My family and I raise meat for sale in Massachusetts, and our customers are increasingly asking us for our thoughts about Massachusetts Ballot question 3. A yes vote would prohibit any confinement of pigs, calves, and hens that prevent them from lying down, standing up, fully extending their limbs, or turning around freely. If passed, the new law will take effect January 1, 2022.
We fully support the passage of this law, and we thought it would be useful to tell voters why and to share what we think the longer-term consequences of a law like this might be.
We are part of a US farm Industry that has achieved some of the highest levels of meat production productivity in the world. Meat production is one area where the US continues to be an exporter in the global marketplace, and this is a direct result of US farmer ingenuity and hard work. There are many in the meat industry who argue that high production productivity was and is needed to help feed a growing world population and that greater efficiency can lower meat prices to make critical proteins available to more people. It is a very valid point and something we need to keep in mind with any proposed regulations.
However, some of us have felt for some time that the meat Industry needs a more balanced scorecard than just a laser-like focus on production efficiency. Many of us increasingly feel a responsibility to consider the humane treatment of animals, the long-term sustainability of our practices, the impact on the environment, and the safety and healthiness of the products we produce.
Animal confinement is a direct by-product of the push for production efficiency. Farrowing crates are common in the pork industry to prevent a sow from rolling on and crushing piglets, and to protect workers and other pigs from certain sows exhibiting aggressive behavior during or after giving birth. However, when farrowing cages are used there is a tradeoff related to animal humane treatment. At my farm we have been able to successfully farrow pigs without farrowing cages, but it does require dedicating more space for pregnant sows, using deep straw bedding to allow natural nesting behavior, using creep boxes so piglets have a safe place to go between feedings to help reduce accidental crushing, and more labor to supervise births and to ensure piglet safety. In other words, our production costs are higher but it is a tradeoff we choose to make for the humane treatment of animals.
It is easier and more efficient to raise pigs indoors rather than outdoors in pastures or forest, yet here is the word–tradeoff–again. Confined indoor pigs can get sick easier so many large-scale factory farms introduced the liberal use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in feed and water to prevent disease, (and to help spur pig growth.) Experts now believe that the overuse of antibiotics in animal production has resulted in a loss of effectiveness of these important drugs for use with humans; and in January of 2017, the FDA will now require farmers and ranchers to get a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in farm animals. We feel this change was long overdue. Indoor confinement of animals also raises the issue of manure disposal and the attendant issues that slurry disposal has on air and water quality.
Outdoor pig production is more successful with the use of heritage breeds that tolerate sunlight and temperature extremes well, but heritage breeds tend to have smaller litters and grow slower than some of the breeds used in larger commercial operations. Outdoor production requires more land, more fencing, and more staff to rotate and feed herds, but pigs that are raised outdoors do not need non-therapeutic antibiotics to prevent disease, and their life outdoors results in other consumer benefits. The Vitamin D in sunlight helps transform fat into healthier omega 3 fat, hogs get leaner through exercise, and the meat is more marbled and tender through stress-free living.
The constant drive for efficiency has also caused tradeoffs in the use of animal food and food additives. It is more cost-effective to feed livestock GMO produced grains, and the use of non-protein food additives can be used to lower the cost of–or increase the profit on–sausages and prepared foods. We have no issue with the concept of genetically modified plants if the modifications are intended to accomplish good things such as reducing water use or make a plant more drought resistant. However, genetic modification is too often use to allow plants and seeds to be immune to the use of certain herbicides and pesticides. These chemicals can be harmful to workers, pollute our water supply, and leach into the food we eat and that will not be good for our health. Similarly, food additives can introduce ingredients with dubious nutritional and health benefits. GMO feed and food additives are another form of ethical trade-offs that meat producers need to make. At my farm, choose to never feed our animals GMO food, or use food additives, even though these decisions mean we live with a smaller profit margin. We accept this consequence in the interest of our own health as we also eat the food we produce.
Lastly, will new regulations such as Massachusetts ballot question 3 raise costs for farmers and ultimately consumers? The answer for the short term is probably yes, and maybe no, depending on how a family already shops. Any regulation that might disrupt the current high levels of farmer meat productivity could have short-term negative financial consequences. Large agricultural conglomerates in the United States control the greatest portion of actual consumer sales, and this industry consolidation has already made many consumers wary. Many may think that these big companies are very profitable and they can afford to take a profit hit in the interest of healthier food and better animal treatment.
However, these conglomerates are more involved in the processing of food rather than the production of it. In the case of pork production, surprisingly more than 80% of actual pork production is still in the hands of family owned farms, and these smaller businesses are the backbone of job growth and prosperity in our economy. So the family farm (especially those who are contract growers for conglomerates) will feel the brunt of the pressure to deal with new production processes while maintaining current price levels, regardless of the introduction of new laws related to animal treatment and the restriction on the use of antibiotics or other practices. If they cannot pass on increases in operational costs to the food processors, the farmer’s profits will be lower, and some family farms may fail. However, we believe that Americans have shown over and over again that when faced with new challenges we innovate to find new solutions. The MA Animal Confinement law does not go into effect until 2022, and that is a fair amount of time for producers to adopt more humane animal treatment standards.
We also believe that more and more consumers are beginning to see there have been unacceptable consequences of cheap meat, and inhumane animal treatment is just one of them. We do believe when more agricultural businesses focus on a more balanced score card that considers production efficiency, humane treatment of animals, long-term sustainability, environmental impact, and the safety and healthiness of the products we produce, it will result in a movement away from concentrated animal operations to smaller distributed family-run farms that are closer to regional markets. That shift would be good for employment and the economy, reduce the cost of food transportation, produce healthier meats, and help to reduce the cost of health care. There are enough of us alternative producers around now to demonstrate that production efficiency can be achieved without animal confinement and benefits of outdoor natural production can outweigh the increased costs.
One final argument on the cost debate is those of us who are already producing meats with a balanced scorecard will not raise our prices just because commodity pork prices end up going up due to new regulations. Alternative farms are already offering all natural meats from animals that are humanely raised, and consumers have established expectations of what humanely raised meat should cost. While some consumers already accept that the cost of humanely and naturally raised meat may be slightly higher than commodity meats, these consumers have developed new strategies to avoid hurting their food budgets. Some consumers have cut down on the amount of meat they eat so they can afford better quality, others are buying in bulk, or learning to cook with less costly cuts to extend their food dollars.
We do feel the way meat is produced in this country needs to get back to the way our grandparents raised animals all naturally and humanely. The American drive for efficiency has benefited consumers in in many ways when it comes products like electronics, automobiles, and most manufactured goods. However, when it comes to the meat production, the pendulum for efficiency has gone too far and that has produced unacceptable consequences in the treatment of animals and the safety of the food we are putting in our mouths. It is time for consumers to take a stand and demand changes such as MA ballot question # 3, and we urge you to vote yes.
Peter Burrows, Owner, Brown Boar Farm