Animal Welfare: Allow science, not emotion, to tell us whether farm practices are humane

 Events in the recent past, however, have once again caused Americans to focus on where their food is coming from. It is no longer sufficient to accept that there will be food on the table when we need it. We are becoming equally concerned about how our food is being produced.

There are practical reasons for this. Food safety scares both with respect to domestic goods and imports have caused us to take a closer look at our food supply. We also have concerns about the affect the chemicals used in food production may have on our health and agriculture’s effect on the environment; the surge in organic goods is a manifestation of this.  However, many of our concerns about modern food production stem from purely emotional concerns, in which we try to overlay our social mores onto sectors where they traditionally haven’t been applied. A prime example of this is our concern for the welfare of animals in agriculture.

Undeniably, neither I nor anyone I know advocates or even tolerates the inhumane treatment of farm animals. To the contrary, as the chairman of the Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over animal welfare issues, I am greatly concerned about ensuring that the animals we use to produce our food and fiber are born, raised and harvested in the most humane way possible. However it is imperative that we allow the most up-to-date scientific data on animal agriculture practices to drive the policy decisions we make, and extract emotion from the equation as much as possible. We have a tendency as a society to anthropomorphize our animals, especially our pets. We give them human names and provide them with the same amenities we enjoy as humans. None of this is objectionable; our pets provide us with a tremendous amount of love, companionship and joy and deserve the best care we can give them. However, a problem with this view arises when we consider animals in agriculture.

Unfortunately when combined with our love for companion animals our lack of knowledge about agriculture leads us to view farm animals the same as we do our pets. We think about what type of living conditions we want for our pets (often the same as those we want for ourselves), and try to apply that to every animal when in reality this may not be the best course of action. We make evaluations about how we perceive an animal to “feel” and translate that into an assumption about the “wellness” of that animal. We have an idyllic image of chickens roaming a barnyard foraging and we think that they must be truly content because they are able to live as nature intended. What we forget, however, is that nature can be cruel. Lurking in the hedges beyond may be a fox ready to pounce. Moreover, these chickens are subject to the whims of weather, food availability and disease. Is a chicken in this situation truly better off than one who is protected from predators, inoculated against disease and provided regular meals?

Certainly, there are many among us who are on the opposite end of that spectrum. Farmers are businessmen and concerned about profit margin. As such they may view animals in a utilitarian light, and define their wellness based on productivity (i.e., producing more offspring or wool or efficiency in turning food into flesh), basing their business practices on increasing that productivity and therefore profitability. This viewpoint is as equally valid as any other.

So how do we bridge the gap between maximizing profit at the expense of an animal’s expression of its natural tendencies and treating livestock as we would the family cat? The answer is science. The body of scientific knowledge, while not infallible, can help us identify objective measures of animal welfare and apply those to the practices we mandate on our farms. We must strive to utilize the myriad scientific institutions researching these issues to help us find the right approach to animal welfare as it applies to agriculture.

As public officials, my colleagues and I are accountable to public sentiment on animal welfare as we are with many issues. However we have the responsibility to set aside emotion as much as possible and make rational, science-based decisions on policy in an effort to balance the concerns of all involved. Otherwise, when it comes to agriculture, we risk jeopardizing the safe, stable, plentiful supply of food we have come to depend on and that has made the U.S. the greatest nation in the world.

Scott is chairman of the Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture.