Emerging food animal ethics born of production changes

Published on September 01, 2005
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By R. Scott Nolen 

The current scrutiny of food animal production and demands for tighter government control of the industry—including outright bans on particular practices—is attributable to the rise of the large-scale, factory-style farm model, according to ethicist Bernard E. Rollin, PhD.

Dr. Rollin was speaking about emerging social ethics for animal agriculture as part of the Veterinary Medical Ethics track during the AVMA Annual Convention in Minneapolis, July 17.

Dr. Rollin is a professor of philosophy, animal sciences, and biomedical science at Colorado State University and has been writing and lecturing about animal ethics for nearly three decades.

From the civil rights movement to the current criticism of biotechnology, a vast array of ethical revolutions has occurred during the past 50 years, Dr. Rollin began. To survive these social changes, governments and public institutions have had to adjust accordingly. One major ethical concern to arise during the past 30 years is the treatment of animals.

The public's interest in animal welfare is evident in the legislative process. Twenty years ago, no animal-related bills were pending in Congress, Dr. Rollin explained. Within the past seven years, however, at least 50 bills have been introduced annually. At the state level, 2,200 animal welfare bills were sponsored in 2004.

That animals are not to be treated cruelly is a common belief among most, if not all, societies. This ethic is largely based on the concept that a person who abuses animals is most likely a danger to people, too, Dr. Rollin said.

In the United States, the anticruelty ethic endured as an adequate ethic up until three decades ago, when the notion of animals as less important than people was seriously questioned. But what led certain segments of society to grow dissatisfied with this longstanding view of animals as being sufficient?

Dr. Rollin attributed the shift toward greater legal protections for food animals as a result of the following factors: a more urban, pet-owning population with no experience with agricultural animals; civil rights movements; popularity of animal-related news stories; and animal welfare advocacy by philosophers, scientists, and celebrities.

But for Dr. Rollin, the most important factor was the industrialization of animal agriculture. "For virtually all of human history, animal agriculture was based entirely on animal husbandry," he said.

Husbandry, he added, meant doing everything possible to place one's animals in the best possible environment that met the animals' physical and psychologic natures.

This contract between farmer and animal was broken following World War II with the implementation of large-scale food animal operations designed to efficiently produce large numbers of cattle, swine, and poultry for human consumption, according to Dr. Rollin.

Notably, universities responded to the new paradigm by renaming their Departments of Animal Husbandry to Departments of Animal Science with the purpose of applying industrial methods to the production of animals, Dr. Rollin said.

There was no cruel intention behind the departure from traditional animal agriculture, Dr. Rollin explained. Rather, it was a logical response to certain societal phenomena, such as legitimate concerns for supplying the public with cheap and plentiful food and the development of once-rural land.

Yet, this once widely accepted agricultural model is now coming under fire, Dr. Rollin said, and government and business are increasingly called on to make food animal welfare a priority.