Will Animal Agriculture Continue to Exist?

Chad Dechow
Associate Professor, Dairy Cattle Genetics
Department of Dairy and Animal Science
The Pennsylvania State University

If Activists, Government, and Global Business Unite

I got my first bumper sticker (for my bicycle) as a 10 year old kid showing cows at the county fair. It said “Farmers Feed You Three Times a Day” and it resonated with me because, even at that age, I understood that those who feed the rest of the world are often not held in high regard. I got some of my first exposure to those who don’t like animal agriculture at the same fair when a stranger asked me how I would like my head brushed with that those stiff bristles.

Animal rights activists have long exaggerated, misunderstood and misrepresented farm practices. Their underlying philosophy that we have no more inherent worth than livestock is simply evil and makes a better argument for cannibalism than for the welfare of animals. Nevertheless, they’ve had success in state ballot initiatives. Many of the practices they’ve targeted are ones that I’m not all that fond of, frankly, and it’s understandable why people would vote to eliminate them. However, the leaders of the animal rights movement want animal agriculture to end, and the success they’ve had so far is simply one step along the path toward that ultimate goal.

Environmentalists are no fonder of animal agriculture. Livestock are bad animals that exhale carbon dioxide and emit methane. We’re being told that continuing to grow them for food will ruin the planet, especially as the world’s population grows. Revelations from stolen e-mails that global warming evidence has been manipulated gives me little confidence that the environmental impact of agriculture will be given a fair hearing. The activist movements have always been a thorn in the side of our farmers, but they weren’t a threat to our existence because they haven’t convinced the general public that animal production is an inherently evil enterprise. The game might change if heavy-handed government and big business interests enable the animal activist movement.

Government officials see in agriculture two things that excite them: revenue and the opportunity to protect ourselves from ourselves. America is too fat. Our expanding waistline is a needless medical expense. Previous efforts to control our weight have failed – who knew that introducing the food pyramid would be followed by people shaped thus? To some, it’s time for more draconian actions like a fat-tax. The current director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advocated taxes on sugary drinks, and taxes on fattening animal products won’t lag far behind. Emission taxes for livestock have been proposed as a way to help control greenhouse gas production. Once a government mandated national animal ID system is in place, such a tax will be easy to administer. Increase tax revenue, save on health care costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions – animal agriculture is simply too great a political opportunity to go untouched!

Our protection has always been that consumers still want our product. We’ll continue to exist as long as that does not change, correct? Some high tech businesses might have other plans. Scientists have developed methods to grow meat in a Petri dish. It is “soggy” at this point, but they think they can improve the system and provide something edible in 5 years. Dairy protein substitutes also have  been created to facilitate cheese production. Consumers might just be able to get the animal protein they desire without actually needing animal production. Animal rightists and environmentalists think this development is fantastic. Meat and dairy without methane and with less carbon has already been suggested as a key piece of meeting greenhouse gas emission goals, and business leaders who want to sell fake meat are not likely to advocate on our behalf.

What can animal producers and their supporters do to prevent this perfect storm of activism, government regulation, and global business from taking hold? We have to provide something that consumers want, need and are willing to fight for. It will have to go beyond simple nourishment, because other food sources will be available and probably be less expensive. Family farms are held in high regard by the public, and I believe consumers are comfortable knowing that family farms spread around the country provide a food supply that is secure and less open to manipulation by a few large business conglomerates. We need to protect that image and build on it. To do so, consumer attitudes toward animal and environmental stewardship practices, farm consolidation, government farm subsidies, and immigration should be taken more seriously than they are currently.  Farmers also need more control over what they are paid and what their products cost consumers because the farm-to-retail price spread is growing. Many folks are lining their pockets at the expense of farmer and consumer.

We are likely a long way from the end of animal agriculture as we know it. But, its continued existence should not be a foregone conclusion. Will we take these threats seriously, or are current business interests just too entrenched to change? I hope not, because “Lab Techs Feed You Three Times a Day” bumper stickers might not be far behind.

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