I was pleased to be the keynote speaker on Friday morning in Omaha at the annual conference of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, a non-profit organization consisting largely of farmers concerned about the future of agriculture. It was an honor to be invited to address these farmers and to know that this group and its leadership want to hear about The HSUS’s perspective on animal protection.
It was an interesting time to be in the state after yesterday’s press conference in Washington, D.C., focused on a legislative response to the terrible abuses that the New York Times brought to light in a front-page story two weeks ago about the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in western Nebraska. Yesterday, The HSUS announced its support for H.R. 746 and S. 388 – the Animal Welfare in Agricultural Research Endeavors (AWARE) Act, introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.) Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) – which would amend the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) to have standards for the care of farm animals used for agricultural research at federal facilities. Today, in Nebraska, the farmers I spoke with were appalled by what we had all just recently learned about the routine abuses at the center, which is operated by the U. S. Department of Agriculture – reproductive research on cows and pigs to cause them to produce inordinately large numbers of offspring; research that left mother and babies debilitated or dead; perhaps more than 20,000 sheep left without protection or maternal care and starved, killed by extremes of weather, or coyotes; and extreme cases of cruelty like a cow who had been immobilized and raped by a half dozen bulls, leaving her legs broken and her insides torn apart.
In advocating for reform, including more transparency and the premise that USDA facilities not be exempt from Animal Welfare Act standards, it helps immensely to have farmers within our camp who care about these issues and bring their voices to the public discussion. These farmers are part of The HSUS, and I am proud to have them involved in our enterprise of reducing the amount of pain and suffering that animals endure.
At The HSUS, we take a big-tent approach to animal advocacy. We want to have a conversation with everyone in society, and especially with the people, like farmers, who have animals under their care and control. Recently, The HSUS formed its ninth state Agriculture Council, in Wisconsin, building on the work of councils in Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oklahoma. These are working farmers who are upholding standards of animal care and advocating for an end to intensive confinement of animals on factory farms and calling on consumers to connect more directly with their food choices. Our first agriculture council was established right here in Nebraska, and it was the inspiration of cattle rancher Kevin Fulton. It’s grown dramatically since that time, and we plan on announcing new councils in other states soon.
We are seeing major reforms in the veal, pig, and laying hen industries and we hope to see the end of the era of intensive confinement. With our HSUS Agriculture Council members, we are in a stronger position than ever to address these problems and other serious animal welfare crises in industrial farming. And together, we are working on market-based solutions, such as promoting the more widespread use of animal welfare certification standards, like the Global Animal Partnership (where I serve on the board of directors). Though the GAP program has been largely restricted to animal products at outlets of Whole Foods Market, there are now 290 million animals who live on farms that are certified under GAP’s auditing program and under more humane standards than animals in conventional production systems.
Once GAP is more widely used by food retailers, then consumers will have more information in making conscious buying choices in the marketplace. When that happens, farmers who provide better care to animals will be rewarded in the marketplace and we will be building a more animal-welfare-friendly farming system in our nation.