What’s humane and how much does it cost?

June 22, 2009

The row about sow crates has slipped from the headlines but the debate over reasonable standards for farming livestock continues.

In the USA poultry producers fear a referendum by the Humane Society of the US could spell an end to their industry. Ohio State University economist Luther Tweeten said:

. . . it is important to recognize that nearly everyone supports humane treatment of animals, but at issue is what constitutes humane treatment. He says the HSUS proponents believe legislation will enhance animal welfare, provide healthier food because animals will contract fewer diseases and will reduce soil, water, and air pollution. On the other hand, confinement philosophies are associated with protection of animals from temperature extremes, predators, soil-borne diseases and parasites. He believes the general public has looked to science-based research to narrow the differences, but only with partial satisfaction.

The Ohio economist says market forces have dictated animal production practices, forcing producers to ensure animals are well treated. And he says, “Socially acceptable production practices for animal welfare ultimately rest on the public’s values and attitudes and not just on science. Such values range from indifferent observers to animal rightists who object to animal confinement and would end use of animals as sources of food, clothing (leather), fiber, draft-power, or companionship (pets).” To satisfy consumers with those preferences, Tweeten proposes, “to label animal products by production practices. Preferred animal welfare practices may be more costly to producers, but consumers can “vote” their preferences with dollars in the market.”

There is no excuse for inhumane treatment of livestock. But the question of what constitutes humane standards is open.

Tweeten is right that what’s acceptable ultimately rest on the public’s values and attitudes as well as science.

But basing standards on emotion rather than science could impose unnecessary costs on the industry which put produce beyond the budgets of many consumers and force producers out of business.

If eggs were available from other states or countries with lower standards and lower costs it won’t do anything for animal welfare either.

The lesson for farmers here is that perception rules. We need to be ever vigilant about animal welfare and ensure all our practices meet accepted, scientifically based standards.

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