There's a brouhaha brewing in Massachusetts over a new law that prescribes minimum standards for keeping some farm animals.
All hogs in Massachusetts will be able to stretch their legs and turn around in their crates and all hens will be able to spread their wings under a law passed in November by voters in the state.
Laws like this one, which strictly regulate how farm animals are confined, are becoming more common across the U.S., as large-scale farming replaces family farms and consumers learn more about what happens behind barn doors. Massachusetts is the 12th state to ban the use of some livestock- and poultry-raising cages or crates, such as gestation crates for sows, veal crates for calves or battery cages for chickens, which critics say abusively restrict the animals’ movement.
The restrictive laws have taken hold so far in states that have relatively small agriculture industries for animals and animal products and fewer large-scale farming operations. But producers in big farming states see the writing on the wall. Backed by state farm bureaus, large-scale industrial farmers are pushing for changes that would make it harder for states to further regulate the way they do business.
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Farmers acknowledge that some people who do not spend much time on farms may object to some of their practices. But they say that they do not abuse animals and that their practices are the most efficient and safest way to keep up with demand for food. And, they say, complying with restrictions on raising poultry and livestock like those approved in Massachusetts are costly for them and for consumers.
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But consumer expectations already are forcing producers to change how they operate, said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the U.S. Demand for free-range eggs and grass-fed beef is growing, pushing large companies to change their standards. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s recently committed to using only suppliers that raise cage-free hens by 2025.
Market demands will force producers to change their practices or be left behind, Balk said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that to meet demand, the industry will have to convert over half its egg production to cage-free systems by 2025, up from the current rate of 10 percent.
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When animal welfare groups started about a decade ago to pay their employees to take jobs on farms to expose practices, the industry responded by pushing for what animal welfare advocates call ag-gag laws. Some of the laws made it a crime to take photos or videos of private farm property without the owner’s permission, while others made it a crime for an employee of an animal welfare organization to lie about where they worked when they applied for a job on a farm.
There's more at the link. Informative and recommended reading.
I can see both sides of the problem, but my perspective is colored by experience in the Third World. Let's face it: animal welfare is basically a First World concern. Outside Western Europe, the USA and Canada, there's very little concern about animal welfare and how farmers treat their food animals. They're seen as there to be exploited, bred for food at the lowest possible production cost and killed as soon as it's profitable to do so. In the process they're grazed on over-exploited land, leading to soil erosion and desertification; they're not treated for common diseases; they often have no shelter against the elements, and when they do, it's usually overcrowded; and they're badly treated by human owners and handlers. In tribal societies, it's often the number of animals owned that determines wealth or confers status. That leads to very large quantities of poorly fed, poor-condition, pretty miserable animals, rather than a smaller herd of better-fed, more healthy, happier creatures.
Here in the USA, pressure groups have the luxury of being able to argue for better treatment of animals. I can't disagree. From my perspective as a retired pastor, when humanity was given "dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth", that includes the implicit responsibility to treat those creatures with as much respect as possible. 'Dominion' is not a license to be cruel. I believe that, just as deliberate cruelty to animals is (and should be, IMHO) harshly punished, so negligent or neglectful treatment of animals should be forbidden, and punished when it's encountered.
However, farmers also have a point when they protest that they can't afford to raise animals according to standards currently considered 'humane'. Let's face it: consumers are generally not prepared to pay the higher prices that would be required to compensate farmers for the additional costs involved. The farmers, quite reasonably, ask, "Well, if consumers won't pay enough, who is going to pay?" So far, animal welfare groups haven't been able to come up with a satisfactory or practical answer to that question. Government subsidies aren't the answer, IMHO - that just means that all taxpayers are on the hook for the costs involved, whether or not they buy the meat or other products of the animals involved.
There's also the question of what, precisely, constitutes 'cruelty'. I think many humane societies and animal welfare groups lose sight of the fact that in nature, an animal's life has only a few possible endings, and all of them are just plain nasty. The critter will grow old and weak. That means it'll be more susceptible to injury, crippling it and preventing it from feeding, so that it starves to death; or it'll be easier prey for predators. Either way, it's most likely going to end up being eaten. There are no happy endings to life in nature. There are a large number of videos on YouTube showing predators eating living prey, biting great chunks off it while it's still alive. Welcome to Nature, folks - 'red in tooth and claw', indeed! Compared to that, most domestic and farm animals have a much easier life, even when treated relatively poorly by the standards of animal welfare pressure groups.
Finally, there's the reality that some animal welfare pressure groups are deliberately doing everything they can to make it impossibly expensive to raise animals for food purposes. They want the world to be vegetarian, and this is one way they think they can achieve that. I've got no time for such dishonesty. If they can't persuade people to become vegetarians on the merits of that diet alone, they've got no right to try and force us to change willy-nilly. (They don't see it that way, of course. It's amazing how unethical and immoral pressure groups can be in support of their cause[s]. 'The end justifies the means' is, sadly, a very common philosophy among them.)
I don't have answers for these conundrums (conundrii?). All I know is, I enjoy eating meat, and I'm not about to stop. I'll gladly pay a higher price for ethically raised and humanely slaughtered meat, but I can afford to. I have every sympathy for those who can't. What to do? Your guess is as good as mine.