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By Whitney Dennis

Animal welfare issues in agriculture are becoming more important in today’s society. “Statistically, farm animals comprise 98% of the animals in the country with whom we interact directly…” (Humane Society of the United States, 2010, September)  The large percentage of farm animals in our country is due to animal agriculture being a major industry in the United States. Livestock and poultry account for over half of U.S. agricultural cash receipts, often exceeding $100 billion per year (United States Department of Agriculture, 2009). Ten billion animals are used annually for food, 95% of which are poultry (HSUS, 2010, September). Also in 2009, the United States consumed 26.9 billion pounds of beef and the equivalent value of the beef industry alone was seventy nine billion dollars (USDA, 2010).

With the high consumption of beef, poultry and other animal products comes the need for mass production of large quantities of animal products in a safe and economical way. The trend for

It is important that students receive their education on animal welfare in schools instead of the media.

agriculture is moving towards a greater concentration in agricultural production. In 1997, forty six thousand of the two million farms in the U.S. accounted for 50% of sales of agricultural products (Environmental Protection Agency, 2009), and this trend continues today. Concentrated animal operations have been given the name “factory farms” by the media and public, but are specifically known as confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s).[1] These CAFO’s as well as practices that are common on smaller farms have raised animal welfare issues in livestock production. American citizens are increasingly interested in the welfare of agriculture animals, are affecting government policies about animal agriculture, and are paying particular attention to portrayals of animal agriculture in the mass media (Peralta, 2010). Proper agriculture animal welfare education is needed to teach students about the growing societal concerns and the future of the food animal agriculture industry.

According to the goals and purposes of agriculture education as published in The Agriculture Education Magazine, the first goal of agriculture education is to update instruction in and expand programs about the food, fiber and natural resources systems (Case & Whitaker, 1998). This goal also indicates that a portion of the content should include animal welfare. Agriculture animal welfare is a field that is growing larger and gaining a greater interest by the public. Welfare is a topic toward which many people have strong opinions and feelings, yet have very little factual knowledge. The age appropriate time for supplying the public with this knowledge is in a middle or high school agricultural education setting. However, at this point in time there is not a fully developed unit available to middle or high school agriculture, science, or social studies educators that involve the current and relevant topics pertaining to animal welfare.  There is a need for an agriculture animal welfare unit to be developed that can be integrated within a middle or high school agriculture or animal science curriculum in order to fully reach the goals outlined for agriculture education. The need for an agricultural animal welfare curriculum is illustrated by the ability for societal views to impact legislation, the media’s impact on society’s views on animal welfare, and the willingness of teens to become involved in animal welfare issues.

Societal Views on Animal Welfare Impacting Legislation

Taxema Peralta, DVM, MSc, PhD, an animal welfare scientist at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, pointed out that much of the legislation that involves animal welfare of agricultural animals has been a result of societal pressures on the government (2010). This is very concerning, especially considering that only 2% of people in the United States live on farms and less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (EPA, 2009). This leaves a very small population of people with first hand knowledge of agricultural practices, and a large majority of voters with the potential to make uninformed or misinformed decisions on the legislation of agricultural practices.

One of the most recent events regarding legislature in the United States that resulted from societal pressure involves the banning of tail docking of dairy animals in California. California was the first state to ban tail-docking (Schecter, 2010) which took place in October of 2009 (American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 2009). Although tail-docking was practiced by 83% of 113 farms surveyed in the North Central and North Eastern United States (AVMA, January 2010), tail docking is viewed by the public as being a barbaric, painful and unnecessary procedure. Also, the American Veterinary Medical Association opposes tail-docking as a routine practice (AVMA, January 2010). This procedure was again brought into the spotlight for the public by a January 2010 ABC news special that played hidden camera video footage of a large New York dairy farm in which tail-docking was being performed incorrectly. This video was not only portrayed on television but was posted on the “YouTube” website, as well (Esch, 2010). This video inspired a New York state legislator, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, to propose a tail-docking ban similar to the one enacted in California (Esch, 2010). Although tail-docking is not always performed in the manner shown in the video, the video created a strong public opinion about tail-docking and is likely to lead to the public demanding that tail-docking be banned in more states across the country.

The banning of sow gestation crates in Florida is another example of how legislation has been put in place based on societal pressures. On November 6, 2002, voters passed an amendment to the Florida State Constitution that banned the confinement or tethering of pregnant pigs in a manner that prevents the pig from turning around completely (AVMA, December, 2002). There were actually only two pig farmers using gestation crates in Florida, and pork production costs in Florida are high which is likely to prevent corporate swine production from developing in the state (AVMA, October, 2002). The amendment therefore had little effect on agriculture in Florida. The amendment gained support through the backing of Humane Society of the United Stated, Fund for Animals and Farm Sanctuary (AVMA, October, 2002). Kara Flynn of the National Pork Producer’s Council said that the animal rights groups targeted Florida because most people in the state knew very little about how food animals are raised and the science behind animal agriculture (AVMA, October, 2002). Animal rights[2] groups use the lack of knowledge of the general public gain success in states where the farming practices are not widely used with the intentions of moving on to other states with greater amounts of animal production. The banning of sow gestation crates in Florida as a prime example of how animal rights groups have a large amount of influence and can take advantage of those who know little about animal welfare in agricultural settings.

Another example of an unknowledgeable society influencing animal welfare legislation is the implementation of the ban on horse slaughter in Texas and Illinois in 2006. By putting an end to the three slaughter plants in these states, horse slaughter in the United States has been stopped (Becker, 2010). This piece of legislature was supported by famous individuals such as country singer Willy Nelson and actress Bo Derek (Cosgrove-Mathers, 2006). Through their efforts and groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, the ban gained public support. Animal rights groups once again influenced public opinion.  However, unlike the tail-docking ban in California or the ban on sow gestation crates in Florida, this ban created more harm than good. The ban has created new welfare issues with the care and maintenance of the unwanted horse. The AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) defined unwanted horses as “horses which are no longer wanted by their current owner because they are old, injured, sick, unmanageable, fail to meet their owner’s expectations (e.g., performance, color or breeding), or their owner can no longer afford them.” (Animal Welfare Council, 2010) These horses are often neglected and treated poorly. Horses are also being sold for very little money as people cannot afford to take care of animals when suffering from difficult economic times. In a 2009 survey conducted by the Unwanted Horse Coalition found that more than 90% of respondents said the number of unwanted, neglected and abused horses is increasing and that 63% of equine rescue/retirement facilities that were polled are at or near full capacity and turn away 38% of the horses that come to them (AVMA, July 2009).

Overall, by creating this ban on horse slaughter, more animal welfare issues have cropped up in regards to horses than have been solved by the legislation. This legislation was supported and passed by poorly informed people who did not know the full range of consequences of their decision. Voters likely based their decision on the emotions that supporters of this ban created by portraying the cruelty of horse slaughter rather than on research and factual knowledge.

It is important for members of society to be well informed on the matters on which they vote. The media plays a large role in portraying animal welfare information to the public. Unfortunately we cannot depend on the media to create well informed, unbiased voters. One of the best means of creating informed voters is through public education, i.e. agriculture education on animal welfare. According to the goals and purposes published by The Agriculture Education Magazine, the purpose of agriculture programs in local public high schools is to produce capable, knowledgeable, contributing citizens (Case & Whitaker, 1998).  Agriculture educators must play an integral role in preparing and supporting students for agricultural careers, building awareness of the industry and developing leadership skills through education (Case & Whitaker, 1998).  By implementing an agriculture animal welfare unit, students will become better informed voters in regards to agriculture legislation.

Media Influence on Views of Animal Welfare

As was mentioned earlier, the media has a large influence on the public and in turn has the potential to dictate legislation. Media attention on animal welfare also has the power to influence consumer choices. A study performed at Kansas State University indicated that while the price of meat products is still the largest factor in consumers choosing meat products, media attention to animal welfare has had notable impacts on the livestock industry (Tonsor & Olynk, 2010). This study analyzed the top U.S. newspapers from 1982 to 2008 to develop indices reflecting public information on animal welfare and combined them with the meat demand system in order to determine the effects of animal welfare media on consumer meat choices (Tonsor & Olynk, 2010). Researchers were able to determine that consumer choices were affected by animal welfare media. It was found that the media attention to animal welfare had a negative effect on the U.S. meat demand, primarily in the swine and poultry markets (Tonsor & Olynk, 2010). Also increasing media attention has led to consumers purchasing less meat rather than reallocating their spending dollars to other competing forms of meat (Tonsor & Olynk, 2010). This indicates that animal welfare media influences the views of consumers of the livestock industry and directly impacts their daily decisions such as what groceries to purchase.

However adults are not the only people to be influenced by the media. More than ever teens are engrossed in media coverage. Science Daily reported in 2008 that 60% of teenagers spent at least 20 hours per week in front of television and computer screens. Close to one third of teenagers spent an average of 40 hours a week in front of a television or computer screen and 7% are exposed to 50 or more hours of “screen-time” a week (O’Loughlin et al, March 2008). What does this translate into? This massive amount of time spent in front of a television or computer translates to tremendous amounts of media exposure for teens. This media coverage can play a large role in forming opinions about subjects including animal welfare in agriculture. With less than 2% of Americans living on farms (EPA, 2009), it is reasonable to say that the media is the primary means of teens learning about animal welfare in agriculture rather than personal experience or through formal educational means.

Concern for animal welfare and the portrayal of animal abuse has been gaining momentum in the media. Recently there have been television advertisements paid for by the HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) depicting the sad and tragic stories of animals that have been poorly treated. Also, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has a very detailed website filled with campaigns against animal cruelty and even has a specific link for multimedia geared towards “kids” projecting videos and games (http://www.petatv.com/kids.html) concerning animal welfare. These are only two of the examples of ways animal welfare is being portrayed in the media. With a simple Google search for “animal welfare organizations” and a click of the mouse one is exposed to links to hundreds of animal organizations across the country and world. Not to say that all of this exposure is a bad for agriculture or food animals. If the information that is gained through the media is used properly, then all of this exposure can be a powerful tool. The problem with the large amount of exposure to animal welfare that teens are getting from the media is that it tends to be a biased resource. For example, PETA is a radical animal rights group that has a tendency to focus on individual cases of animal mistreatment or abuse and apply it to the treatment of all animals in order to gain support for their cause. They immortalize abuse cases in the media in order to gain support for their true agenda, which is to end all use and consumption of animals and promote animal rights (PETA, n.d.).

It is important for students to be able to navigate through these massive amounts of media and to determine which statements are facts and which are an exaggeration of the truth about animal welfare. These skills can be taught in the classroom with the aid of an agriculture animal welfare unit. By teaching students about animal welfare in an unbiased manner, the students will be able to become informed consumers of animal products as well as understand the animal welfare needs of agriculture (production) animals.

[1] Confined Animal Feeding Operations are defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as “agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. [Animal Feeding Operations] AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.) (EPA, 2010)

[2] Animal rights is the view that animals should not be used for human purposes such as for food and fiber production or entertainment. Animal welfare is the perspective that animals should be treated humanely and that it is acceptable to use animals for human purposes as long as there are no alternatives.

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