RMFU hears animal ag recommendations
Cheyenne – Members of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production were present at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union 2008 Convention to present their findings released earlier this year.
The study, which took two-and-a-half years to complete, cost $3.4 million and resulted in 24 recommendations from a panel of 16 commissioners.
“One of the things that bothered me most about corporate agriculture is the devastation that it’s brought to rural America and our small towns,” said Pew Commission Executive Director Robert Martin. “That was the most important aspect of our study going in.”
He said members of the Commission came from animal agriculture, human medicine, public health, ethics, religious and state and federal policy backgrounds.
“We had three people who were active in animal agriculture. One was an organic rancher from North Dakota, a cow/calf operator from Montana and cattle rancher from California. The chairman of commission also began his life as a dairyman,” said Martin. “We felt we had quite a bit of real-life producer expertise on the Commission.”
Martin said the Commission’s general finding was the industrial operations that dominate animal agriculture present an unacceptable level of threat to public health, damage to the environment, harm to rural communities and are harmful to the animals themselves.
“Of the 24 recommendations, 12 directly concern public health, five of which are related to the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture,” he explained. “One primary recommendation was a phase-out and a ban of non-medical antibiotics in animal agriculture.”
He stressed they’re not recommending a ban the use of antibiotics altogether. “There is a public health concern because of antibiotic persistence, and the more antibiotics are used the worse resistance becomes,” he said.
Five broad recommendations dealt with animal welfare. “Our strongest recommendation in animal welfare was to phase out the most restrictive confinement systems used in swine and egg production,” said Martin. “We visited a swine operation in North Carolina that used gestation crates and the Commission’s primary recommendation was to phase them out.”
He said they thought the beef industry was doing a “pretty good job from a welfare standpoint.”
“We didn’t find many serious problems in beef production,” he noted. The Commission toured several large feedlots in northeastern Colorado.
Two primary rural community recommendations deal with competition in the marketplace. “Contract marketing is a real problem and the big integrators don’t go into the market on a daily basis, which suppresses competition,” said Martin. “Producers in Arkansas said the current contracting system in the poultry business makes the producer an indentured servant to the company. We want more aggressive enforcement of the anti-trust laws and more transparency in the contracting process and more price transparency.”
He said if those tools aren’t enough the Commission recommends Congress go out and give the Justice Department new tools to open the market.
In response to the report, Colorado pork producer John Long said the key word in animal agriculture is sustainability. “The process we’ve been going through is not sustainable,” he said.
“Concentrated agriculture probably has seen its best days,” continued Long. “Concentration is not a result of market efficiency, but of market failure.” He said he thinks environmental issues will push the movement away from large ag operations significantly faster.
“I was in animal science in college and I learned the eye of the master fattens his stock and it’s the same today. If you don’t take care of those animals they’re not going to take care of you,” he said.
Regarding recommendations that suggested the federal government should conduct more research, Laramie cattle rancher Taylor Haynes said, “I’m greatly concerned with the recommendations if they think the federal government is best suited to do research, because they’re not. They can fund research in many ways, like through land grant universities, but they also can tend to become institutionalized and get away from pure research.”
He mentioned the USDA’s allowance of Canadian cattle to come into the country and the disappearance of 60 species the Fish and Wildlife Service has “studied to extinction.”
“Tax money will be spent to control greenhouse gases, and I’ve seen lots of data that says we’re causing global warming but there’s a preponderance of data that shows the planet has been much warmer in the past,” he continued. “I’m not saying I know, I’m just saying they don’t know either.”
Of the animal welfare recommendations, Haynes said he’s wary of the Commission’s direction. “If this thing gets out of the box on the wrong track in two years they’ll be at my place saying my pastures aren’t big enough.”
Haynes encouraged people to think about the case presented in the Pew Commission’s report, but to be careful about the recommendations.
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.