50 Sheds of Grey – Mega Farms and Animal Welfare Are Not Black and White Issues

Further to yesterday’s blog post here, I was asked for my views on this article in the Telegraph by companion animal vet Pete Wedderburn. Given my propensity to use 17 words when three will do (I blame PhD training…) it was easier to blog about it than reply via Twitter.

TelegraphTo be fair to Dr Wedderburn, his article does note the importance of economies of scale and potential for targeted veterinary care on large operations; and it’s absolutely true that we, as consumers, demand affordable food. The average Briton spends only 8.2% of their income on food. Given how much we should value the nutritional advantages provided by meat, milk and eggs for growth, development and health, I have no issue with the suggestion that we should pay more (if needed) for higher welfare animal products.

Yet that’s where the argument gets difficult, and in the case of the Telegraph article, moves away from logic, science and economics towards anthropomorphism, emotion and the supposition that we can assess animal welfare based on human experience. If there was an emotive language quotient for the article, it went up significantly in the anti-mega-farm section.

Unpalatable (pun intended) a truth as it may be, we do not apply to the same standards to animals that we intend to eat (cows, pig, chickens) as to companion animals (it’s somewhat amusing that the Telegraph article was published within the “Pets” section), or indeed to animals that we consider to be pests (rats, mice, insects etc). Do many of us worry about the living conditions of house spiders or wasps, aside how we can kill them when they become a menace? No. Activist groups claim that this is speciesism, but I’d contend that it’s simply a factor of being human. We cannot have our bacon and eat it – if we apply the same standards to pets and farm animals (eliminating the “double standard” cited in the article) then perhaps by extension, just as we wouldn’t tuck into a steak from our pet labrador, we should cease to eat farm animals.

The ultimate irony is that, if asked, none of us would be happy to be killed and eaten. Slaughter is an inevitable truth of meat production, regardless of the conditions in which the animal is reared – if we cannot reconcile ourselves to the fact that we, as humans, would not be happy with that outcome, can we really assume that we can speak for animals’ preferences in any other circumstance?

“Animal welfare is a significant one [issue]: intensively kept farm animals never experience the open air, and never see blue skies” Being outside in the sunshine is undeniably lovely. However, we’re in the midst of the ill-named British “summer”. The rain is driving down and the Hereford cattle in the field I drove past five minutes ago were sheltering under a tree, ironically, voluntarily choosing to be in far closer quarters than cattle housed in a shed. We need to move away from the pervasive but false image of perpetual blue skies and sunshine. Would I personally wish to exist within the human equivalent of a battery cage? Of course not. Yet neither would I wish to be outside in pouring rain and cold wind. It’s all about balance. Do I know what a cow, chicken or pig prefers? No. We need further research to elucidate animal preferences and, *if* required, to amend our farming systems.

Animal health is another concern: with thousands of animals living so closely together, the risk of rapid spread of contagious disease must be higher.” At face value – true. However, as with so many rhetorical statements, this bears further examination. The risk is higher. Not the incidence, nor the mortality or impact on the animals, the risk. We can have a significant increase in risk that still makes little difference to the likelihood of an event happening. Take, for example, the announcement that processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer by 18%. Immediate media reaction? “Bacon will totally kill you!” Actual change in relative risk for the average person? An increase from 5 people out of every 100 contracting colon cancer, to 6 people out of every 100. Using blanket statements about increased risk, without backing them with any science or relative risk metrics (i.e. the likelihood of an incident actually occurring) is meaningless, yet an effective fear-mongering tool. If any farm (regardless of size) has excellent health plans in place, employs effective veterinary supervision and treatment and has appropriate biosecurity and isolation for sick animals, there is no reason to suggest that disease X will spread unchecked. Why did the UK government mandate for poultry to be housed when the risk of avian influenza was high? Because it’s spread by contact with wild birds and poultry, in precisely the supposedly healthy conditions proposed by the Telegraph article.

The supposition that “…if something does go wrong, it can go wrong on a massive scale, affecting thousands of animals at one time” is again correct – with one significant caveat. Relative risk again comes into play – why would a ventilation system be more likely to fail on a large operation than a small operation? A risk may exist, but again, it’s the relative risk (ignored by the Telegraph article) that is more important. To use a human example, if the power supply fails to a large hospital, we would assume that they would have more back-up systems in place than in a small cottage hospital. Why should Dr Wedderburn assume that large farms do not have operating procedures and practices in place to deal with disaster situations? In the USA last year, 35,000 cattle died during a two-day snowstorm, the majority not housed, but in open fields. Being able to control the environment and feed supply is a major advantage of housed systems – assuming the worst case scenario is business as usual is misleading at best.

Animal welfare is a useful tool with which to bash specific farming operations, because it carries a certain intangibility. What does good animal welfare really mean? How is it assessed? Are healthy animals automatically “happy” or in a good welfare state? Perhaps it’s time to revisit and challenge the rhetoric. Given that high-producing livestock should, by definition, be healthy, does that mean that we can use milk or meat yield as an indicator of welfare? Not necessarily. If we have to reduce the use of critically-important antibiotics, will animal welfare suffer? Not if we use other husbandry measures to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place (see figure below). Is a cow who is genetically programmed to produce 40 kg of milk per day automatically more stressed than one who is only programmed to produce 20 kg of milk? Few people would suggest that a woman capable of producing copious quantities of breast milk is more stressed than one producing a small amount, yet we try to apply this logic to livestock.

Langford CIA decreaseEmotion is a far more effective tool to lead conversations about controversial issues than science – perhaps its time to take the bull by the horns and get in touch with our touchy-feely side to communicate as the activists do. Ultimately we need to reassure consumers that, as with all issues, there’s no ideal or one-size-fits-all farming system, just a million shades (sheds!) of grey.


Which Came First? The Chicken Or The Emotive Egg Exposé?

eggs-croppedThe award for the most emotive news story of today must surely go to the Guardian for its latest “comment is free” (i.e. op-ed) article on egg production.The article is rife with the usual motifs regarding the alleged horrors of modern so-called factory farming and pseudo-outrage at the fact that free-range hens don’t appear to exist in a sunlit utopia akin to an avian Club 18-30’s holiday with umbrella drinks on tap and hourly wing-tip massages for every bird. I’d like to try and suggest that it’s entirely coincidental that this article and the associated “exposé” from the animal rights charity Viva was released, not only on Pancake Day but on the day that newspapers report on the need to house free-range birds due to bird flu (which in itself in interesting given that these biosecurity regulations have been in place for some weeks now), but that would be stretching coincidence so far it would reach almost to John O’Groats.

Strangely, it appears that the author is under the impression that laying hens could have a variety of productive and meaningful roles within society if they weren’t doomed to suffer in the purported “squalid hellholes”. As birds are described as “…only existing so their eggs can be taken and sold for profit”, the mind wonders, at least momentarily, to the potential careers that they could instead undertake. Perhaps the NHS crisis could be alleviated by a flock of egg-straordinary hen-care assistants who would soothe fevered brows with a flap of their wings, or the noise at Prime Minister’s Question Time could be augmented by the clucks from Members of Poultry-ment? Yet I digress…

To be fair to the author, most of the facts in the article are at least partially true – regrettably, we don’t have reliable egg-sexing technology yet, so male chicks are euthanised soon after birth. While this isn’t a palatable or pleasant fact, there’s simply no other use for millions of male birds that don’t grow into table chickens as efficiently as their boiler counterparts. Fortunately for the activist groups, the concept of euthanising fluffy chicks hits us hard – after all, what is more vulnerable than a newborn bird?  Yet, given our growing chicken consumption, few of us appear to have the same reservations about a broiler being swiftly dispatched and ending up wrapped in plastic in a supermarket fridge.

Beak-trimming is also difficult to justify to the consumer. Yet research at Bristol University and other academic institutions has shown that hens in non-beak-trimmed flocks suffer serious injuries and a far higher rate of mortality than in conventional flocks. It’s clear that this issue has to be addressed and may be alleviated with appropriate changes in management and hen environment, yet this does not happen overnight nor without a significant economic cost to the producer, which is then passed on to the consumer.

It’s the emotive language that really irks. I do wonder how charities like Viva, PETA, Compassion in World Farming and others would fare if, like the scientific community, they had to submit their reports for peer-review, undergo the rigours of scientific publication and back up claims with citations or original data. Phrases like “…truths the industry don’t want you to know” and “…exploited for as long as they’re profitable until their own day of slaughter comes” are hard for anybody to read, let alone those who aren’t familiar with poultry production.

Yet there’s a huge difference between “truths the industry don’t want you to know” and questions that have never occurred to the majority of people. I know absolutely nothing about the dental industry or the manufacture of small china knick-knacks. Does that mean I’m being kept in the dark about the horrific practices contained within each? Would I believe an article detailing the horrific conditions in which impoverished amalgam filling manufacturing workers are fed on gruel and kept in small cages? It’s possible, but only because I’ve just never been interested enough to google “dental industry”.

Consumers have an increasing interest in how food is produced – it’s up to us an industry to reach out, have the conversation and provide factual information, regardless of whether or not it is palatable to the consumer. Only then can we ensure that a common body of food production knowledge exists such that these “exposés” cease to be shocking and are rightly seen as emotive tosh, expressly designed (to quote the original article) to tug at the heartstrings and convince people not to buy eggs.

Is It Time We Stopped Shouting About The Dietary Guidelines?

The recent report by the advisory committee to the USDA dietary guidelines has certainly caused a media stir in the past week or so. There’s a lot of nutritional common sense in the report – eat more fruit, veg, and dairy, reduce carbs and sweetened drinks/snacks, and moderate alcohol intake. Yet there’s a kicker – from both a health and a sustainability perspective, Americans should apparently be guided to consume less animal-based foods.

10982813_934682089898559_3461048965358255082_oWhen the report was released, my Twitter notifications, Facebook feed and email inbox exploded. Memes like the one to the left appeared on every (virtual) street corner, and the report was mentioned in every online newsletter, whether agricultural or mainstream media. It’s this press coverage rather than the content of the report, that really concerns me.

Individuals don’t pay a lot of attention to a government report on nutrition. Despite the fact that six updates to the guidelines have been released since their inception in 1980, we are all still eating too many Twinkies in front of the TV and super-sized takeout meals in the car, rather than chowing down on broccoli and lentil quinoa bake.

Headlines CollageYet people do pay attention to headlines like “Less meat, more veggies: big food is freaking out about the “nonsensical” new dietary guidelines” and others shown to the left. The media sub-text is that big bad food producers (so different from the lovely local farmer who sells heirloom breed poultry at $18/lb at the farmers market) are appalled by the release of this governmental bad science that’s keeping them from their quest to keep you unhealthily addicted to triple cheeseburgers washed down with a 500-calorie soda, and will do anything to suppress it.

This makes me wonder – at what point do we need quiet, stealthy change, rather than loud protests that attract the attention of people who would otherwise never have read about the guidelines? At what point does industry protesting seem like a modern version of “The lady doth protest too much“?

Rather than posting on Facebook or Twitter that the report is nonsense because the committee of nutritionists ventured into the bottomless pit that is sustainability; why don’t we instead extol the virtues of producing high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable lean meat, and aim to reach the people who haven’t seen the hyperbolic headlines or read the guidelines simply because they’ve seen a lot of talk about them on Twitter? The old showbiz saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity certainly applies here – the extent of the reporting on the industry backlash against the report means they have probably been noted by far more people that they otherwise might.

The impact of the dietary guidelines recommendations upon purchasing programs is far higher than on individuals, and does give rise to concern. Globally, one in seven children don’t have enough food, and school lunches are often the only guaranteed source of high-quality protein available to children in impoverished families. I may be being overly sceptical, but I suspect that if meat consumption in schools is reduced, it’s unlikely to be replaced with a visually and gastronomically-appealing, nutritionally-complete vegetarian alternative.

Sustainability doesn’t just mean carbon, indeed, environmentally it extends far further than the land, water and energy use assessed by the dietary guidelines advisory committee into far bigger questions. These include the fact that we cannot grow human food crops on all types of land; water quality vs. quantity; the need to protect wildlife biodiversity in marginal and rangeland environments; the use of animal manures vs. inorganic fertilisers; environmental costs of sourcing replacements for animal by-products in manufacturing and other industries; and many other issues. Simply stating that meat-based diet X has a higher carbon footprint or land use than plant-based diet Y is not sufficient justification for 316 million people to reduce their consumption of a specific food. Indeed, despite the conclusions of the committee, data from the US EPA attributing only 2.1% of the national carbon footprint to meat production suggests that even if everybody reduced their intake of beef, lamb and pork, it would have a negligible effect on carbon emissions.

Could we all reduce our individual environmental impact? Absolutely. Yet as stated with regards to dietary change in the advisory report, it has to be done with consideration for our individual biological, medical and cultural requirements. As humans, we have biological and medical requirements for dietary protein, and some would even argue that grilling a 16-oz ribeye is a cultural event. I have every sympathy for the USDA committee*, who were faced with a Herculean task to fulfill, but in this case, they only succeeded in cutting off one head from the multi-craniumed Hydra – and it grew another 50 in its place.

*Many people have already commented on the suitability (or not) of the committee to evaluate diet sustainability, but to give them their due, they do appear to have looked beyond greenhouse gases to land, water and energy use. They are nutrition specialists, not sustainability experts, but it would be difficult (impossible) to find a committee comprising people who were all experts in nutrition, sustainability, economics, policy, behaviour and all the other facets of the report. Nonetheless, the sustainability recommendations appear to be based on a small number of papers, many of which are based on dietary information from other regions (Germany, UK, Italy) which will also have different levels of animal and crop production. As somebody who was born and bred in the UK before moving to the USA I find it difficult to believe that the average American’s diet uses substantially more land (for example) than the average UK person, as cited in the report.

Would Being Vegan Really Solve Climate Change? Not if We Don’t Kill the Cows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend of mine drew my attention to this NPR blogger, who makes the point that being “good” isn’t zero sum (a situation where what is gained by one side or cause, is lost by another). If you’re concerned about the environment, you can both recycle cans and buy a more climate-friendly car. If you are passionate about children’s education, you can volunteer in the classroom and financially support literary projects. In most cases, doing good is not an either/or.

Which made me think a little more about the definition of “good”. To that writer it meant being vegan or vegetarian, in the belief that such a diet would improve animal welfare and environmental impact. Yet this is exactly where the conflict arises for me – if we were all vegan or vegetarian, what would happen to the sheep, the cow, the pig and the chicken?

I posed that question to a vegan on Twitter recently and he, in all sincerity, answered that we, as a vegan population, would care for the animals, but would not enslave or control them. Imagine the beautiful utopia where we all have time to calve a cow or throw some grain to feral pigs before we set off to work, expecting nothing in return. Or in a more realistic scenario, we’d have more meat than we knew what to do with simply through car accidents if we suddenly let loose the USA’s 87.7 million cattle (never mind the 62.1 million pigs, 5.2 millon sheep and 9+ billion chickens).

Anti-animal agriculture activists often purport that a cow can live for 20+ years in her “natural” state compared to a farmed animal – so being a data nerd, I did the maths*. Let’s assume that 1) cows first calve at two years of age and that 90% of cows (38.3 million of them in the US at present) have a calf every year**; 2) 85% of those calves survive (mortality would go up due to predation, assuming we wouldn’t shoot wolves, coyotes etc.); and 3) each cow or bull lives for 20 years. Admittedly that doesn’t account for the cattle that would die from starvation through lack of available grazing in 5, 10 or 20 years time, but being good vegans, we’d feed them, right?

Within five years we’d have 602 million cattle in the USA, within 20 years we’d have 3.7 billion – a 40-fold increase on our current national herd. That’s 40x more cattle belching methane, drinking water and producing waste, every single day, all as a result of our changing our diet in an attempt to reduce environmental impact.

It’s a nice, simplistic, oft-suggested argument that we shouldn’t eat meat or dairy products in order to save the planet, yet the conflict between veganism, animal welfare, and environmental impact is clear. Climate change will be solved by us turning vegan? Not unless we reconcile ourselves to killing animals without eating them.

*I’m British, and as such, cannot use the American term “math” as opposed to the British “maths”
**90% is the US average for cow-calf herds, in which few hormones or other reproductive aids are used