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It may sound counter-intuitive, but the primary problem today in achieving the ethical treatment of farm animals in the United States is the hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to America’s corn system.
The most important reason animals are raised the way they are is not because of profits or efficiency of animal husbandry methods, or even due to consumer demand, but rather to be part of the way the buffer stock scheme for corn and soy are managed. We subsidize the overproduction of grains. Since that produces far more grain than every man woman and child in the whole world could possibly ever eat, we need to find ways to get rid of this excess glut.
Factory farming of animals was designed as a way to use up as much of this stored commodity grains as possible. The efficiency is not in producing food for us, it is instead efficient only in removing the over production. This is the primary reason even things that don’t eat grains are fed grains. For example cows eat grass and forages rather than grains, but in feedlots we use massive quantities to fatten them quickly. Or look at a bag of dog chow ingredients, you might be surprised.
Other things like ethanol and bio-diesel use up the excess that even the animals can’t possibly eat. That’s why even though it is not particularly good for your engine, and reduces your fuel economy, and even usually uses almost as much or more petroleum to produce as energy they yield; we still require their use in most states. We need to somehow get rid of that mountain of excess grain the government spent hundreds of billions of annually subsidizing.
There was never any huge consumer demand to remove sugar from all our food and replace it with high fructose corn syrup. That whole process was specifically undertaken to find yet another way to use up part of the excess grain we produce.
When even that is not enough to get rid of the excess, we flood the international markets with the rest of that never ending ocean of grain. It’s still more than they can possibly use effectively. So that forces other nations to use this same inefficient system of animal husbandry to use up the glut we flooded their markets with too! Otherwise we would cause the collapse of their local food systems too! (which occasionally has happened inadvertently).
So within the framework of the factory farming of plants and animals the governments have subsidized and mandated by regulations, an individual farmer actually does the best he or she possibly can for the animals. Purposeful unethical treatment by a farmer is actually extremely rare. They typically do the best they can and still follow the USDA plan set forth for them. The rare farmer who decides to opt out of the whole USDA plan completely and raise their plants and animals in a 100-percent ethical and environmentally sane manner, risks losing the whole farm. The subsidies are specifically designed to protect only those farmers using USDA approved GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) on crops and animal husbandry systems designated for them. Usually they apply to commodity crops like corn or cotton only and are in the form of subsidized crop insurance so no family farmer can actually profit from them, only financial institutions and major agribusiness corporations. Organic farmers actually have additional regulatory burden and processing costs they must bear in an effort to prevent too many farmers from switching.
In conclusion, the main reason for the abusive factory farming system is the over use of government subsidies and regulatory burden that caused the ethical problem in the first place! So even more regulations really isn’t the solution at all. Quite the opposite actually. The government actually needs to defund this centralized monster they purposely created, rebuild the local infrastructure, and allow a new generation of farmers to gradually fix it themselves.
It would be better for public health, the farmers, the environment and even better for the animals too.
Scott Strough is a farmer and agricultural researcher living and working in Oklahoma.