Food For Thought

Let's Emphasize Animal Welfare, not Animal Rights

by Jeff Ishee, Contributing Writer

Jeff Ishee

Family farms in Virginia and all across the United States face numerous challenges these days, including the controversial issue of animal welfare vs. animal rights. Farmers and agribusiness representatives I talk with say the topic is possibly one of the most significant challenges facing current and future generations of agriculturists. Not only do Virginia farmers have to deal with the dramatically higher cost of fuel to operate tractors and other equipment (fuel prices doubling since 2003); and not only do Virginia farmers have to be concerned about having access to affordable land for raising crops and livestock (farm real estate values in Virginia increased 29 percent from 2005 to 2006 according to a recent USDA report); but often, farmers have to worry about some group of wild-haired, idealistic demonstrators at the end of the farm lane waving signs that proclaim, “Cows have rights too!”

Make no mistake about it, the animal-rights agenda has ratcheted up in the last decade. After focusing on the scientific research community for many years, animal-rights activists have gradually shifted their focus to commercial animal agriculture and the food industry. Some activists may identify themselves as members of animal-welfare organizations, but are often involved in establishing human rights for animals.

You might ask “So what’s the difference between animal rights and animal welfare?” Ahhhh, a very important question! It is vitally important to understand the dramatic difference between the two positions.

Animal-rights supporters reject all animal use, no matter how humane. Probably the most famous of these groups is Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). A visitor to the PETA Web site will see the following statement on the front page: “PETA believes that animals have rights and deserve to have their best interests taken into consideration, regardless of whether they are useful to humans. Like you, they are capable of suffering and have an interest in leading their own lives; therefore, they are not ours to use — for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other reason.”

Animal-rights groups such as PETA loudly proclaim the purpose of their activism is to protect non-human animals from being exploited by people. Most of us (people, that is) consider it a radical movement, primarily because it evokes a philosophical (and political) belief that animals have inherent rights equivalent to those of human beings.

The animal-welfare viewpoint, however, is remarkably different from the animal-rights agenda. It encourages the responsible use of animals to satisfy basic human needs, including companionship, food, clothing and medical research.

The American Veterinary Medical Association defines animal welfare as “a human responsibility” to assure that the basic needs of animals are met. Most Virginia farmers agree with this position, believing their dominion over food animals brings with it the responsibility to treat them with respect and consideration. They accept that it is their responsibility to provide clean water, nutritious feed, and an acceptable living environment for animals raised on their farms.

A frequent speaker at educational events on livestock production in Virginia is Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin says treating farm animals in a humane manner is the right thing to do. In one of her visits, I distinctly remember her counseling farmers about future conflicts. “The public is becoming increasingly concerned about how animals are treated,” warned Grandin. She said her observations, made at several hundred farms, ranches, feedlots, and slaughter plants, indicate that the single most important factor that affects animal welfare is the attitude of management. “Places (farms) that have good animal welfare have a manager who cares. Places where animal welfare is poor often have a manager who does not care,” said Grandin. She advised all Virginia farmers to be good managers and good practitioners of animal welfare.

So what are farmers to do about the animal-rights crowd? Perhaps they should heed the advice of Kay N. Johnson, executive vice president of another Virginia-based organization involved in animal issues. Johnson recently told reporters, “We know animal-rights activists are never going to go away. Their goal, many of them, is to create a vegan or vegetarian society.” She said this will probably never happen in the United States, but “their actions can have an impact on the market and on business operations.” Johnson also said farmers and others involved in commercial animal production have a responsibility to speak out on animal-welfare issues, “rather than having activists define what we do and how animals are cared for.” Amen, Ms. Johnson!

Jeff Ishee is host and producer of the award-winning programs On the Farm radio and Virginia Farming, a production of Virginia Public Television. He resides in Augusta County.


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