Agriculture -- or Agri-torture?

By Ken Midkiff

COLUMBIA, Mo 3/11/16 (Op Ed) -- While various lawsuits work through the courts about the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) in Callaway County, Big Agriculture is telling some whoppers and half-truths to justify the practice. 
Lie:   Feeding operations must lock up animals by the thousands to "feed the world".  
Truth:   People in Bangladesh, Nigeria, China and other Third World nations are dying of malnutrition in greater numbers than they were before Big Ag set out to "feed the world".    
Half Truth:   If allowed to run loose outdoors, the animals will be subject to predation.    There is some truth to that:  Hawks, foxes, coyotes, and other meat-eaters do kill chickens, calves, and piglets (not grown pigs, which can defend themselves).
Full Truth:   But small farmers have found ways to keep predators from the flock or herd.    A friend of mine who was an inspector for the US Department of Agriculture at a Tyson Foods plant (before resigning in frustration) raised chickens in a "free range" environment.   To protect the chickens from hawks, he cultivated horseweed in the chicken yard.   Any time a hawk flew over, the chickens scurried for the weeds.   Not one ended up as lunch for a hawk.  
Environmental, conservation, and family-farm organizations have for decades fought the incursion of Big Ag into farming, feeding, ranching, and other food-producing enterprises.    But these people and organizations have fought the wrong way.  

They went after Big Ag's propensity to pollute -- air, water, soil -- rather than fighting its more visible, more shocking inhumane animal treatment

Though the New York Times has editorialized against CAFOs for years, it is difficult to get folks in New York City up in arms about air pollution in Iowa, Utah, or California.   Only when catastrophe strikes, such as when millions of pounds of hog feces polluted North Carolina’s Neuse River, does the public fret.    And only then with a short memory.   After a few weeks, the 1995 Neuse River disaster was forgotten.

Big Ag also has friends in high places:   the US Congress, USDA, state legislatures, Governors, state Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources.    Rather than protect people, the collective motto of these oversight agencies seems to be “protect polluters".  

But Big Ag is vulnerable to negative publicity about the way CAFOs treat farm animals, which is as much an environmental and conservation issue as pollution.  

About this inhumanity, policy makers mostly look the other way.   Missouri even restricts lawsuits against CAFOs, with an absurd Constitutional clause that effectively allows Big Ag to do almost anything to animals it owns or controls.    The clause has its roots in property law, wherein farmed animals are chattel whose owners have all the rights.  
But what do private property rights have to do with chickens kept in cages so small they can't turn around?   Or hogs that literally go insane, chewing the iron bars that confine them?

How does property law guarantee the right to smash unwanted pigs against a wall?   Dump live baby chicks in a dumpster?  Drag a downed cow out of a ditch with a tractor and a chain?   Or lock calves in a tiny cage while depriving them of feed? 

Big Ag and its friends in high places can look away just so long at these shocking but routine practices, elephants in the room just waiting for public opinion to lock on.   Imagine, for instance, a 21st century retelling of the classic Thanksgiving story. 

Instead of pilgrims joining Native Americans for a wholesome, free-range feast, this new tale has Tom Turkey bred to produce breast meat so large, he can't even stand, let alone run fast enough to avoid a musket.   

Now imagine Tom and his kin confined by the thousands in this immobile, miserable condition.
Imagine how eager Grandma will be to take a bite of turkey dinner on hearing this story, updated for modern-day accuracy.  

“Father will now carve the oversized, hormone-induced breast meat” doesn’t have much of a thankful ring, either.   
Real farmers – not Tyson, Cargill, or Con-Agra board members – know their animals by name, and approach their jobs professionally.    As a farmer friend who specializes in grass-fed beef told me, "I raise animals to be slaughtered and eaten.  But I don't torture them."