Capitalism, Regulation and Animal Welfare

If you believe Republicans in this country you’d think the answer to all our economic woes is “free market economics unhindered by government regulation” — I’d say you’re wrong.

Sure, this is a political statement. But I’m not trying to argue from a standpoint of my politics are better than your politics. Rather, I’m using a political issue to highlight one of the fundamental driving forces behind factory farming. Peter Singer highlights this in his book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter:

“The core issue is the commercial pressures that exist in a competitive market system in which animals are items of property, and the conditions in which they are kept are not regulated by federal or state animal welfare law.” 

It’s not hard to see that the factory farming system is the result of unfettered free market capitalism.  Free market “competition” will drive the price of meat and animal products down over time. While that might sound like a good thing…consider the following. Driving the price of meat and animal products down over time is not the only goal; the additional goal is to enrich the shareholders and executives at the company. The way the price of meat goes down while still skimming enough off the top to appease shareholders and CEOs/VPs is lower wages, less worker benefits, poor working conditions, less worker rights, intensive animal confinement practices and whatever practice will be cheaper. 

This brings me to the next point, which Singer articulates very well:

“The real ethical issue about factory farming’s treatment of animals isn’t whether the producers are good or bad guys, but that the system seems to recognize animal suffering only when it interferes with profitability.” 

The “profit motive” is a very blinding concept that drives corporations to ignore animal welfare in the pursuit of better quarterly earnings reports.  That’s the trouble with capitalism. Capitalism in its most raw form is a dangerous animal. To borrow a phrase from one of my Radiology professors, “It’s a dog eat dog world out there and I’m wearing milk bone underpants.” And it is a dog eat dog world in capitalism. Sometimes it’s not pretty, e.g. 2008’s Great Recession. If you find yourself wearing the milk bone underpants capitalism might eat you alive. Luckily we have some regular cotton underpants…I call that regulation. And until I or someone smarter than me figures out a Utopian economy that can sidestep capitalism then we’ll have to settle on regulation as a safety net for the failings of capitalism.

I’d also like to say that I agree with Singer that most producers (i.e. the farmers) aren’t the “bad guys.” However, I don’t want you to forget that there are bad guys in the tale of factory farming. I’ll let you guess who that might be…

One of my top priorities when envisioning the future of animal agriculture is government regulated animal welfare laws. And I’m talking about tough laws. Laws that any decent human being would find necessary and prudent, but corporate food companies like Tyson and Cargill would find objectionable. If companies like Tyson and Cargill aren’t complaining about the new laws, you know they aren’t tough enough. If they are complaining…you’re on the right track!

Assignment: Nada…take the night off!


What Do We Value?

I updated my last post with a link to this article by the Des Moines Register about the “ag-gag” bill proposed in Iowa that would make people who photograph or record video inside a factory farm operation without the owner’s express consent face jail time. It’s a move by the factory farm animal industry to keep activists and the public out of their business.

The industry thinks the animal activists are threatening their business model (i.e. factory farming or CAFOs) by making edited video that casts the operation in a bad light; perhaps even provoking the behavior seen in the videos. I have to respect the possibility that the videos were deliberately edited to cast the facility in a bad light. This has happened in politics (James O’Keefe) and it certainly could happen in any industry as well.

However…it’s really tough to make this argument with the undercover videos that have been released. How do you edit footage showing sows (female pigs) being confined to gestation crates? How do you edit footage depicting egg laying hens crammed into tiny battery cages? How do you edit footage showing thousands of cows standing in their own manure on a feedlot? How do you edit footage depicting force feeding ducks to make foie gras ? How do you edit what is normal practice?

One specific passage in the Des Moines Register article by Jason Clayworth and William Petroski interested me. According to the article, Senator Tom Rielly’s (D-Oskaloosa) position on the bill was this:

Rielly said one of his primary reasons for supporting the legislation is soaring food costs. If animal rights activists succeed in changing large-scale animal food production practices in Iowa, people could see their food prices rise dramatically, he said.”

Is that all we the people of the United States care about when it comes to food production? How cheap it is? The average American spends 10% of their income on food (see this video). This article on Civil Eats shows proposes Americans spend as little as 7% of their income on food. This is unheard of in the history of humanity. Russians spend 28% of their income on food, South Africans spend 19.8%, Chinese spend 32.9% according to the aforementioned article.

I think what the industry and legislators are saying is, “We don’t want to reform animal agricultural practices because we’ll have to spend more money on humanely raised food and have less money line to corporate pockets and people won’t be able to buy that brand new high tech thing they don’t need.
I believe we’re better than this. I believe the industry needs to be drastically reformed at the very least…despite the increased costs. We need to assign value to the right things. I think treating the animals we eat with respect until the day we slaughter them (humanely of course) is of high value. Certainly higher than corporate profits at any cost. What do you think? Are you happy with the industry status quo? Or do you want something better? Do you think cheap food trumps treating animals with respect and creating local sustainable small scale humane farm economies? Do you like the idea that the big agriculture business reduces everything to cheapness?

I’ll let you mull on that.

What Are Factory Farms Hiding?

I live in Iowa. A bill (HF 589) recently passed  the state House of Representatives (it has yet to pass the Senate) that would make it a criminal offense to document animal cruelty using audiovisual equipment without the owner of the animal facility’s permission. And do you really think the owner is going to let someone videotape their facility? The most likely answer is a resounding NO.

Here are the interesting bits of language in the bill (all language following below has been condensed for ease of reading):

“A person is guilty of animal facility interference, if…the person acts without the consent of the owner of an animal facility to willfully do any of the following: (1) Produce a record which reproduces an image or sound occurring at the facility as follows: (a) The record must be created by the person while at the animal facility. (b) The record must be a reproduction of a visual or audio experience occurring at the animal facility, including but not limited to a photographic or audio medium. (2) Possess or distribute a record which produces and image or sound occurring at the animal facility which was produced as provided in subparagraph (1).”

What are the penalties?

“For the first conviction, the person is guilty of an aggravated misdemeanor. (b.) For a second or subsequent conviction, the person is guilty of a class ‘D’ felony.”

What else does it say?

“1. A person is guilty of animal facility fraud, if the person willfully does any of the following: (a.) Obtains access to an animal facility by false pretenses for the purpose of committing an act not authorized by the owner of the animal facility.”

This means an undercover investigation of animal cruelty would be illegal.

You can read the bill for yourself in its entirely here.

I want you to ask yourself, “why would a factory farm want to make it a crime to record video or audio of their facility?” We have to be honest with ourselves…it means they’re doing something they don’t want YOU to find out about. They want to do things behind closed doors without public scrutiny. What does that tell you about the way their operation functions…if we saw the truth we might not want to eat food that was produced using the factory farm model. I don’t think we should, what do you think?

Assignment: I’d like you to watch the video below. There are some graphic images in the video. Paul McCartney makes the point that after viewing the video you should be compelled to be a vegetarian. I understand that is a reasonable conclusion given the cruelty depicted. However, I don’t believe everyone should be vegetarian. Rather, meat and animal products should have a supporting role in our diets. When the meat is produced on small local family farms then these cruelties disappear. Remember, what you are about to see is what the factory farm industry wants to hide from consumers.

Bonus Assignment: If you live in Iowa, please contact your state Senator and request they do not vote for this bill and actively work to ensure it does not pass. The bill is known as SF 431 in the Senate.

*UPDATE: — The Des Moines Register reports the Senate is rewriting the bill to include provisions that would “require employees or people who trespass on agriculture premises and record a crime of animal abuse to turn over to authorities all recordings – both originals and copies – within 72 hours. If they fail to do so, they could not claim whistle-blower protections and would face possible criminal charges resulting in up to 30 days in jail.”

This article is very telling of our food climate and I will be writing about portions that I found interesting soon!