produced, either due to consumer demand or government regulations, the mark-up will likely fall to better reflect the true increase in cost of production. Welfare evaluation What criteria, then, should be used to evaluate food animal welfare? The first criterion should be whether the confinement is necessary and therefore justified. For example, farrowing crates, which confine the sow while she has young piglets, have been shown to save piglets from being crushed or eaten by their mother. These have been generally accepted as a necessary practice, while gestation crates, which confine the sow during her whole pregnancy, have been banned in many states. A second criterion is whether the proposed improvement is really an improvement. As in the case of raising laying hens in large barns instead of small cages, in some ways the new practice may compromise welfare, such as the chances of starving to death because of a broken leg. Finally, the proposed reform must be feasible, reasonably practical, and implemented in a fair way. Reforms must be something that does not increase labor too much (making it possible for farmers to use) as well as something economical enough that consumers will be willing to pay for any extra costs that result. Farmers must also be given adequate time to phase out or phase in changes. Overall, constructive dialog on animal welfare between welfare advocates and the livestock industry must involve some negotiation of what is reasonable and feasible. With increasingly large populations of city dwellers at home and abroad, there will continue to be a need for large-scale production. Some issues, such as how to build large-scale laying hen facilities, are not clear-cut. However, a proposed compromise is enriched cages, adopted in many European countries, which offer more space and a more interesting environment for laying hens but maintain the advantages of raising hens in smaller social groups. In a positive development for working across the aisle, the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers (the egg industry’s trade association) worked together to draft a federal bill, H.R. 3798, to phase out battery cages in favor of enriched cages (HSUS, 2014b). Such a bill is an example of what can be accomplished when agricultural lobbyists and animal rights activists seek common ground and workable solutions. A growing national movement to eliminate gestation crates also focuses on a feasible reform that is being supported by an increasing number of corporations in the industry. However, many other welfare issues remain. These should be addressed in a similar manner, by evaluating sensible improvements and working across the aisle to make reforms. ASABE member Kristen Perano, graduate student, Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA; firstname.lastname@example.org. Author’s Note: The bill to phase out battery cages, H.R. 3798, has expired and has not been reintroduced. The United Egg Producers are no longer working with HSUS, a setback from the perspective of compromising on animal welfare issues.
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