By PAUL SHAPIRO
For the Capital Press
Agricultural practices have changed dramatically over the past 20 years and nobody's quicker to boast of that fact than agricultural leaders themselves.
Yet too often, agricultural trade groups reflexively oppose change when it comes to the treatment of farm animals, especially if that change is suggested by animal welfare advocates. The same industry that believes it can always do better when it comes to feed conversion, growth rates and pathogen testing is too often complacent when it comes to animal welfare.
Unfortunately, this view is at odds with reality. The fact is, some standard industry practices are so extreme, they're simply out of step with mainstream American values about how animals ought to be treated -- and science shows us that we can do better.
Animal scientist David Fraser, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia, highlighted an example of this when he bluntly stated, "... animal producers will never convince the public that they care about their animals if they house them in stalls where they can't turn around for months."
Fraser is of course talking about the pork industry. Millions of pigs used for breeding in pork production are confined in gestation crates that virtually immobilize them for nearly all their lives. More than 80 percent of all breeding sows in the country are subjected to this mistreatment for each pregnancy, and that doesn't even include the use of farrowing crates, which are used after the sow has given birth. This isn't a case of a few rotten eggs -- it's a standard industry practice that most Americans view as simply rotten.
And it's not just common sense that a 500-pound animal shouldn't be locked in a cage barely larger than her body for months at a time. Science shows that such extreme long-term confinement is detrimental to animal welfare, which is why Temple Grandin unequivocally states that gestation crates "have got to go."
In addition to the scientific opposition to gestation crates, eight states -- including Oregon -- have passed laws to phase out their use, as has the entire European Union. In fact, well-managed group housing systems -- which are more humane than gestation crates -- are in commercial use both throughout the EU and in parts of the United States, and one study from Iowa State found that group housing can actually be economically preferable to gestation crates. Still, the U.S. pork industry defends their use.
Gestation crate confinement is one example among several that have enormous potential for animal welfare improvements. Some forward-thinking segments of the industry are recognizing the benefits of distancing themselves from the status quo instead of defending what most Americans consider simply indefensible. But everyone stands to benefit from embracing continual improvement and helping to bring farm animal welfare into the 21st century.
Let's hope those progressive voices within the industry begin to establish new norms that take into consideration the importance of animal welfare improvements. For the sake of all parties involved, it can't happen soon enough.
Paul Shapiro is the senior director of farm animal protection for The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him at www.twitter.com/pshapiro