Sunday, July 3, 2011

F. Bailey Norwood & Jayson Lusk's "Compassion, by the Pound"

F. Bailey Norwood is an associate professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University. Jayson L. Lusk is a professor and the Willard Sparks Chair in the agricultural economics department of Oklahoma State University.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Compassion, by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare, and reported the following:
Readers who turn to page 99 of Compassion, by the Pound will be immediately confronted with the debate concerning the welfare of chickens raised for eggs. Half of page 99 is consumed with pictures of chickens, along with information on the amount of space the hens are given on traditional, large-scale egg producing facilities. Most eggs come from farms where 4-6 hens are placed in a barren cage, where they will remain throughout their life. The illustration makes it clear that some farms in the U.S., which provide only 48 square inches per bird, are not providing adequate animal welfare. On the other hand, farms meeting the United Egg Producers requirements are largely meeting the birds’ needs for space…or are they? Even if they meet the hens’ space requirements, what about hens’ desire to perch and forage?

The livestock industry and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) are in a battle over how farm animals should be raised, and given that actions by the HSUS have forced many states to ban cage egg production, it would appear that the HSUS is winning. But are the animals winning? How can one tell when animal advocacy groups seem to suggest it is impossible to raise farm animals without cruelty, and livestock industry groups assert nothing they do causes misery? There needs to be an objective, dispassionate source for farm animal welfare information, and Compassion, by the Pound is intended to be this source.

Is cage-free better than cage eggs? We believe so, and discuss why, but we also give proper respect to those who disagree. Is veganism an ethical diet, in regards to animal welfare? It depends. Eggs and pork are produced from animals that seem to live a miserable life, so abstaining from eggs and pork might be an ethical choice. However, one can easily argue that beef cattle experience a largely pleasant life, and abstaining from beef discourages cattle production, and thus reduces the number of happy cows that can exist. What is better: eliminating the misery of hogs through veganism, or allowing the merriment of cattle by eating beef?

Do consumers want their pork and eggs to be raised under better conditions for farm animals? It depends. If you ask consumers this question, and they know you are watching them, they will gladly pay the cost of more humane egg and pork production. However, when shopping in the grocery store, where their purchases are unobserved, they tend to purchase the cheapest food and ignore animal welfare. The desirability of animal welfare regulations thus depends on whether what consumers say they want is more or less important than what they actually buy.

There are some easy answers in the farm animal welfare debate, but there are complex, nuanced issues as well. If you force a sow to live in a cage so small it cannot turn around, there should be no debate that the animal lives in misery. However, asking whether people really care about the sow when compassion comes at the expense of their food bill is a frustratingly difficult question to answer. Even if you believe hens are happier in a cage-free farm than a cage farm, if you apply rigorous logic towards your purchasing decisions, buying cage eggs might still be the more ethical choice. The reason is that hens are more productive on a cage farm, requiring fewer hens for every 100 eggs produced, and if you believe hens suffer on both farms, it might be better for a few caged hens to suffer a lot than many cage-free hens to suffer a little less—thus making cage eggs the ethical choice.

Readers desiring easy answers to ethical food should consult the website of an interest group. Those wanting the truth about animals raised for food, regardless of the answer’s complexity, will find all the information they need at Compassion, by the Pound.
Learn more about Compassion, by the Pound at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue