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Know the West

A moral issue confronts industrial farmers


Did you know that Nebraska is being invaded by "terrorists" and "conspiracists?" Perhaps the kindest descriptive noun some unnerved Nebraskans are using these days is "extremists."

Brace yourself: The terrorists and extremists in question are various organizations and people who care about the welfare of farm animals, led by the Humane Society of the United States. And the "conspiracy" they're engaged in is an attempt to improve conditions for those animals, especially on factory farms.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman inaugurated hostilities about a year ago, and he hasn't let up. "I'm an Army Ranger," Heineman told a receptive audience recently. "This guy (Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle) wants to engage in guerrilla warfare. I'll teach him a thing or two."

Production and industrial agriculture leaders in the state, led, not surprisingly, by the Nebraska Farm Bureau, echo similar sentiments. Said one dairy producer: "The most frightening issue is consumers' growing concern over animal welfare."

An official of the Nebraska Corn Growers agreed: "(the Humane Society) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) ... are destroying agriculture and rural America. We can't let this happen. Stand up and fight for America."

Since when was concern for farm animals frightening or un-American? Perhaps the current fuss is due to all the attention that's suddenly being paid to what happens down on the farm. In just the last three months:

  • The United Egg Producers and the Humane Society recently announced a compromise that would improve farm conditions for egg-laying hens, doubling the size of their cages and offering them perches and nest boxes.
  • McDonald's, the biggest restaurant chain on the planet, will no longer purchase pork that's produced by tightly confining pregnant sows in "gestation crates" on factory farms.
  • Smithfield Foods, the larger pork producer in the world, has pledged to phase out the use of those gestation crates by 2017.

Perhaps the biggest blow for change was struck by Nebraska's Farmers Union, which entered into a partnership with the Humane Society to explore options for "constructive compromise" on farm animal-welfare issues.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau and its allies have responded to these developments by hunkering down in the trenches. They have attacked their critics and done their best to create fear among Nebraskans by rehashing tired and nonsensical statements, saying that the Humane Society "wants to take away your freedom of food choices." They are trying hard to rally their troops, whose numbers continue to dwindle as gigantic industrial farms become increasingly difficult to defend.

Production agriculture's old mantra of "feeding the world" is starting to lose out to people's sense of morality. Countless surveys and polls show this, including one right here in Nebraska just last year. It found that "most rural Nebraskans (69 percent) agree that animal welfare means more than providing adequate water, water and shelter; that it also includes adequate exercise, space and social activities for the animals."

That percentage would probably have been much higher -- likely near 90 percent -- if urbanites in Lincoln and Omaha had been polled, too.

Ultimately, this is an issue that the public will decide with its principles and pocketbooks. If consumers in New York and California want ethically raised meats and poultry, that's what they'll buy. A Kansas State University study last year found that 62 percent of grocery shoppers favored mandatory labeling of pork produced on farms using gestation crates or stalls.

The Farm Bureau and other self-proclaimed "mainstream" farm groups and their political backers say they're fighting outsiders in order to save American agriculture. A more accurate description of what they're doing is fighting the conscience of America. As John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, puts it, "This is a fight Nebraska agriculture would lose, and do permanent damage to our public perception and our relationship with food consumers in the process."

It always takes us a while, but the history of this country reveals that sooner or later, we do our best to walk our righteous talk. It took centuries until we finally acknowledged that slavery was morally repulsive, that women are on par with (and sometimes exceed) men in smarts and resolve, and that every human being, regardless of color, deserves equal civil rights. And even though there is still some resistance to the idea, most Americans now believe that gay and lesbian people pose no threat to family life in America and, in some instances, may enhance it.

"We manage to stumble along and get things done the right way," says Bernard Rollin, the renowned Colorado State University animal ethicist.

Animal welfare is the country's next big moral movement. The majority of Americans, urban and rural, have come to feel that animals, including the animals we eat, merit freedom from the abominable conditions found in America's 16,000 concentrated animal feeding operations.

This raises an important question, not just for Nebraska but for other farming states as well: Who's really in the mainstream on this issue?

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].