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The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.” This was the conclusion drawn by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (1). The situation in Canada is no different from that in the United States.
This 2008 report was the work of 15 commissioners who constituted a panel with expertise in animal health, animal agriculture, public health, ethics, medicine, rural sociology, and public policy. For 2 years the group considered the subject of industrial farm animal production and its impact. The panelists noted that transformation of agriculture began with mechanization in the mid 1800s, and continued with improved transportation, animal breeding, cheap animal feed through genetic selection, irrigation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and intensification. These developments are recognized as major contributors to feeding an ever-expanding human population (and over-feeding some sectors). In 1970 Americans, on average, purchased 194 pounds of red meat and poultry at a cost of 4.2% of their income; in 2005, the corresponding figures were 221 pounds and 2.1% of income. Over the past 50 years, milk production has doubled, meat production tripled, and egg production quadrupled. The time to produce a 5-pound chicken has gone from 12 weeks to 7.
The rising demand for meat and milk is projected to continue and increasing consumption in the developing world is estimated to require an increase of 300 million metric tons of cereals by 2020. The driving force, namely changes in the diets of billions of people in the developing world, is considered to be a force that is not likely to be reversible by governments (2).
Increased productivity has been the answer to increasing demand. The centerpiece of this system is the concentrated animal feeding operation. The diversified family-owned farm has given way to the intensive, highly specialized production system. The agricultural revolution has taken on an industrial stamp and has resulted in environmental, public health, and animal welfare concerns. Some systems are located in fragile ecosystems such as flood plains or over shallow drinking water aquifers or in close proximity to dense human populations. Intensification of animal agriculture has also involved a dependence on antimicrobials for disease prevention and growth promotion, leading to selection of antimicrobial resistant bacteria, which are a threat to animals and humans. A number of production diseases have developed because of the stressful and crowded conditions, the diets, and the surfaces on which some animals are raised. The most intensive practices include the use of swine crates and poultry battery cages for layers and restrict or prevent the animals’ natural behaviors.
Veterinary medicine, at the individual and the collective levels, has a major part to play in leading the charge in addressing the animal welfare concerns. Animal scientists and animal health researchers have a responsibility to develop and promote less intensive systems of raising food animals. Governments at all levels can work toward regulations that limit the concentrations of animals and the methods of the disposal of animal wastes. All these activities are currently going on but probably need to be intensified.
The major elements in our predicament are a legitimate need for high productivity and equally legitimate concerns about environmental, public health, and animal care issues. As with climate change, we need to move away from an adversarial approach, establish dialogue that recognizes the existing problems, and seek to address the concerns.
Implementation of significant change is likely to be complicated because the system of intensive rearing of farm animals, started in North America, has spread all over the world, and global competition is a big factor in making changes. However, it is worth examining whether we can retain the good features of modern animal agriculture while discarding the undesirable ones. Some productivity may or may not have to be sacrificed in the process. For example, a recent study involving 7 million broiler chickens concluded that growth-promoting antibiotics were associated with positive production changes but that these changes were insufficient to offset the cost of the antibiotics (3).
The Pew Commission has numerous detailed recommendations on steps that are required. Let’s hope that good sense prevails and remedial actions are taken.
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