The Natural

Agribusiness’ disregard for the intrinsic nature of livestock produces unfortunate consequences

Remember Old MacDonald? The one with the farm, the cow, the pig and the rest of the animals roaming around the barnyard and pasture? That storybook image is much closer to the ideal approach to animal welfare than most of today’s agricultural practices, says William Lockeretz.

And the widespread disregard for the intrinsic nature of animals that characterizes much of modern farming has unfortunate consequences for both livestock and humans, says Lockeretz, who teaches in the nutrition school’s program on Agriculture, Food and Environment.

When it comes to organic farming, William Lockeretz says the United States trails Europe by quite some margin. © Kathleen Dooher

“It’s a problem, and it got that way from not treating a cow like a cow,” he says.

Lockeretz was the sole American to participate in a collaborative research forum on animal welfare sponsored by the European Union from 1999 to 2001. The Network for Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Agriculture included researchers from 17 different institutes in 13 countries.

Most recently, Lockeretz edited a comprehensive book on the subject that grew out of the group’s efforts. “The book was a very ambitious project that extended beyond the life of the network,” Lockeretz says. He worked with three other editors, Mette Vaarst from Denmark, Vonne Lund from Norway and Stephen Roderick from Great Britain, on the book, Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Agriculture, which will be published by Britain-based CABI, a major international publisher of agricultural books.

With 48 authors contributing, the work is a significant addition to the literature in the field of animal welfare and organic agriculture, Lockeretz says. “That may not sound like such a big deal in this country, but it’s a much bigger issue in Europe,” he says. “Organic farming is much more prevalent in Europe and has a bigger share of the market. We lag behind by quite a bit.”

Animal Knows Best
Organic animal welfare is a complex subject that encompasses many areas of farm production, Lockeretz says. In general, the subject hinges on the interactions between animals and their caretakers—“the human aspect,” he says. That includes feeding, housing, breeding, disease prevention—and, when prevention fails, treatment—in ways that are compatible with organic principles and are not environmentally degrading.

“It draws on the whole field of applied animal behavior in a way that is more compatible with the nature of the animal,” he says.

The main principle of animal welfare in organic agriculture is “letting animals act out their behavior,” Lockeretz says. “Let a pig act like a pig. Let a cow act like a cow. Let animals have some sense of their natural way of life. Of course, some compromises are needed for the sake of farm production while keeping as close as possible to the intrinsic nature of the animal.

“The animal knows best; let’s give it a chance to do what it does,” he says.

In the example of comparing a picture-book farm to modern farm production, Lockeretz says the ideal farm would include more than just one of each animal, but as in the nursery rhyme version, there would be a diversity of species. The farmer would grow his own feed; the animals would spend their days outdoors—in contrast to single-species “factory” farms, where animals are penned indoors close together.

“Having good access to the outdoors, that applies to all animals, but especially to cows,” Lockeretz says. “They should feed on the pasture, rather than entirely on feed being brought into the barn. That’s a very important part of organic cattle production, for both dairy and beef cattle.”

In the United States, the closest the mainstream cattle industry comes to reaching animal welfare goals is in the raising of young beef cattle, which graze until they reach a certain size, after which they are sent to feed lots.

“At the other extreme are confined hog buildings, where hogs never see the light of day,” Lockeretz says. “When the sows are pregnant, they are kept in farrowing crates where they can’t move. That goes against all organic ideas. Hogs are as social as dairy cows.”

A key element of good animal welfare is not just the individual animal, but the need to pay attention to the social structure of the flock or herd, he says. “Respect the pecking order. If you deny animals the opportunity to form a social structure, you get all kinds of weird behavior.”

For example, he says, it is common practice on non-organic farms to clip the tails of pigs, trim the beaks of chickens and remove the horns of cattle. The rationale is that pigs will often bite each other’s tails; chickens will attack and peck at each other; cattle will gore each other.

cows in a field

But rather than alter the animals, farmers should think about what causes the destructive behavior and look for other ways to manage or prevent it. In the case of cows, for example, “you do get bullies among cattle. Like people, they like to show who’s boss,” Lockeretz says. But rather than removing the horns, “a solution might be to redesign the housing, have a place the lower-ranking animals can escape to.”

Likewise, pigs living in large-scale confined conditions where they are packed tightly in small pens are known to bite each other’s tails off. But that is not a natural porcine tendency. “It’s a sign of a problem, of stress from their living conditions,” Lockeretz says. “It’s not the fault of the animal. It’s caused by the conditions the animal has been forced into.”

A Long History
The deep interest in the subject of animal welfare in Europe reflects cultural differences between Europe and the United States, Lockeretz says. “They have a long history of this sort of thing,” he says. “The issue is not going away in Europe. The network is a response to a real interest.”

Lockeretz was invited to join the EU project because of his expertise in editing agricultural literature. “The three other editors were all excellent researchers, but none had a lot of experience at editing agricultural books,” he says.

A new EU consortium called Sustaining Animal Health and Food Safety in Organic Farming (SAFO) was established this year and is picking up where the previous network left off. One important difference is that the new network includes representatives from many central and eastern European countries that are about to join the EU, such as Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Slovenia and Poland. At the group’s first workshop in Florence, Italy, in September, Lockeretz gave a talk on organic livestock standards in the United States and Europe.

A Jolt
Interest in the subject of animal welfare in Europe and North America also has been spurred by a growing awareness of animal health issues and the repercussions of animal illnesses for humans.

“People have been scared to death by things like mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease, and those concerns aren’t going away,” Lockeretz says. “They have really been a jolt to many people.” In the United Kingdom, the sight of thousands of dead animals being burned during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 created great public unease. According to the BBC, it took only two weeks for the disease to spread across the United Kingdom.

One of the conditions that enabled foot-and-mouth to spread so virulently through the U.K. was the decline of local slaughtering plants, prompted by regulations that have made it difficult for small operations to compete. Consequently, large numbers of livestock must now be moved across long distances.

“Just one animal is all it takes to spread the disease, so this mass movement presents a structural problem,” Lockeretz says.

Even more frightening to humans than food-and-mouth, which doesn’t affect humans, is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. There is evidence that people who consume products from infected animals can acquire variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal degenerative neurological disorder. BSE can spread among cattle when they are fed the remains of other animals that have been infected.

“Under organic principles, cows aren’t supposed to eat the remains of other animals,” Lockeretz says. “So it’s a health question and an animal welfare question. And animal health, in the case of BSE, also means human health.

“People are taking it as a sign that there is something wrong with the way we raise our animals,” he says.