COLUMBUS — Amid the backdrop of a state ballot initiative for animal care and what may be the most heated debate over animal welfare in the state’s history, experts from Ohio and beyond joined to discuss the science and perceptions behind the treatment of modern farm animals.
“The issue is about the competing roles of animals. … are they supposed to be at the center of our plate or at the center of our heart?” said Wes Jamison, associate professor of communication at Palm Beach Atlantic University who has studied campaigns by activist organizations.
There’s been a “tectonic” shift in the way society views animals, due in part to urbanization and distancing from agricultural societies, Jamison told a near-capacity crowd at the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center.
Urbanized cultures tend to see animals as companions, he said, with “pets going from the barnyard and into the front yard, and then into the living room.”
Other factors include society’s belief in evolution and human equality to animals, which Jamison said enforces the belief that animals have feelings and emotions, just as humans.
Michigan State Animal Welfare Director Janice Swanson said self-regulatory measures can work if the livestock industry and consumers can reach an agreeable level of transparency.
Earlier this month, Michigan approved new legislation known as H.B. 5127, a compromise agreement between Michigan producers and The Humane Society of the United States, to restrict caging practices.
Swanson spoke about the controversial legislation, and the support by producers in her state. The major farm organizations in Michigan met earlier this year, and approved the compromise legislation.
“When the industry that is most affected by these proposed bills comes forward and says ‘we want to sit down and … compromise, and they do the due diligence of doing so, who am I to dispute what they felt that they could achieve under that piece of regulation?” she said.
If a regulation is made, it needs to be enforceable and accomplish the goals it was intended for, she said.
“To me, whether society decides to regulate or not is one thing, but when they finally do, let’s make sure it’s constructive in a way that will actually achieve what we want to from that regulation,” she said.
One of the challenges Jamison addressed is that society does not have a singular view of animals.
“There is no ‘one’ social view of animals,” he explained. “The public doesn’t have a view of animals, it has multiple views and multiple contexts changing constantly, being manipulated and set for them by various interest groups.”
That “multi-vision” approach became evident throughout the latter half of the symposium, when officials from Farm Bureau, Ohio Veterinary Medical Association, Farm Sanctuary and one of the largest family-owned farms in the Midwest debated the direction animal welfare should take.
Gene Bauer, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, spoke critically of what he called “factory farms,” saying that when a farm gets to a certain size, it loses the ability to give appropriate care to animals.
“Ag has gone too far,” he said, and treats animals more “as commodities, rather than living, feeling animals.”
A proclaimed vegan, he said his organization encourages people to become vegans, but does not require it.
His views of large farms were in stark contrast to the testimony presented by Julie Maschhoff, co-owner and vice president of public relations for Maschhoff Pig Company, which bills itself as a family farm.
“Our focus every day is to raise pork in an efficient, humane and environmentally responsible manner,” she said, outlining the ways in which it is done.
The farm has its own animal care policy, and its own care board, which ensures the policy is carried out. Also, the farm has developed an internal hotline phone numbers, so concerns can be documented and addressed.
Maschhoff said producers can listen to both sides of animal welfare concerns, but need to consider whether there actually is any middle ground.
“When one side is fundamentally opposed to what the other side does, there is no common ground,” she said, in response to individuals who want to put livestock agriculture out of business.
Bauer said when a farm gets big, it tends to have “inherent problems” and farmers “don’t really know the animals.”
They lose their sense of “pigmanship,” he said, referring to the connection between farmer and swine.
Bumgarner, vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s Center for Food and Animal Issues, said the state has an opportunity to set a standard for animal care, unlike other states.
He was referring to Ohio’s Issue 2, a ballot initiative to form a regulatory board to oversee animal care.
Bumgarner said society’s perceptions about eating meat, and supporting animal agriculture needs to change.
“We have to make people not feel guilty about the steak that they love,” he said.
Steve Moeller, state swine Extension specialist, said “the opposition is not looking at the animal,” in terms of what it actually needs and prefers in terms of living space. Some regulations, he explained, do not actually benefit the animals, as one might think.
Whatever happens, officials agreed, the state and country have a major responsibility to feed a growing world population. Whether that will be done through animal protein, plants or a different combination, remains to be seen.
The symposium was co-hosted by OSU’s Department of Animal Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine. A recorded version of the presentations will be available online at a later date.