November 29, 2012
Our adversaries in industrialized agriculture want to frame the animal protection debate in static, black-and-white terms. They want to position all animal advocates as opponents of farming. They want to be judge and jury when it comes to best practices. They pillory animal advocates, and increasingly all consumers and even food retailers, as unfamiliar with the basics, and even the harsh realities, of agriculture.
That’s their fictional representation, just like the false image-making of animals in pastoral or bucolic settings that they offer up to consumers on their product packaging. The reality is not as they present it.
Factory farming may be a tradition, but it’s a relatively short-lived one. Starting around 1960, there was a move away from animal husbandry and toward the new discipline of "meat science" — driven by academics in land-grant colleges and by industry trade associations. In this "new agriculture," the farm operators raised specially designed new breeds, grew them fast, and selected for large, commercially valuable body parts (even if it diminished their quality of life). They moved some species of farm animals into warehouses and into small cages and crates to maximize control. They dosed the animals with antibiotics to further spur growth and to keep animals from getting sick in these new overcrowded, more stressful settings.
The "new agriculture" succeeded in driving down costs for animal products at the cash register, but it pushed costs onto others in society — in the form of animal cruelty, environmental problems, the loss of private property, and public health dangers. It’s also been a colossal failure in keeping farmers on the land. In 1975, there were more than 700,000 pig farmers, now there are fewer than 70,000 — a 91 percent decrease. Over the same time, the country has lost 82 percent of dairy producers and 42 percent of cattlemen. Now, there are perhaps only 200 large-scale egg farmers who sell 95 percent of the eggs in the country.
The Humane Society of the United States hasn’t had a damn thing to do with the dissolution of family farmers, though you’d hardly know that from the talking points of the agricultural trade associations that have overseen this decline in farming and in rural America. In the last decade, The HSUS has successfully campaigned to phase out particularly cruel practices, such as confinement of animals in small cages, and also encouraged Americans to reduce their inordinately high and unhealthy rates of meat consumption, which is driving the intensification of agriculture and its focus on the cheapest meat at all costs. Throughout our entire history as an organization, but especially now, we are partnering with family farmers who reject extreme and inhumane practices and who are committed to a better way. And more than ever, we are reminding consumers who eat animal products that these are the farmers to support, not those operators who treat animals like commodities and who are often so disconnected from the lives and health and happiness of the animals.
We’ve got HSUS Animal Agriculture Councils in Colorado and Nebraska consisting of farmers living on the land and joining with us to fight abusive practices, and we are forming similar groups in other major agriculture states. We’re also partnering with family-farmer-oriented groups like the Nebraska Farmers Union and the Organization for Competitive Markets, which fight factory farming and anti-competitive practices that don’t allow family farmers to compete.
One man we’ve worked with is Fred Stokes, a Mississippi cattleman and a long-time senior official with OCM. In late August, OCM filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the $80 million nationwide beef promotion program is improperly using funds to lobby politicians on behalf of large agribusiness interests. The HSUS provided some legal assistance to the effort, because, like Stokes and OCM, we are concerned that check-off dollars have been diverted to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for illegal lobbying activities that hurt animals and family farmers.
Farm writer Alan Guebert noted in a recent column that the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation has initiated efforts to oust Stokes from its board for his rather modest association with The HSUS, and presumably because the NCBA doesn’t like the legal case readied against check-off abuses. Now pushing past 70, Stokes, a broad-shouldered, gentlemanly former military man, with a thick southern drawl and a deep commitment to agriculture, is nobody’s patsy. But he elected to step down from the federation board to concentrate on his defense of family farmers.
In another case, The HSUS worked with rank-and-file pork producers to challenge a $60 million pork check-off contract with the National Pork Producers Council, a lobbying group that works for the benefit of industrial producers at the expense of family farmers. Separately, The HSUS yesterday asked the USDA’s Inspector General to investigate certain activities of the Pork Board, after records we obtained revealed the board’s sponsorship and participation in certain lobbying events.
That case may sting the National Pork Producers Council badly, but not nearly as significantly as the loss of its customer base. This year alone, The HSUS has convinced more than three dozen major food companies with more than 100,000 retail outlets — including McDonald’s, Costco, Safeway, and Target — to phase out their purchases of pork from operations that confine pigs in gestation crates.
These companies are not against animal agriculture. But they are mindful that American consumers don’t countenance cruelty. The false framing of the agribusiness lobby — you are either for all of animal agriculture or against it all — won’t work, especially given that so many Americans are thinking about the consequences of their food choices.