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Room to Roam? Fantastic. But Not Enough

Jason Clay

I grew up on a small farm. My family grew row crops and had cow and calf operations to generate income. We also had our own milk cow, hogs, layers, bees and fryers. Animal welfare was always a priority, though we never used the term. Animals were money or food, or both. As a child, it was clear that how we treated animals directly affected productivity. Nervous animals simply do not perform as well as calm ones.

Recently, the amount of space to roam has been considered the best, and in some cases the only, way to measure the humane treatment of farm animals. As a result, terms like “cage-free” and “free range” have become proxies for more responsibly-produced as well as better-tasting beef, dairy and poultry products.

Consider all variables

My experience as a farmer and then leading the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) work with farmers and aquaculture producers, however, has led me to believe that space is not always the best indicator of animal welfare. Indeed, animals can have all the space in the world and still be treated poorly or neglected. Rather than maximizing one variable, such as space, why not work to optimize several key ones?

In fact, there are several ways we can measure animal welfare. These could include mortality rates, time to market, weight gain, days of sickness and use of medication among others.

Today I work with major food companies to help them make their supply chains more sustainable. My farming experience serves me well, as farmers are truly at the core of our global food system. By taking a close look at their operations and motivations, farmers can find ways to produce more with fewer impacts, thus reducing everyone’s risks along the supply chain.

Weigh practices with results

In every conversation I have globally about food, from farmers to corporate CEOs, I try to persuade people to change the way they think. When it comes to animal welfare, too much focus has been placed on practices and methods, and too little on results. The ends do not always trump the means, but they can never be ignored. We need to find the right balance. A focus on desired outcomes encourages innovation rather than compliance with a particular practice.

This kind of thinking is critical on a finite planet where available space for agricultural production is in limited supply. Food production already takes up 35% of Earth’s land base, and when you include land that cannot be farmed — National Parks, deserts, mountains, etc. — the amount increases to about 70 percent. At the rate we are “extensifying” production today, by 2050 there will be little, if any, natural habitat left for nature.

Apply sustainability to productivity

Now, consider increasing global population, incomes and the demand for animal proteins. We will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000. In short, we have to do more with less. As the price and availability of land increase, farmers will need to intensify production in a sustainable way.

Providing space to roam should remain a key practice to ensure the humane treatment of animals. But if our desired result is responsible food production that puts healthy, tasty food on our tables, shouldn’t we consider all options that will get us there, while taking into account the need to double food production by 2050 and maintain life on Earth?

One study from Canada* demonstrates this outcome-driven thinking. It showed that, even in feedlots, people’s behavior can significantly impact the animals’ state of mind and as a consequence their overall health. Employees who came to work on the farm highly-stressed or agitated, who approached animals from behind or used fast movements when herding cattle, made them nervous. By contrast, the study showed that when people adopted calmer behaviors in the feedlot, the mortality rate was reduced and the cost for medications to treat sick animals was reduced, in some cases by 90 percent.

Calmer approach, healthier animals

As these and other new techniques gain traction within the global farming community, it will continue to become apparent that calmer human behavior translates into calmer and healthier animals, thus reducing the time to complete the cycle from farm to market. All it took was a new way of thinking about the issue, beyond the conventional approach. What’s interesting in this scenario is that what’s good for the animal is also more efficient and thus good for the farmer.

Scaling up food production drastically while maintaining animal welfare will be a challenge. But these do not have to be competing demands — so long as we focus on the right proxies.

Changing the way we think about animal welfare could open our minds up to new ways to accomplish these goals. I encourage all readers to check out this video that captures a new way of thinking about food production in the 21st century. We need people who care deeply about food to help spur new ways of thinking about production. After all, we only have one planet. We have to start acting like our lives depend on preserving it, because they do.

*  Nations, A. 1997. Allan’s Observations. Grass Farmer. 54(2) February. Jackson, MS: Mississippi Valley Publishing Corporation

This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor, Jason Clay, is senior vice president of market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund. Clay ran a family farm, taught at Harvard and Yale, worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and spent more than 25 years working with human rights and environmental organizations before joining WWF in 1999. He’s the author of “World Agriculture and the Environment.”

Photo: Jason Clay, Courtesy World Wildlife Fund

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