Animal Welfare: The Triple Threat

I realize “threat” could carry a negative connotation. In this post, it’s supposed to carry a positive connotation. As in Michael Jordan was a triple threat on the court!

I was recently perusing the following pdf: “A comprehensive review of housing for pregnant sows” Task Force Report. I realize the focus of this report was on housing for pregnant sows. However, they addressed the components of animal welfare strikingly well. A study conducted in the Netherlands referenced in the report sums up how different segments of society interpret animal welfare.

1. Producers: “tended to believe that health and normal biological function were good evidence of good animal welfare.”

2. Consumers: “tended to focus on the animal’s ability to live a reasonably natural life.”

3. Ethicists and Social Critics: “identified suffering and other affective [related to moods, feelings and attitudes] states as central concerns.”

I feel the above 3 principles represent a truly all-encompassing “triple threat” regarding animal welfare. I think each group needs to recognize the preferences of other groups with regard to interpretation of animal welfare.  Personally, I tend to focus on number 2. But only with all 3 concerns will we have a satisfactory approach to animal welfare.


Let’s Clear Up What a CAFO Is, OK?

courtesy of Derekbalsley

I’ve been a little unfair before. I’ve generalized the practices of CAFOs on to the entirety of animal agriculture. I think I need to be more specific and clear up the issue of the CAFO.

Definitions (from the EPA):

AFO (Animal Feeding Operation): You confine animals for at least 45 days in a 12-month period, and there’s no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season

CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation): It meets the definition of an AFO, and The operation meets one of the Regulatory Definitions of Large CAFOs, Medium CAFOs, and small CAFOs.

From the USDA: “A production process that concentrates large numbers of animals in relatively small and confined spaces, and that substitutes structures and equipment (for feeding, temperature controls, and manure management) for land and labor.” Side note: This is why the term factory farm is sometimes used interchangeably with CAFOs.

You must look up the regulatory definitions of large, medium and small CAFOs in this pdf from the EPA. There are 1,607 CAFOs in Iowa.

CAFOs make up approximately 15 percent of total AFOs. Why is anyone worried about 15 percent?

From the Union of Concerned Scientists (2008): “CAFOs now produce more than 50 percent of our food animals. They also produce about 65 percent of the manure from U.S. animal operations, or about 300 million tons per year—more than double the amount generated by this country’s entire human population.

So, while the term CAFO may  not describe the majority of farms in the US, it certainly describes where/how the majority of animals are raised in the US.

Benefits of CAFOs:

–Economies of scale, cheaper meat, dairy & eggs

–Greater efficiencies

–Stability in animal environment

Downfalls of CAFOs:

–Potential impact on air & water quality

–Monopolization of the market

–Potential compromise of animal welfare; due to technologies/methods employed

–Lack of biodiversity

–Smell, smell, smell

This list is not exhaustive and potential benefits and downfalls of CAFOs need to be examined more in-depth in subsequent posts.

So, I’ve already mentioned that “factory farm” is sometimes used interchangeably with CAFO. But is factory farm a new term invented by the recent movement of foodie elitist tree-hugging animal rights activists? Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian, 1964:

Factory farming, whether we like it or not, has come to stay. The tide will not be held back, either by the humanitarian outcry of well meaning but sometimes misguided animal lovers, by the threat implicit to traditional farming methods, or by the sentimental approach to a rural way of life.

Why do CAFOs get people worked up? From a philosophical and common sense point of view…

The principle of confinement in so-called animal science is derived from the industrial version of efficiency. The designers of animal factories appear to have had in mind the example of concentration camps or prisons, the aim of which is to house and feed the greatest numbers in the smallest space at the least expense of money, labor, and attention. To subject innocent creatures to such treatment has long been recognized as heartless. Animal factories make an economic virtue of heartlessness toward domestic animals, to which we humans owe instead a large debt of respect and gratitude.”

— Wendell Berry, Stupidity in Concentration

I think a lot of farmers and industry advocates will take offense to Berry’s caricature. I admit it might be too harsh. But that’s how the public sees CAFOs. It’s going to be tough for advocates of intensive production to explain to the public that this system has the animals’ best interest in mind. Most people will see through this and realize that while animal well-being is certainly considered and promoted within the system, the system was ultimately designed with the idea of getting the most out of the least. And for people like myself, I think we owe the animals more respect in the process of farm to plate.

Backyard Chickens, Hooray!

I like eggs…a lot. I eat them more days out of the week for breakfast than not. My wife and I purchase eggs from a local pasture-based farmer named Galen Bontrager who operates out of nearby Kalona. He sells a dozen large eggs for $4 on his farm. Sometimes we go out to the farm to buy meat from him and also pick up a couple dozen eggs. Most of the time we buy them from the local Hy-Vee that stocks his eggs. Admittedly, it’s much more convenient to stop by Hy-Vee every two weeks for eggs than to drive out to Kalona. There is a price premium for this convenience. So, at Hy-Vee we pay $5.14 for a dozen large eggs. Most people would gasp at this price! This equates to 43 cents per egg. So, even if I ate two eggs in the morning for breakfast I’m only out 86 cents. That’s not bad…I dare you to go out for breakfast at a nearby restaurant and get that kind of deal. Heck, I think that even gives McDonald’s a run for their money.

But a lot of people will still balk at $5 a dozen eggs. It’s a shock to the system. Only rich people can afford those prices! I assure you, my wife and I live on a humble income. Would it be better for us economically to buy supermarket eggs at $1 a dozen? Sure it would. But, we’ve just decided to support our local farmer and put our money where our values are; namely supporting the local farm economy and buying pastured eggs. Let me tell you, Galen’s eggs taste and look a heck of a lot better than the supermarket eggs.

Iowa produces roughly 15 billion eggs a year and the U.S. produces an estimated 75 billion eggs a year.

The only way to produce this many eggs at common supermarket prices is through large intensive hen laying operations. I’d say this is certainly the most economically easy way to meet demand for eggs…if that’s your only concern. I’ll save the humaneness of battery cages for another post. However, I do believe that if the average American were to see a battery cage they would ask, “Can you please produce eggs another way?”

The egg industry has been extremely reluctant to abandon battery cage egg production. Currently, 96% of eggs are produced in a caged manner. The egg industry wants us to wait up to 18 years for “larger cages (nearly doubling the space each chicken is provided), perches, scratching areas and nesting boxes.” And this was only after intense pressure by animal welfare groups (and other groups)!

I have a simpler idea! Backyard Chickens!

Whether you’re in a suburban area or an urban area it’s possible to raise a couple of hens that will produce eggs right in your own backyard. It would reduce pressure on the egg industry to use such intensive practices. You would be in control of your egg supply. Most people eat as many eggs as they want and when they run out they go to the supermarket they find an endless supply of cheap eggs waiting for them so they can bring more back home. The point is there’s no need for self-control or worrying about how many eggs you’re consuming. With backyard chickens, you have a limit; it’s called your flock and how many eggs they can produce. You’re back in tune with your food. You understand that endless consumption is not viable. You have two hens that produce a certain amount of eggs each week and that’s what you have to work with.

Backyard chickens are about reconnecting to your food supply. They’re about closing the gap between animal and plate. Americans are so disconnected from the food supply that it’s actually quite disturbing. Eggs do not come from the grocery store. They come from hens. And the ones in the grocery store come from hens that lived in a battery cage.

I think the backyard chickens movement is the coolest thing since sliced bread!

Here are some links to get started:

Mother Earth News – Backyard Chickens

P.S. I know I promised a new direction for the blog…I’m working on it…it takes significantly more time to do the kind of research I want to do, stay tuned though, I promise they’re coming soon!

A New Direction

Courtesy of Multimotyl

I preach a lot. I make my own conclusions and then I tell you about them with some facts and arguments along the way.

I think I’d like to take this blog in a different direction.

Synthesis of information. I like the sound of that for a new direction. I’d like to form a more cohesive presentation of farming practices that constitute the alternative to the current status quo. I’d also like to go more in-depth about why there is a competing vision. It’s tempting to hit the highs of your argument and preach about the conclusions. But I think it’s time I take things slower and examine individual issues more in-depth from as objective a position as I can muster (let’s all please remember that this is persuasive writing, but I’ll try to move as close to objective as possible).

I’d also like to see people comment! Discussion is amazing and it really helps people understand the issues and each other. I beg of you to comment on this blog as you see fit! Remember: a respectful conversation is the rule. You can disagree 100% with me but let’s keep it civil and make the discussion productive. 

New post arriving shortly… let’s see what happens.

Why Modern Conventional Farms Are Factories

After the “Back to the Start” commercial Chipotle aired during the Grammy Awards there has been quite the response.

My response has been very positive because it highlights what industrialization of the food supply has done to the livestock industry in the last century. However, other people have had quite negative responses.

“I can’t even begin to explain everything that is wrong with this commercial” ~ Buzzard’s Beat

“Ah yes, factory farming, that mythical entity that exists in the minds of food elitists.” ~ Beltway Beef

There’s even a video out there that purports to tell the “real story” about modern farming and its virtues.

The one criticism that keeps haunting me is that advocates of conventional farming don’t like the term “factory farming” and vehemently oppose its use because they feel like it’s a mischaracterization of how they raise their animals.

My goal is to show you otherwise. Modern CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are indeed factories.

Factory, when applied to farming, has a negative connotation. That’s why those accused of participating in a factory farm system feel attacked by the term. That’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the persistent theme of “mischaracterization.” Most proponents of factory farming don’t see it as factory farming – it just doesn’t strike them that they’re a factory or they’re doing anything in a way that might upset sustainable farmers and members of the public.

Conventional = Modern = Factory Farming


Conventional describes the vast majority of farms in the USA. A lot of good people work on these farms. That’s really not the issue here. Sure, there are some bad apples that show up in the news for overt animal abuse and other poor practices. But the majority of farmers in America are hardworking good people. So when conventional farming is attacked, even questioned, people get nervous and feel defensive. It’s their way of life. It’s how they provide for their family. It’s part of their lives and they’ve most likely grown up around conventional farming.

It’s not my goal to demonize farmers or their families.

The problem with conventional farming is the system. Farmers are forced to do things a certain way. It’s a system of mechanization and profits over people controlled by the industrial food complex. If you don’t think there is such a thing as the industrial food complex…try and save your seeds you bought from Monsanto. Hint: they will blacklist you and you will meet their lawyers.


This idea needs to be refuted. Factory farming is quite an accurate term to describe the vast majority of how livestock is raised in America. Let me show you in brief why this is true.

High Density, Low Cost: Bigger, better, faster, cheaper. That’s the mantra of conventional farming. It’s also the reasoning behind non-animal factories. If you hand-made a shoe it would take time, lots of skill and you can only make a limited number of them. If you want bigger, better, faster, cheaper…you make a shoe factory in China. The only way to make bigger, better, faster, cheaper meat, eggs and dairy is to make an animal factory. That’s why we have metal barns holding thousands (or even tens of thousands) of the same exact animal under one roof. Here’s an example of a broiler chicken house compared to a pasture based poultry farm…guess which one is the factory.

Automation: Automatic feeding and watering. Automatic lighting and temperature control. Automatic waste removal. Automatic everything. The factory farm is controlled by electronic circuits. The conventional farm has as much automation as any factory you’d see on an episode of How It’s Made.

Consolidation & Control: “During the past 30 years the number of hog farms in the United States dropped from 650,000 to 71,000, yet the number of hogs remains almost the same.” via NRDC. Four enormous corporations produce 80% of the beef in America. Consolidation is the name of the livestock game nowadays. Chipotle’s commercial showed a small family farm being transformed into a large CAFO. This is very historically accurate. Consolidation under centralized control certainly sounds like factory farming to me.

Factory Waste: A lot of non-animal factories produce hazardous waste. So, you’d expect a farm described as a factory to produce hazardous waste too, right? YEP! Hog farms keep this waste in enormous lagoons next to the hog buildings. Waste produced from hog CAFOs is quite toxic…but the factory farms will dispute this. Here’s a lovely rebuttal, “Large hog farms emit hydrogen sulfide, a gas that most often causes flu-like symptoms in humans, but at high concentrations can lead to brain damage. In 1998, the National Institute of Health reported that 19 people died as a result of hydrogen sulfide emissions from manure pits.” via NRDC. Sometimes this hazardous waste gets out of the lagoons and contaminates the environment in a dramatic way…exhibit A is Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina. You can learn all about factory farm waste here.

Lack of Individuality: says a factory is “any place producing a uniform product, without concern for individuality.” This doesn’t mean that animals are not cared for medically on an individual basis as needed. Far from it. Where I see “without concern for individuality” at work is how we respect the nature of the animals we’re raising. Factory farms put chickens in battery cages about the size of a piece of paper for their entire life. Hogs are raised on concrete or plastic slatted floors inside metal barns. You get the picture. Factory farms don’t allow a chicken to express its chicken-ness as Joel Salatin would say. Factory farms don’t allow the hog to express its pig-ness. This is an insult to the individuality of the animals you are raising. At a non-factory pasture based farm like Polyface Farms in Virginia the animals can express their “ness” in every sense of the word.

Conclusion: I could continue writing ad nauseum…but I’ll spare you. I haven’t even begun to address the remaining reasons why factory farming is unsustainable and not good for animals, consumers, the environment and workers all across the food chain. With today’s farm you have to ask yourself one question: what is the principle concern? Today, it is unequivocally how can we produce the most for the cheapest price. That, ladies and gentleman, is called a factory mindset. That’s why factory farming is an apt name. A CAFO is not a factory in the sense of a Ford or Toyota auto plant. But it is very factory-esque because the priorities are density of production, low cost, consolidation and automation. So, once again, is factory farming an appropriate name? Absolutely.

What is “Moderation”?

You’ve all heard this line before: Everything is fine in moderation.

Seems harmless on the surface, until you realize it’s a very dangerous statement. The reason is that “everything” is too broad and “moderation” is ill-defined. The Oxford English Dictionary defines moderation like this:

“avoidance of excess or extremes in behaviour; temperateness, self-control, restraint.”

The problem is you can’t easily quantify moderation. Is a bag of Doritos once a week moderation? Or once a month? Once a year? The corporate food companies certainly will not quantify moderation. The reason…food companies don’t want any limits placed on how much of their product you can consume. The more bags of Doritos they sell you, the more money they make. There is no incentive for this company to tell you to restrain yourself to a certain number of Doritos. That’s why we hear the ubiquitous “everything is fine in moderation” mantra from the food companies. It’s a smoke and mirrors statement. It makes it seem like they care about your health but the statement is hollow.

Everything. What a word! The food companies certainly want to keep the definition of what you can eat in moderation as broad as possible. There is literally no other word that can mean anything more than everything.

McDonald’s, Burger King, cheeseburgers, double cheeseburgers, with bacon, super sized, potato chips, ice cream, cake, etc. It’s all fine according to the food companies…in moderation. What does moderation mean, you ask? You figure it out!

That’s the message from food companies. We’re not responsible for what we sell you. No matter what the costs are to your health and society.