Since a dozen or so hoofed mammals and the red jungle fowl were domesticated for use in agriculture starting 10,000 years ago, humanity has put animals ever more squarely at the center of the human experience. By conscripting other species for meat, eggs, labor, and other purposes, ancient civilizations assumed duties and responsibilities to animals, including providing them with food and other forms of care and safety. Yes, at some point, the animals would be slaughtered for food, but there was an unwritten code to treat them with dignity, and to even pray for them in the end. These tenets and credos are enshrined in the Bible (to mention just one primary religious source), in which God makes covenants with animals, blesses them, and declares them “good,” thus providing guidance to people in dealing with all creatures great and small.
For millennia, and really until about 60 years ago, agriculture occurred on a scale that allowed the farmer, if he and the rest of his family were conscientious, to attend to the needs of the animals. Except for the immediate run-up to slaughter, the goal of a responsible steward and shepherd was to make life not simply tolerable for animals but also free of pain and deprivation.
Since the advent of industrial agriculture, that equation changed. “Animal husbandry” turned into “meat science,” and we reduced animals to meat-, milk-, and egg-producing machines. Industrial farmers, in their quest for efficiency and without intentional malice, brought pain and privation to the animals much earlier in their short lifespans. In fact, we as a society have made misery routine in the most extreme confinement systems.
Since I became president of The HSUS 13 years ago, it’s been a core part of our mission to turn around the problems in animal agriculture. It’s a daunting task, but there’s been unmistakable progress, with the hope of more to come.
We’ve worked with the major players in the food retail sector to call upon them to adopt minimum standards of animal treatment in their supply chains. No extreme confinement of veal calves, breeding sows, and laying hens. No tail docking of dairy cows. No more particularly inhumane methods of slaughter. No more breeding of animals for very fast growth and body dysmorphism and chronic pain. Today, more than 300 of the biggest retailers have embraced major reforms and validated the idea that the lives of the animals in their business model matter.
At the same time, we have also been reaching out to family farmers, who themselves have been badly threatened and compromised by industrialization in agriculture. They have seen their ranks shrink dramatically in the last four decades, with rural communities being hollowed out around the nation. We have lost 95 percent of egg farmers, 90 percent of pig producers, and 88 percent of dairy producers in the last 40 years. They’ve fallen victim to politicians and Big Ag trade associations pursuing anti-competitive policies and practices and securing subsidies favoring the biggest operators. In some cases, as with commodity checkoff programs, the money that family farmers have been obligated to pay has been used against them and their own fundamental interests.
So many of these family farmers recoil in the face of the harsh, unforgiving practices in industrial agriculture. They are natural allies of humane advocates. For a long time, many of these independent family farmers did not have strong allies in fighting these forces. They do now in the form of The HSUS, and we, too, are strengthened by their joining our team.
That’s where the HSUS State and National Agriculture Advisory Councils come into play. A vital element of our global pro-animal coalition is the voice of the farmers and ranchers who embrace animal welfare and sustainability as guiding principles in their business, personal, and spiritual lives.
These farmers are advocating for the better treatment of farm animals. They also seek reform of the federal commodity checkoff program, and our national checkoff reform coalition has garnered unprecedented momentum thanks to their efforts. Most farmers understand that their checkoff dollars go to unaccountable industry bureaucrats and special interests that represent the worst of factory farming. Mike Callicrate, a Kansas cattle rancher who serves on our national council, likens it to being forced to buy the rope your opponents will hang you with.
Checkoff programs give hundreds of millions of dollars to unaccountable factory farm organizations that fight against not just family farmers, plant-based small businesses, and the humane treatment of farm animals, but against every step we take toward reforming our nation’s laws on puppy mills, violence against pets, and horse abuse – to name just a few. All animal lovers should care about checkoff programs, because there’s a decent chance that these tax dollars go toward blocking sensible animal protection laws in your state and local communities.
Introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., and in the House by Reps. Dave Brat, R-Va., and Dina Titus, D-Nev., the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act of 2017 would institute long-overdue transparency and public accountability measures in a government program that has become a virtual slush fund for factory farmers. Our Agriculture Council members attended meetings with U.S. Representatives and Senators in July to urge them to cosponsor and support the OFF Act, and they met with officials from several agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support rules to promote family farming, more fair access to markets, and consumer choice.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and other players in Big Ag are frightened by the idea of animal advocates and thousands of American farmers uniting to address their common concerns and to call for agricultural practices that make more sense for animals and for rural communities. One compelling example is the proposed Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, which calls for elevated animal welfare standards in this domain of agriculture. This new standard will give consumers more confidence in the “organic” label and spur more consumers to trust that these products were produced with higher standards. That will take animals out of confinement and into the outdoors and it will keep more farmers on the land, by allowing them to sell value-added products and earn a livelihood. Yet, almost certainly with checkoff dollars collected from organic and other family farmers, NPPC and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are lobbying to gut this rule and hurt family farmers who would benefit from enhanced standards and the consumer confidence.
The HSUS and family farmers are a mightily powerful coalition, and with new farmers coming on board every week, and new agriculture councils forming in states that previously were not part of our program, it is an exciting time for the movement for better treatment of animals and sustainable, organic agriculture. Consumers expect standards of decency in agriculture, and common sense and our age-old bonds with animals call us to fight for them.
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