The agrarian myth and industrial reality of animal agriculture

Sows spend much of their serial pregnancies in cramped gestation crates. (Humane Society of the United States)

Today’s post is by John Rossi, a guest blogger for The Public’s Health. Rossi, a veterinarian and bioethicist, is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Drexel University School of Public Health. This item is based on a presentation he delivered at an American Public Health Association meeting four months ago in Washington, D.C.

By John Rossi

When most of us think of farms and farming, we conjure a fairly idyllic scene: fresh air; lush pastures; quaint, rustic buildings; and happy, carefree animals. 

This is an image we present to our children in books; an image that we associate with mythologized, rural America; and, an image that reassures us when, perchance, we wonder where our food comes from. But it is far from the reality, and it is not good for the public's health.

In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, or IFAP for short, released a series of comprehensive reports about the public health, environmental, and animal welfare costs of animal agriculture. These reports, along with other investigations of industrial animal farming, show that it is associated with significant greenhouse gas production, antimicrobial resistance, food scarcity, airborne and waterborne pollution, the risk of zoonotic (transmitted from animal to human or human to animal) diseases, the decline in health of rural communities, and poor (to put it mildly) farm-animal welfare.

What do we get in return? A benefit that, from an economic and nutritional standpoint, most of us don’t need: large supplies of cheap meat.

So what are the specific costs of industrial farm animal production? Well, worldwide it contributes anywhere from 10-51% of manmade greenhouse gases. Nontherapeutic (e.g., to promote animal growth) use of antibiotics is estimated to represent 60-80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S., and is thought to contribute significantly to antibiotic resistance. The approximately 10 billion farm animals raised and slaughtered each year in the United States produce huge amounts of waste in the forms of ammonia and manure, causing significant airborne and waterborne pollution. For example, industrial animal farming is estimated to account for 55% of soil and sediment erosion, with agricultural runoff affecting 173,000 miles of waterways.

Occupational health and safety problems, regional environmental pollution, a lack of local economic investment, and low farmer autonomy have contributed to the decline of the economic and social health of rural communities that are dominated by concentrated animal feeding operations. Workers in those operations are also at higher risk of a number of animal-borne diseases than the general public.

Even with the tremendous efficiency gains made over the 20th Century, industrial animal agriculture is still an inefficient way to produce protein, since the production of a pound of beef, pork or chicken requires multiple pounds of feed made from crops that humans could consume directly. It has been estimated that farm animals in the U.S. consume seven times as much grain as the entire human population, and that this would be sufficient to feed over 800 million people on plant-based diets.

Finally, industrial farm animal production is bad for the animals. Housing systems on these farms typically confine animals very closely, often so much so that they cannot walk, stretch, turn around, or even easily lie down. The way that animals are bred, fed, housed, and managed leads to a number of “production-associated diseases.” And while federal regulations are supposed to ensure that animals are stunned or killed prior to bleeding, skinning and dismemberment, the rules do not apply to poultry, and numerous investigations have found that they are poorly enforced. (For documentation and further discussion of these issues, see for example here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

To be sure, issues related to industrial animal farming are attracting attention, with some positive effects. Some states have passed laws phasing out intensive animal confinement practices, and, meat from alternative, more humane sources is becoming increasingly available (see, e.g., here and here). By and large, however, the industry remains unregulated, and is expanding in scope.

Given the importance of this issue from a moral and public health standpoint, why aren’t we talking about it more?

One possibility is that people generally don’t know the details about industrial farm animal production. We are insulated from the sources of our food, selecting neatly packaged cuts of meat at the supermarket that hardly tell the story of how they got there. My guess is that people will be less likely to support industrialized animal agriculture as they learn more about it.

But lack of media coverage and conversation probably have at least as much to do with ideology. Anytime we discuss animal agriculture or read an article about it, we bring with us a host of preexisting beliefs, values and preferences. Most people eat meat, and a lot of it (see here and here). We enjoy the taste, and food is a very personal issue, wrapped up as it is in our individual biographies and cultural identities. Perhaps we should acknowledge that our preferences and personal connections to food may bias us against arguments that suggest we should be eating differently.

Another impediment to discussion is the phenomenon known as “affected ignorance.” Affected ignorance occurs when someone deliberately avoids information about an issue because it makes them morally uncomfortable, as may be the case with animal agriculture. Most people care about their fellow humans, animals, and the planet. It’s understandable that when presented with information suggesting their involvement in a morally problematic activity, they may want to keep that information at arm’s length. But while understandable, this tendency detracts from honest discussion.

Finally, we need to watch out not only for our own biases, but the biases of information sources that we come across. In the ideal world, the best arguments win the day, but figuring out which ones they are isn’t always easy or straightforward. A large and growing body of evidence supports the adverse environmental, public health and animal welfare effects of industrial farm animal production. Unfortunately, by highlighting a lack of certainty or overemphasizing the policy significance of scientific disagreements (see here, here, here, here, and here), it is easy to create a false impression that the science is highly unsettled. And it is easy for an effective public-relations machine to “spin” facts, misdirect, and otherwise avoid a straightforward confrontation with the issues, as the Animal Agricultural Alliance does with its “Myths & Facts” page. Whether these tactics are a product of motivated reasoning or outright disingenuousness, the effect is the same: concerned citizens have to do more legwork to sort good arguments from bad.

And regardless of whether the best arguments support industrial farm animal production on the scale we have now, small, family farming, or a completely plant-based agricultural system, we won’t identify such arguments without broad, ongoing, and brutally honest discussion—even if it leads to inconvenient or uncomfortable conclusions. Nor can we as a society afford to ignore this issue any longer, or leave it to the academics or activists. The costs are simply too high.

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