March 30, 2010

Ethics of Factory Farms

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From Food, Inc. to Michael Pollan’s novels, in recent years, the public at large has criticized agriculture.  Often, the public portrays farmers as villains. Busy farmers frequently remain unheard in the media. Recently, ABC ran a special with the headline, “Got Milk? Got Ethics? Animal Rights v. U.S. Dairy Industry.”

This upset students from farming backgrounds, like Kelly Lee ’13 from Mill Wheel Farm in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin.  She said, “I was really upset that was the portrayal of the dairy industry. That was one farm in one instance, where things weren’t up to standard. Most arms in the US use healthy and responsible management practices.”

Prof. Michael Van Amburgh, animal science, is advisor of the Cornell University Dairy Science Club (CUDS).  He suggested that many of the negative perceptions of dairy farmers emerge due to public opinion of animal welfare.

He believes that public view of animal treatment is caused by “anthropomorphism,” or the allocation of human qualities to animals.  For example, animal images infiltrate popular culture through the personification of animals in books and cartoons.  From these sources, the public generates the notion that animals have needs that parallel those of humans.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) are farms that raise animals in confined area while adhering to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) criteria.  Consequently, they carry a negative connotation.

Some believe tight living conditions produce unhappy and unhealthy animals. In the state of New York, any Animal Feeding Operation with over 200 animals is considered a CAFO, and therefore, must conform to strict regulations.

Van Amburgh shared a story from another state, where regulations restricted a farmer with a 4,300-cow farm. When his municipality approached him about dumping waste on his property, he refused.  Because EPA regulations apply only to larger farms, the municipality approached a 100-cow farm, where such parameters do not exist.  The smaller farm allowed the municipality to dump there.

This story does not imply the small farm size alleviates farmers of responsibility.  Instead, it indicates that the stricter guidelines for larger farms serve to monitor situations.

In a yet unpublished study conducted in Vancouver, cows were given the choice to either graze in open pastures or stay in closed barns.  Overwhelmingly, the cows chose to stay within the barn, only selecting to go outdoors in the evenings after sunset.  Van Amburgh stressed that “animals want routine,” and explained that accommodations within farms, like sprinklers and fans, allow for optimal living conditions.

CUDS President, Sam Fesseden ’11 said, “If a farm is trying to make profit, they need to have animals producing a good amount of product. In order to produce, you must have healthy, happy animals. If we were farming sick animals, then we wouldn’t be making profit.”

Many CUDS members took offense to the term “factory farm” and its negative connotations, pointing out that farmers are simply trying to make a living for themselves.  Farmers cannot simply sacrifice the health of their animals without risking their own wellbeing.

In the article, “Demystifying the Environmental Sustainability of Food Production” Prof. Jude Capper,  dairy sciences, Washingston State University, with Cornell colleagues noted that cow feed would be considered waste products from human food, fiber and biofuel production.

The environmental impacts of farms generate further criticism.  In terms of efficiency, although the average dairy cow produces 27.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents compared to 13.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents in 1944, the carbon dioxide equivalents produced per kilogram of milk have decreased from 3.66 to 1.35 according to Capper’s article.

Some miscommunication between farmers and the public results from the disconnect between the general public and any form of agriculture.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 80 percent of US citizens reside in metropolitan settings. In a census of the EPA, less than 1 percent of the population claimed occupational farming.

Animal Science PhD. Candidate, Rick Watters grad, suggested that, because so many Americans live away from farming, they rely on past views of farming. Van Amburgh described his grandfather’s 100-acre farm with 10 to 20 cows; without his direct experience with farming, Van Amburgh believes this might be his view of agriculture.

Van Amburgh said, “They [media against dairy farming] are being produced by well funded groups with an agenda.”  Farmers often lack the time and resources to fund their own media, which could potentially depict their own image.

Prof. Gary Fick, crop and soil sciences, said, “It’s difficult to dictate right and wrong when dairy farming, taking another animal’s milk, is such an unnatural process to begin with.”

This relationship between agriculture and milk (a natural, nutrient-rich substance) arouses questions of morality. Certain farming practices, despite their appearance, may be necessary.

For example, ABC’s “Got Milk? Got Ethics? Animal Rights v. U.S. Dairy Industry” showed a clip of “docking.”  “Docking” is a procedure that removes a cow’s tail.  Though the practice may appear gruesome, to some, it is typically performed.

According to Lee, docking improves worker hygiene, effectively controls disease transmission and increases comfort during milking.

CUDS member Lauren Osborn ’13 explained, “People don’t understand the necessity of these practices.”

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou