TCS Daily

Down on the Farm

By Waldemar Ingdahl - December 9, 2003 12:00 AM

It's Christmas time in Europe, and that means of course it's time for animal rights activists to start complaining about agricultural practices: chickens that don't have enough ranging room, pigs that don't have soft enough beds, etc.


Animal husbandry issues are not new, but they gained prominence in the public debate in the 1990s when the notion spread that agriculture in the EU was not the rural idyll of old, but rather a high-tech industry.


The Greens started working to bring an alternative view of nature into society. At first they met with little success. Their ideas were unable to progress through the institutions, because they wanted to eliminate the entire system. Success came when they managed to get the concept of "sustainability" into the political vocabulary.


"Sustainable agriculture" became the perfect political compromise also when discussing animal husbandry, since it stopped the increasing polarization between rational, industrial agriculture and the Greens' intransigent demands for a radical rearrangement. It won everybody's support: the producers', the consumers', the politicians', and most mainstream environmentalist groups'. Animal welfare questions were addressed successfully at the highest levels, and agriculture began to change significantly. But maybe the activists were a bit too successful...


Besides entering the halls of power, they also had to tread on the muddy fields of agronomy. There the easy solutions couldn't be found. Rather than seeing that conflicts arise between the welfare of farm animals and the profits of agribusiness or heartless Eurocrats, we see conflicts between animal welfare and protection of the environment. There are actually many different interpretations of what constitutes a "good life" for an animal.


For some the good life is the so-called "natural" one. This can become difficult to obtain since many domestic animals don't exist in a wild state any longer and are specifically bred for their productive attributes, which makes them very hard to transfer to any type of agriculture other than an industrialized one.


Another interpretation of the good animal life is about physiological balance. The easiest way to measure the welfare of the animals is the mortality degree of the livestock, because other measures are more difficult to implement rationally.


For example, organic egg production systems, for example, have a significantly higher mortality rate for chickens than the cage system. In the organic systems diseases are more easily spread through feathers and excrement (i.e. salmonella, which is endemic to poultry) and chicken cannibalism is more difficult to prevent. The risk of injuries increases when beak trimming is banned, and the hens can hurt each other more easily in their pecking-order fights. The use of extensive preventive medication is extremely important for poultry (including antibiotics), but it isn't allowed in organic farming, which leads to coccidiose, a parasitic intestinal infection. The hens may live a more natural life, but succumb in greater numbers to a painful disease.


Still others suggest that a good life for the animals is to avoid pain and other suffering. The important point is if the animals themselves, subjectively, can be said to have a good situation. This isn't always that clear-cut, and requires extensive human interpretation.


Consider that animal rights activists have maintained that cattle should have straw on their floors. Sounds sensible enough. The TV images of cattle stumbling about on naked concrete floors in their own feces moved the hearts of millions. But from an environmental point of view these conditions have advantages, since they are easier to rinse, and enable the collection of the enormous quantities of feces in centralized septic tanks.


Free ranging sows rummage the earth, and that quickly peels away the grass layer from the soil. Without the grass layer the pig feces goes directly down in the ground, over-fertilizing it. Many sows get their snouts pierced with a ring, which is painful in itself, but also brings the pig pain when it tries to rummage. The pig's natural behavior is thus stopped through pain, with an unnatural intervention, in order to protect the environment. Free ranging pigs are mainly present in organic agriculture -- go figure.


The list of these kinds of problems is extensive. The animal protection movement that won huge victories by rephrasing the issue in order to fit into the regulatory language of the system, created a discrepancy between its own theory and practice when introduced to real life agriculture. It is important to remember that many of the animal liberation ideologues back in the 1970s had quite strict ideals of a decentralized, small scale and self-sufficient society in mind when discussing the situation of domestic animals. They did not have the ambition to provide an agriculture to meet the demands of today's modern society, and they certainly didn't envision possible conflicts between animal protection and protection of the environment.


Animal welfare, in its context of sustainable agriculture, has been given an unquestioningly positive profile that cannot be criticized without stepping outside a very broad consensus. But unity has a price since there is a debate regarding what constitutes good animal husbandry.


Often a small-scale idyllic agriculture is presented as the best alternative if we care about the animals. This is ultimately not feasible, not from an economic viewpoint for millions of Europeans, nor if we truly care about animals. But neither is the Common Agricultural Policy-supported hybrid of today, with one leg in both a romanticized past and another in a heavily subsidized industry. The agriculture of Europe -- and thus its concept of animal husbandry -- truly stands at a crossroad.


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