Farm Factories: The End of Animal Husbandry

By Rollin, Bernard E. | The Christian Century, December 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Farm Factories: The End of Animal Husbandry


Rollin, Bernard E., The Christian Century


A YOUNG MAN was working for a company that operated a large, total-confinement swine farm. One day he detected symptoms of a disease among some of the feeder pigs. As a teen, he had raised pigs himself and shown them in competition, so he knew how to treat the animals. But the company's policy was to kill any diseased animals with a blow to the head--the profit margin was considered too low to allow for treatment of individual animals. So the employee decided to come in on his own time, with his own medicine, and cured the animals. The management's response was to fire him on the spot for violating company policy. Soon the young man left agriculture for good: he was weary of the conflict between what he was told to do and how he believed he should be treating the animals.

Consider a sow that is being used to breed pigs for food. The overwhelming majority of today's swine are raised in severe confinement. If the "farmer" follows the recommendations of the National Pork Producers, the sow will spend virtually all of her productive life (until she is killed) in a gestation crate 2 1/2 feet wide (and sometimes 2 feet) by 7 feet long by 3 feet high. This concrete and barred cage is often too small for the 500- to 600-pound animal, which cannot lie down or turn around. Feet that are designed for soft loam are forced to carry hundreds of pounds of weight on slotted concrete. This causes severe foot and leg problems. Unable to perform any of her natural behaviors, the sow goes mad and exhibits compulsive, neurotic "stereotypical" behaviors such as bar-biting and purposeless chewing. When she is ready to birth her piglets, she is moved into a farrowing crate that has a creep rail so that the piglets can crawl under it and avoid being crushed by the confined sow.

Under other conditions, pigs reveal that they are highly intelligent and behaviorally complex animals. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh created a "pig park" that approximates the habitat of wild swine. Domestic pigs, usually raised in confinement, were let loose in this facility and their behavior observed. In this environment, the sows covered almost a mile in foraging, and, in keeping with their reputation as clean animals, they built carefully constructed nests on a hillside so that urine and feces ran downhill. They took turns minding each other's piglets so that each sow could forage. All of this natural behavior is inexpressible in confinement.

Factory farming, or confinement-based industrialized agriculture, has been an established feature in North America and Europe since its introduction at the end of World War II. Agricultural scientists were concerned about supplying Americans with sufficient food. After the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, many people had left farming. Cities and suburbs were beginning to encroach on agricultural lands, and scientists saw that the amount of land available for food production would soon diminish significantly. Farm people who had left the farm for foreign countries and urban centers during the war were reluctant to go back. "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm now that they've seen Paree?" a song of the '40s asked. Having experienced the specter of starvation during the Great Depression, the American consumer was afraid that there would not be enough food.

At the same time, a variety of technologies relevant to agriculture were emerging, and American society began to accept the idea of technologically based economies of scale. Animal agriculture begin to industrialize. This was a major departure from traditional agriculture and its core values. Agriculture as a way of life, and agriculture as a practice of husbandry, were replaced by agriculture as an industry with values of efficiency and productivity. Thus the problems we see in confinement agriculture are not the result of cruelty or insensitivity, but the unanticipated by-product of changes in the nature of agriculture.

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