Animals, as a very general classification of living entities, are not on par with rocks, twigs, or an iPhone. We develop special relationships with individual animals that become part of our extended families. My pet cats, I have two, each have very unique personalities and mannerisms that make them different from ‘cats’ in the general sense. However, what of animals that are ‘not wild’ and are ‘not domesticated’ in the sense of benefitting from a special and personal relationship with humans… particularly of farm animals? A farmer with 100 head of cattle is unlikely to know each and every one of them.
But what do we do about animals that serve some purpose other than companionship? Animal welfare, which is different from ‘animal rights’ positions, aims to recognize that animals deserve respect, that they are not on par with some technological gadget or a pile of rocks. Our history has, for the most part, been marked by an increasing awareness and recognition that animals deserve some form of moral consideration. By moral consideration, we tend to shun those that mistreat, or cause unnecessary suffering, in animals. Thus torturing and neglecting an animal is contrary to our sensibilities regarding how we should treat animals.
However, in a consumer society that is largely fed through industrialized farming methods, how are we to consider the lives of animals whose fate we have determined to be food for humans? As humans become increasingly aware of the moral and health dangers surrounding industrialized animal farming, we have passed laws forbidding certain practices. Furthermore, public sentiment has ‘voted with their dollars’ to embrace what we consider to be humanely raised animals, such as free range chickens, however this remains a niche of the overall food industry and one that commands a price premium.
Yet, Idaho’s recent passage of a bill that criminalizes video recordings documenting animal mistreatment forces us to consider our sentiments regarding property rights, privacy, and animal welfare.
The question that underlies the conflict between farmers and animal welfare groups is:
1) Are animals personal property, particularly animals whose lives are determined to end in their consumption by humans?
Those that would defend ‘animals as property’ would have you accept that it is in their best interests to care for their property, lest it harm their economic interests. This is a position that bears some truth, for which the argument cannot and should not be dismissed without adequate consideration. For example, a rancher erects fencing to ensure that cattle do not roam into the dangers of the wild and is watchful for the outbreak of disease amongst the herd, lest an early demise result in economic loses.
However, the Idaho bill addresses a different issue…
The Idaho law is in response to videos that were perceived to harm the economic interests of the dairy industry as a result of the human mistreatment. As stated by the Associated Press:
The bill came in response to videos released by Los Angeles-based vegetarian and animal rights group Mercy for Animals showing workers at Bettencourt Dairy beating, stomping and sexually abusing cows in 2012.
Idaho’s $2.5 billion dairy industry complained the group used its videos not to curb abuse, but to unfairly hurt Bettencourt’s business.
If the everyday treatment of an animal does not harm its economic prospects, then should it be permissible? The Idaho legislation supports a position that the animals are merely personal property and may be utilized as the owner sees fit within their sphere of privacy. What this position lacks is articulating how the industry would take action to prevent the future occurrence of the mistreatment. Additionally, on what basis might the public change the practices of a rancher and not affect their economic interests? The assumption is that the farmer is vigilant to protect and care for the animal, and in many cases this is true, however in an industrial farming paradigm the argument loses its persuasiveness as the need to employ others is necessary. The animals become more like personal property as the numbers being managed by a farm increase, while the animal welfare groups aim to counter the commodification of the living creatures. The small scale rancher is more apt to care and respect each animal… if for nothing more than that each animal represents a much larger percentage of their overall livelihood. One animal is worth more to the rancher with 10 animals than it is to the factory farm that has 10,000.
A glaring strategic management question looms regarding some very peculiar efforts by industry organizations. It is accepted that the actions of mistreatment are not considered as acceptable by a rancher, their objection is to the harm of their economic interests. Thus the rancher is NOT defending the actions that were caught on video, and the diary industry claimed that the aim of Mercy for Animals was to inflict economic harm, not alter the care and treatment of the animal.
While it can be considered that Mercy for Animals’ objective might have been to harm Bettencourt Dairy, it does not follow that should seek this sort of legislative remedy.
If the practices of harm are institutionalized and reflect a pattern of abuse, then how should an agriculture industry group responds?
At the very minimum, sexual intercourse with cattle is unacceptable as contrary to social norms. It would be a very bizarre argument to defend that a rancher is free to use cattle as an object for sexual gratification… and I assume that most all ranchers would vehemently oppose any rancher that would. As a result, the everyday interactions, lacking any substantive economic effect, illustrates the limits of such a general view of animal welfare as sufficiently encompassed by the economic self interests of a rancher.
Strategically, it would have been wiser for the dairy industry of Idaho to enact some forward thinking to realize that the videos of animal welfare groups present on opportunity for the collective group of farmers to change their practices and capture additional profits! Just as free range eggs command a market premium, Idaho’s dairy industry should have embraced the efforts of animal welfare groups to root out bad actors that would otherwise compel more consumers to shun meat entirely (granted this entirely sets aside the meritorious arguments in favor of vegetarianism, but that is an argument for another day). Collaboration with animal welfare groups to improve practices provides a basis to differentiate a farmer’s products. It’s not just milk, it’s sustainably raised and humanely treated milk!
Need an example… Wyke Farms… you’re doing it right!
One persistently problematic aspect here is a view that there is a strict divide between information in the public and private sphere. Furthermore, it is also problematic to view the production of food, intended for the sale to others, as rightfully within a rigid private sphere. If the public is to be capable of making rational decisions that reflect what is economic and moral, then that premise relies upon having sufficient information to execute those choices. The production of food is unique to this question due to the fact that it is ingested by others and contributes to biological health or harm in ways that other consumer goods do not. Food is intimate, and is not on par with other, ‘not-intimate,’ transactions such as the purchasing bricks or a tech gadget.
Forward thinking ranchers could easily institute monitoring measures to root out animal mistreatment through live feed surveillance cameras. Similarly, the forward thinking rancher than uses the humanely treated cattle to capture a price premium through branding. If the interest groups of agriculture are really intended to protect and promote their respective industries, then the ‘promote’ component should compel them to work with animal welfare groups to increase transparency and consumer engagement with their food. An industry group that focuses solely on economic efficiency is one that is harming the long term interests of their constituents.
Therefore, ‘Ag-Gag’ bills harm the public good by restricting the flow of information AND they harm interests of those that they aim to represent by maintaining the status quo of industrialized and concentrated farming operations. The devaluation is the direct result of the fact that their products operate become fungible, indistinguishable from any other, and thus the low cost provider strategic model rules the market. The resulting downward pressure on the margins of ranchers is directly the result of the reality that they are not promoting points of differentiation that justify stable or higher prices that reflect their respectful stewardship of the animals and our food supply.