Welfare for All

Want to improve animal welfare? Focus on bettering the conditions of the people who work with them.

Workers on a Vermont dairy farm. Terry J. Allen / Flickr

In 2008, California voters passed a referendum requiring veal calves, egg-laying hens, and gestating sows to be raised in enclosures spacious enough to allow the animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around. The legislation, known as Proposition 2, was approved with 63 percent support and was a major victory for animal rights and animal welfare groups.

Unfortunately, Proposition 2 only focused on proscribing certain living conditions — and thus failed to advance the welfare of farmed animals in two major ways. First, and most obviously, it did nothing to ensure that the new conditions were an overall improvement. Second, and most importantly, the statute was silent about the party with the greatest impact on farm animal welfare: the agricultural worker.

This is a common oversight. From the more moderate, free-range-favoring shopper to the radical animal welfare activist, there’s a general disregard for workers’ struggles in these circles.

But welfare — that is, the true wellbeing of a life form — is resistant to improvement by “thou shall not” legislation because farmed animals’ wellbeing is inextricable from worker wellbeing. In order to improve the lives of animals, we must focus on the people who work with them — not just the apparatus surrounding them.

Worker Welfare and Animal Welfare

Perhaps it is because of the success of workers’ struggles — which have brought us eight-hour days and better labor conditions — that the public now believes the welfare of food production animals can be similarly regulated. But food production animals don’t return home after an eight-hour day. They live in the workplace.

Even more importantly, production animals have no easily recognizable way of expressing their interests. Unlike workers, they can’t collectively bargain, strike, or picket. Their demands for welfare are human interpretations. And who better to articulate their needs and wants than a qualified human being who cares for them? Surely these people would have a better sense of the needs of food animals than the average legislator, or the more than 98 percent of the public not involved in animal agriculture.

Legislating from a place of well-intentioned ignorance has real consequences. Take the demand for crate-free sow gestation barns. While being able to turn around and move freely seems like an intuitive improvement from a human perspective, to a sow it also means the loss of a gestation crate that used to protect her from larger, more aggressive sows. The removal of this device may represent progress for the biggest, meanest sows in the pen, but the smallest, weakest sows’ days just got a whole lot worse. Poorly run open-pen gestation barns are breeding grounds for physical injuries.

What’s more, docile sows may find simple things like food or water harder to obtain because dominant sows — instead of farm workers — come to control access to these necessities. Resource guarding by more aggressive pigs can be so severe that weaker sows are only able to eat every third or fourth day — when they’re hungry enough to risk getting beaten up — and in extreme cases, the submissive sows can become cachectic and abort. In no way do pen gestation barns have to end up like this. But it takes dedicated workers trained in animal husbandry to recognize and proactively address such problems as they arise.

Much of the current legislation is animated by a commitment to implementing the “five freedoms”: freedom from hunger or thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear and distress.

But while well-intentioned, this list is only concerned with avoiding harm — not securing positive welfare. Less misery is the goal rather than ensuring the animal has a meaningful life. And this is perhaps where worker welfare becomes most essential. If a worker is unhappy, she will have a difficult time bringing happiness to something as different from herself as a pig.

I have worked as a production animal veterinarian in several countries, and I have rarely met an animal handler who did not care for animals. But as we move to more complex methods of animal rearing, it will take more than compassion and additional training. It will require a realization that decent pay for farm workers is an animal welfare issue.

For starters, high welfare work is harder work. Whereas before a worker could simply walk down a row of pigs or chickens in a crate, glancing at each one to note its body condition, health status, and whether it had eaten its feed, under these new legislative strictures, she must now practice a level of husbandry that requires more training and expertise. Animal husbandry is a skill set, and good animal caretakers expend large amounts of physical and emotional energy caring for their animals. They should be compensated accordingly.

When work is an underpaid chore, instead of a well-paid job, the urge to rush through the workday increases, leading to rough handling of animals (in order to speed up the work process), or to neglect (such as not double-checking that all animals are eating their feed and all watering stations are working). Negligence and neglect may be the most insidious drivers of poor animal welfare. In fact, one of the justifications for adopting sow crates and poultry battery cages was that they made this kind of mistreatment more difficult.

But if there is a case of outright animal abuse, no amount of mandated infrastructural improvement is going to save the animal. Again, it falls to workers. And while agricultural laborers are just as intelligent and compassionate as the society from which they emerge, they’ll be much less likely to act on their human impulse and save a non-human animal from the abuse of a coworker or superior if it means jeopardizing their job. So workers must be protected, organized, and have a system for reporting such behavior without fear of reprisal.

Organizing would also help stamp out the worst of features of the contract-farming system, under which 90 percent of meat-type chickens (“broilers”) are presently raised and which can engender great neglect.

In the contract model, chicks are delivered to an independent farmer and grown under the farmer’s labor. The farmer owns the barn and the feed hoppers and pays for the utilities and labor, but the chickens are not his (causing some disincentive for investing in the birds’ wellbeing). The grower’s income is tied to certain metrics of performance (feed usage, number of birds raised, weight of the birds, etc.), leading to wide pay disparities across the broiler industry. While some households raising broiler birds can make more than the average American household raising other commodities, one in five contract growers ends up earning $18,782 or less per year — well below the poverty line.

Squeezing farmers’ income like this can ultimately harm animal wellbeing. For example, farmers might decrease ventilation and temperature management of barns to save electricity (which causes more animal distress) or forgo sanitation measures taken between flocks to save on labor costs and increase productive time (which can boost the risk of animal disease).

Unionization is an antidote. Organized broiler growers could put an end to gross disparities in earnings. Instead of letting the contracting company pit them against each other, workers could band together and demand enough money for both a living wage and for the infrastructural upgrades that many consumers demand and to which animals are entitled.

There’s one final, illustrative instance in which animal welfare advocates’ intentions can go awry and workers are left out of the picture: the popular demand for “pasture”-raised animals.

Advocates’ first mistake is assuming that throwing open the gates and letting animals outdoors — where there is increased rates of predation and parasitization — is necessarily beneficial. One common welfare and economic problem in the beef industry, for instance, is extreme climate exposure. Cattle can, and do, freeze to death in uncommonly cold winters and die of heat-stress-related disease in abnormally hot summers. Indoor rearing systems used in swine and poultry farming shelter the animals from these extremes (Iowa and Minnesota, where most of US breeding sows reside, have very uncomfortable winters).

Secondly, advocates forget that sending animals outside means sending workers to face the elements. Placing pigs outdoors to gather ascarids and suffer sunburns also puts workers at risk for heat stroke in the summer and frostbite in the winter.

Here again, the welfare of animals and the welfare of workers converge.

The Industrial Advantage

Despite its elevated spot in the American imaginary, the family farm isn’t the repository for all that is good, and the corporate farm isn’t the very incarnation of evil — even if we use animal welfare as the metric. In my capacity as a veterinarian, I have been on small family farms where hogs are tied to a stake in the ground, cattle are emaciated, and poultry are kept in houses that are unbreathable due to poor ventilation. I have also been on enormous farms that are clean, have well-fed and healthy animals, and have a workforce dedicated to the animals’ comfort.

But if we want to make life better for both animals and workers, we should focus on industrialized agriculture. With sizable corporations, it is both easier to organize workers and monitor animals and easier for those companies to handle the increased costs of production that come with improved working conditions and animal welfare.

In addition, the efficiencies associated with economies of scale (e.g., spreading the fixed cost of a barn, machinery, utilities, or veterinary care over many animals) are not fundamentally evil. It is the broader system of which they are a part — which abuses animals and exploits workers in the name of profit — that is objectionable. Rejecting the cost savings of modern commercial farming is a reactionary response that confuses technological advancement with capitalist malfeasance.

Less able to take advantage of more efficient forms of production, it is small family farmers who are most likely to be pushed out of business by activist demands for organic feed and space to roam. They find it difficult to absorb the cost of recapitalizing their food animal production barns to meet legislative requirements — building a high welfare barn for three thousand sows pays off much more quickly than building such a dwelling for fifty sows. And they struggle to afford higher wages and better training for their workers.

Harnessing conventional agriculture’s market efficiencies is also a necessity from the planet’s standpoint. In 1950, for example, there were on average about 22 million milking cows producing 116.6 billion pounds of milk. By 2012, about 9.3 million dairy cows were responsible for nearly 167.7 billion pounds of milk. Put another way, to get 2012 output with 1950 technology, it would require almost three times as many cattle (around 30 million). Because of the efficiency gained from large industrialized agriculture, there are 20 million fewer cattle today eating grains, producing methane, and concentrating waste.

The move to large-scale dairy farming allowed the adoption of technologies — such as improved equipment, modern milking parlors, better feed, and more efficient waste-handling systems — that increased milk production while reducing the dairy cattle population. While one may still quibble about the welfare of animals on these farms, it is important to keep in mind that there are 20 million fewer cows being milked as a result of industrial agricultural methods — and thus 20 million fewer cattle subject to the conditions animal welfare advocates find objectionable.

At the same time, the expense of these technologies helped consolidated the industry: the number of dairy farms plummeted from 3.7 million in 1950 to 64,000 in 2012, and approximately 330,000 hog farms in 1982 shrunk to 63,000 by 2012.

While the veneration of the family farm is unmerited, there have undoubtedly been some downsides to such consolidation. The intense concentration of waste that large outfits produce can befoul drinking water and imperil the health of urban and rural residents alike.

The best way to attack these hazards, however, is through regulatory action. Indeed, it is quantifiable things such as waste management that can be regulated more readily than qualitative things such as animal wellbeing. And it’s easier to implement state oversight for a thousand-head indoor dairy operation that is able to capture, treat, and even use cattle waste than a hundred separate ten-cattle operations.

Given these realities, it isn’t family farms but companies like Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, that will be shouldering the costs of removing gestation stalls from sow facilities and retrofitting barns to enable freedom of movement. It will be the laying barns with 1 million–plus flock sizes that will be able to afford new laying hen barns with enlarged, enriched cages with perching areas.

A Different Kind of Production System

As appealing as the pastoral ideal may seem, family farms put a ceiling on the amount of capital available to invest in workers and animals, while relying heavily on labor exploitation. It is precisely the industrial nature of industrial agriculture that brings workers together and allows for advancements that improve human and non-human animal lives. Mechanization, for instance, can liberate workers from monotonous and repetitive labor.

Still, bettering the lives of animals calls for harnessing the industrialized efficiency of modern farming to more benevolent ends than the current system allows. It requires radical action to bring agricultural workers together in a common struggle for fair pay and labor protections. And it demands that the voices of farmers and animal caretakers be taken fully into account.

Initiatives like banning crates and increasing cage sizes, while beneficial in some cases, overlook the central importance of the worker. Failing to improve the conditions of farm workers while simultaneously trying to improve the wellbeing of animals will go nowhere. Worker welfare is the precondition for animal welfare.