October 12, 2010

Poor Old MacDonald: Benefits of Factory Farms

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Prof. Joe Regenstein, food science, spoke about three different types of farmers last month: the Family Farmer, the Corporate Farm, and the Gentleman Farmer.

According to Regenstein, family farmers exist but are mostly corporate farms if they are in business and that two percent of farms are “real corporations.”   He stressed, the idealized “Old Mac Donald Farmer” does not really exist in that sort of role society has created.

Regenstein then focused on US Egg production and the debate between conventional cage (90 percent) and non-cage systems (five percent).  The United Egg Producers audit egg producers to ensure air quality, feed, water, handling, employee conduct, and beak trimming for both cage and cage-free standards.

Cages protect hens from soil borne diseases, improve overall health, allow caretakers to inspect hens daily, produce cleaner and safer eggs and improve flock livability. Cage free eggs double floor space, and they also are associated with increased feather pecking and cannibalism, higher ammonia and dust levels, and overall, higher mortality.

Regenstein presented retail data showing that conventional eggs compose 92 percent of all eggs bought; organic and free range eggs amount to just one percent.

Going cage free would raise cost of egg production by 40 percent, add an additional 580,000 acres of cropland to egg production, and demand four times more labor.   Furthermore, from an environmental perspective, hens in non-cage houses are less efficient in energy utilization, and non-cage houses generally have poorer quality.

The second part of his presentation contained slides and data borrowed from Dr. Jude Capper, animal science, Washington State University, which focused on the industrialization of dairy farming.

One statistic stated that U.S. agriculture accounts for only six percent of the total US carbon footprint. Dairy contributes 11 percent of the agricultural footprint which means overall, dairy contributes only .066 percet of the US total carbon footprint.

However, this impact can still be improved.  The best way to reduce environmental impacts is to increase efficiency by utilizing technology, genetic advances, and improved management.

The study showed how using conventional farming practices involving substances like rbST, a bovine growth hormone, could actually increase productivity per cow.  The decrease in cows would in turn lead to many positive environmental changes.

One million cows producing 10 pounds more milk would reduce environmental impacts by 9 percent.  By reducing the amount of animals by 334,000, 2.5 million tons less feed, 540,000 acres less cropland, and 3 million tons less manure would be needed.

Regenstein demanded the use of science in backing all claims when discussing and understanding the dynamics of agricultural issues.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou