Animal Welfare and Rights: VI. Animals in Agriculture and Factory Farming

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For almost all of human history, animal agriculture has involved human management of animals under living conditions for which the animals were biologically and evolutionarily adapted. Human intervention has consisted largely in ensuring the animals' health, nutrition, and reproduction by providing supplementary rations when forage was scarce, medical assistance, shelter from harsh elements, and so on. The symbiotic relationship between human and animal has been strongly reinforced by the cultural values of animal agricultural societies. To this day, for example, among ranchers in the American West, who are primarily traditional agriculturists and raise animals on open ranges, one finds a doctrine passed from generation to generation: "We take care of the animals, and the animals take care of us."

Factory Farming

Intensive agriculture, also known as confinement agriculture or factory farming, differs dramatically from traditional animal agriculture. The key notion behind confinement agriculture is the application of industrial methods to producing animals or animal products. This way of thinking about agriculture emerged in the middle of the twentieth century; before that, neither the technology nor the social conditions existed to make confinement agriculture possible. After World War II, various technological developments and changing social conditions combined to alter radically the face of animal agriculture, and to model farms on factories. At about the same time, departments of "animal husbandry" in agricultural universities began to change their names to departments of "animal science." Increasingly, agriculture became a business, not merely a way of life combined with a way of making a living.

The conditions that generated confinement or intensive agriculture are relatively clear. After World War II, increasing numbers of workers moved from rural, agricultural regions into urban localities, where wages were higher and economic opportunities were perceived to be greater. At the same time, urban centers grew, encroaching onto traditional farmland, so that rising land prices and higher taxes militated against keeping that land for agricultural use. Inevitably the land was developed. Thus fewer and fewer people were directly involved in production agriculture.

With less land and fewer workers (as of 1993, 1.7 percent of Americans were engaged in production agriculture), it was difficult to keep animals under far-ranging, open, extensive conditions. With fewer people caring for them, animals were brought into closer and closer confinement, both outdoor and indoor, so that effects of temperature, rain, snow, and so on could be minimized. Instead of depending on human labor, farmers began to rely on machinery to feed, clean, water, milk, collect eggs, and so forth. Animal agricultural operations became capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive.

Animals began to be crowded together in an attempt to get as many as possible into the expensive production unit. Laying hens, for example, are typically placed 5 to 6 birds in a 12-inch-by-18-inch cage, and up to 100,000 birds may be kept in one building. Broiler chickens are raised in huge open sheds at a density of approximately two birds per square foot. Beef cattle, traditionally raised on range grass, are moved for the latter portion of their lives into feedlots, where they are fed grain diets, thus producing both increased weight gain and an outlet for U.S. grain surplus. Hogs are increasingly raised in confinement buildings where they never see the light of day—buildings holding 500 to 1000 sows are not uncommon. Most notoriously, veal calves are raised in small crates in order to restrict movement and keep their flesh tender, and are also kept anemic or near-anemic to keep the meat "white."

Thus animals are forced into environments for which they are not biologically suited. Because the operations are so expensive, producers are motivated to crowd as many animals as possible into the systems, since profit per animal is small. Thus, even though it is well known that chickens will lay more eggs if given more space, it is more profitable to crowd as many birds as possible into cages, yielding fewer eggs per bird but more eggs for the operation as a whole. Such methods would be impossible without recent technology. In the absence of antibiotics and vaccines, the spread of disease would decimate the animals in weeks. Without growth promoters< the animals could not be processed quickly enough to be profitable—broiler chickens for instance, reach full growth in eight weeks. The rise of confinement agriculture has, according to its proponents, provided cheap and plentiful food. For example, the price of chicken has remained virtually the same for more than twenty years, even in the face of inflation. Advocates of intensive agriculture also argue that confinement provides animals with shelter from extremes of weather, protection from predators, and a consistent nutritional regimen.

Harms of Confinement

But there are hidden costs offsetting these benefits, the most important of which is the cost to the animals. The animals being produced in confinement are still essentially the animals that were genetically adapted to extensive conditions. Their fundamental biological interests are systematically violated in confinement. Thus animals that are built to move about are unable to do so. Social animals may be deprived of companionship. Air laden with dust and ammonia in confinement chicken, egg, and swine barns is execrable; in some swine operations, workers must wear respirators. Diets designed to maximize growth may lead to metabolic disease for some of the animals, even though this loss is balanced by economic gain in the other animals. In chicken and swine barns, unnatural floor surfaces such as wire and concrete slats may lead to leg, foot, and joint problems. With the advent of confinement agriculture, there has arisen a class of diseases, known as "production diseases," that result from the systems of production. Since intensive systems have a low profit margin, they are often understaffed, and care of sick or injured animals is impossible for workers whose other duties stretch them to their limit.

As a result of such systematic violation of their physical and psychological (animal scientists prefer the word "behavioral") needs, animals suffer psychologically as well as physically. Many animals in confinement show chronic signs of long- and short-term stress, which can lead to both disease and behavioral problems. Cannibalism among chickens increases in the absence of either space to flee or small enough numbers to establish a pecking order; to prevent cannibalism, producers "debeak" chickens with a hot blade and without anesthesia, sometimes producing chronic pain. Similarly, pigs are tail-docked to prevent tail-biting, a stress-induced result of confinement. Confined animals also show many bizarre, stereotypical behaviors that seem to result from the thwarting of natural inclinations and from boring, austere environments.

Confinement agriculture also exacts other social costs. In an industry requiring large amounts of capital, small operators cannot compete effectively, and large, well-capitalized corporations inevitably drive out small "family farmers." Young people cannot afford to enter agriculture. Efficiency and productivity eclipse other values traditionally maintained in small farm communities, such as independence, self-sufficiency, and husbandry. Environmental problems such as waste disposal and water and energy consumption also arise from intensive agriculture. Lack of pasturing of animals contributes to soil erosion when land no longer used for pasture is tilled for grain. Drug residues in animal products may pose human health problems, and widespread use of antibiotics essentially breeds for resistant pathogens by eliminating microbes susceptible to the drugs. Salmonella and Campylobacter bacterial contamination are significant problems in chickens, turkeys, and eggs, since they can cause severe enteric disease in humans who consume these products.

Toward Reform

Agriculturists have recognized that the welfare of animals in confinement represents one of the three major challenges to agriculture in the next century, the other two being food safety and environmental concerns. When the British public became aware of factory farms in the 1960s as a result of Ruth Harrison's pioneering book Animal Machines, the outcry generated a royal commission, the Brambell Commission, that was highly critical of confinement agriculture as violating the animals' natures. In the face of confinement agriculture, European society is moving toward legal protection for farm animals. Laws in Britain, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland have restricted certain aspects of confinement agriculture, and Sweden has essentially abolished such agriculture and guaranteed certain rights for farm animals, in a law that has been called a "bill of rights" for farm animals because it aims at protecting their fundamental interests. In the United States, public attention was first directed toward animals in research, and certain basic protections for such animals have been legally encoded in two federal laws passed in 1985. Public attention is beginning to focus on the treatment of farm animals as well as on the environmental consequences of confinement agriculture, and articles in agricultural journals show that agriculture is starting to pay more attention to these concerns.

Until very recently, U.S. confinement agriculturists (in contrast to their counterparts in Europe and Canada) tended to deny that there were any problems of animal welfare intrinsically related to confinement agriculture, and acknowledged only occasional "bad management." This was further exacerbated by widespread skepticism in the scientific community about the existence and knowability of animal consciousness, pain, and suffering. Since the early 1990s, however, there have been indications that at least some parts of the industry and government are engaging such issues as animal deprivation, boredom, and inability to move in confinement, primarily by inaugurating research into improving animal welfare.

While it is unlikely that industrialized agriculture will ever revert to being fully or even largely extensive, it is possible to make intensive agriculture much more "animal-welfare friendly," and perhaps to change certain systems from full to partial confinement. For example, it is possible to raise swine profitably without keeping sows confined in small gestation crates for their entire lives. In addition, concern about sustainable agriculture may well result in a concerted social effort to return to less industrialized systems guided by husbandry. On the other hand, confinement agricultural systems are being introduced into Third World countries as a shortcut to rapid economic growth and as a way of adding animal products to the diets of these countries. This has generated a variety of ethical concerns, including fear of environmental despoliation, concern that successful indigenous agriculture will be lost, worries about importing Western health problems to these countries, and concern about proliferating animal suffering.

Growing Social Concern

Animal agriculture raises other animal welfare issues beyond confinement. Although cattle ranching is highly extensive and in fact presupposes a good fit between animal and environment, management techniques such as castration without anesthesia, hot-iron branding, and dehorning without anesthesia produce pain and suffering in these animals. Transportation of agricultural animals over long distances, for example to slaughter, is very stressful, and can cause disease and injury. Handling of farm animals by people ignorant of their behavior is an extremely widespread problem that creates high levels of stress and significant injury. Slaughter of food animals raises the issue of whether these animals can be provided with a death free of pain, suffering, and fear. This problem is particularly acute in the area of Jewish and Muslim religious slaughter, where preslaughter stunning has been considered incompatible with religious demands. Genetic engineering of farm animals for traits that are desirable to producers for reasons of efficiency and productivity may well exact costs in welfare from the animals' perspective. For example, swine and chickens engineered for greater size have suffered from a variety of diseases, including foot and leg problems. A cow engineered for double muscling was unable to stand on its own and required euthanasia. On the other hand, genetic engineering can also work to the benefit of farm animals, for example, by engineering for disease resistance.

Other branches of animal agriculture rear animals for uses other than food. Raising traditionally "wild" animals for various purposes has generated concerns about the wellbeing of these animals—pheasants for hunting, mink for fur, and deer for antler velvet (which is considered an aphrodisiac in the Orient) provide salient examples. Numerous welfare concerns have also been raised by the production of horses for human purposes—breakdown and injury in racehorses; injury in endurance horses (those used in long, grueling, competitive rides over difficult terrain); heat, water deprivation, and poor air for urban carriage horses. Indeed, no branch of animal agriculture is being ignored by growing social concern about animal welfare.

bernard e. rollin (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Agriculture and Biotechnology; Animal Research; Endangered Species and Biodiversity; Enhancement Uses of Medical Technology; Veterinary Ethics; and other Animal Welfare and Rights subentries


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Animal Welfare and Rights: VI. Animals in Agriculture and Factory Farming

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