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Problems with the Standard Critique

Given that the Standard Critique raises issues of great importance, and given that it is repeated as fact in so many works, including academic ones, it is surprising that it rests on so little actual investigation and analysis. In reality, most of the research needed to understand the intensification of animal production has yet to be done. Even at this stage, however, we can see that the Standard Critique does not fit with some key facts.

One problematic claim is that the intensification of animal production is closely linked to corporations replacing the privately or family-owned farm. Research is needed to assess this claim, but it appears that, although intensification has occurred throughout industrialized countries, corporate ownership has become the norm only for certain commodities in certain countries. In the United States of America, the majority of egg and poultry production is now controlled by a handful of corporations. In Canada, however, although egg and poultry production have also shifted to fewer, larger confinement units, the individual producer remains the dominant player. This is almost certainly because of a supply - management system that has kept profit per bird much higher than it is in the United States of America (Fraser and Leonard, 1993).

Similarly, the past two decades have seen the appearance of huge, corporately owned swine units in the United States of America. However, these are seen as an aberration in many other countries where swine production has nonetheless become highly intensified. In fact, the wholesale replacement of family-owned farms by large, corporately controlled units appears to have occurred mainly in two areas of the world - in some sectors in the United States of America and in some of the former Soviet countries. Elsewhere it appears that the intensification of animal production occurred mainly in a climate of individual and family ownership, and that much of the increase in production levels and farm size in industrialized countries is a product of owner-operated units becoming progressively larger. Thus, the view that intensification is closely linked to corporate ownership is true of only certain sectors in certain countries.

Correlating confinement systems with corporate ownership is almost certainly incorrect. For one thing, the timing is wrong: most of the confinement methods in use today were becoming standard technology during the 1960s and 1970s, well before large, corporately owned units became common. Moreover, confinement technology predominates in many industrialized countries where individually and family-owned units remain the backbone of animal production, with the exception of special cases such as Norway, where subsidization allows small units and more traditional methods to remain viable. In fact, confinement methods are often staunchly defended by producers operating individually and family-owned enterprises (e.g. Kuehn and Kahl, 2005).

Is it true that today's animal producers have undergone a major shift away from traditional animal care values? This, too, is a question that requires actual research but that, to date, has been answered more with rhetoric than with investigation. Critical works such as Diet for a new America (Robbins, 1987) and Animal liberation (Singer, 1990) provide quotations from modern animal producers illustrating extreme callousness towards their animals. Because these works give no quotations from the other end of the spectrum, they leave the impression that such callousness is typical. On the other hand, Kolkman (1987) provides ample quotations from modern animal producers who espouse traditional values of stewardship and care for animals. A wide range of values is clearly present. But has there been a change on net away from traditional animal care values? This is certainly possible. As the industry has moved towards fewer, larger units, the producers who have remained in business may well have, in general, different attitudes from those who have left; and owning 250 dairy cows may well engender different attitudes towards animals than would owning 25. Nonetheless, the small amount of relevant research has found that people engaged in commercial animal production have a wide range of attitudes towards animals - some of them very positive - and that positive attitudes are correlated with practical effectiveness and with the productivity of animals (Hemsworth and Coleman, 1998). Pending more thorough study it seems plausible to conclude that producers' attitudes toward animals range from the callous to the caring, as they probably always have, and that some or many producers today continue to espouse strong animal care values although experiencing serious constraints on their ability to act on those values in today's world.

Are large and/or corporately owned units necessarily worse for animal welfare than small, privately owned ones? Again, lacking empirical evidence, we can only propose tentative answers. It seems plausible that the quality of animal care might decline in very large units, for example if the staff are wage-earners who have no stake in the enterprise, or if important decisions are made by executives who are not in contact with the animals. On the other hand, very small units may well lack the capital, specific knowledge and access to specialized services that a larger unit can provide. In a study of how humans relate to animals in dairy production, Waiblinger and Menke (1999) found that there was some correlation between herd size and the human - cow relationship, but that the personality and attitudes of the stockpersons were more important determining factors. Thus, if we could plot "average" animal welfare (however this might be conceived) against farm size, the line might be slightly hill-shaped, climbing at first as the specialist takes over from the generalist-level skill present on the small mixed farm, and then declining with very large units if key decisions are made by people who do not care about the animals or are not in contact with them. However, given the multitude of factors that influence animal welfare, we might suspect that the hill, if it exists, would not be very steep.

Finally, do confinement methods necessarily lead to reduced animal welfare? This is a complex question whose answer requires empirical study of animals combined with an analysis of what we mean by animal welfare. For some people, animal welfare depends on animals having freedom and living in natural environments (te Velde, Aarts and van Woerkum, 2002). According to this view, confinement systems are, by definition, incompatible with high animal welfare. However, animal welfare is often defined more broadly to include, for example, freedom from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, from fear and from disease (Webster, 1994). By this expanded definition, confinement systems appear to have both advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes confinement systems have increased disease transmission because of the large number of animals housed together, but they have sometimes helped to prevent disease by excluding pathogens from enclosed herds and flocks. Indoor environments often increase the stress caused by hot, humid weather because of inadequate ventilation, but they tend to reduce the stress caused by cold, wet weather because of the protection they provide. Animals confined in indoor pens have difficulty escaping from aggressive penmates, but they are protected from predators. In these respects it could be argued that the shift towards confinement has created or exacerbated certain animal welfare problems, but helped to solve others.

Moreover, when we look critically at non-confinement systems, significant animal welfare problems often become apparent. To take examples from pig production, Edwards et al. (1994) noted the emerging problem of crows pecking piglets to death in outdoor farrowing systems in Scotland; Cox and Bilkei (2004), in comparing confinement and outdoor systems in Croatia, found more lameness and shorter longevity among sows kept outdoors; and Kerr et al. (1988), in testing a system intended to maximize the welfare of pigs by keeping them in complex, semi-outdoor enclosures, found neonatal deaths (reflecting such basic welfare problems as starvation and injury) at levels well above what would be seen today in at least some confinement units.

Can we conclude, then, that either confinement or non-confinement systems are better for animal welfare? At least part of the answer may be that some of the most important determinants of animal welfare are not specific to any one type of housing and production system. Whether dairy cows have more health problems in tie-stalls or on pasture is a matter of debate, but there is no disagreement that their welfare is improved by staff who are skilled at detecting and treating disease. Whether sows are better off in stalls or group-housing systems is sometimes disputed, but there is no disagreement that good maintenance and functioning of the equipment is important for their welfare. In fact, if we think of animal welfare as being influenced by such key factors such as staff time and skill, substrate, temperature, feed quality and disease prevention measures, then animal welfare problems may be less a function of the type of rearing system - confinement, semi-confinement or extensive - than of how well it is operated.

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