op ed articles

Freedom to stand, stretch and turn around

Stephanie Brown
Alberta Farmer Express

Monday, April 13, 2009

On the day Americans elected Barack Obama, 8.2 million Californians voted overwhelmingly in favour of The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (“Proposition 2"). The measure bans battery cages for laying hens, gestation crates for breeding sows and crates for veal calves, and comes into effect in 2015.

The ballot requires farm animals to be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs – hardly extreme by any measure. The voter ballot attracted support from a broad range of organizations, including the California Veterinary MedicalAssociation. Both sides spent about $9 million each, with the opponents’ funding coming mostly from the egg industry.

Americans are not the only ones legislating farm animal issues. The European Union will ban battery cages for laying hens by 2012 and gestation crates by 2013. Switzerland, Sweden and Austria have already banned battery cages.

Farm animal welfare is an ever-growing global issue. International conferences sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Animal Health Organization – the World Trade Organization’s advisor on animal health matters – are focussing on the issue. Trade barriers loom if Canada cannot demonstrate to its global customers that its farming methods are humane.

The animal agriculture industry is taking notice and acting on the trend. Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest pig producer, voluntarily announced in early 2007 they would phase out gestation crates, as did U.S.-based Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pig producer.

Food retailers such as Burger King started using cage-free eggs two years ago, as do U.S. retailers Quiznos, Denny’s and Hardees.

What initiatives is the Canadian government making toward improved farm animal welfare?
Not so much, it seems. The federal government’s new $1.3 billion five-year agriculture policy, Growing Forward Framework Agreement, includes no reference to animal welfare.

Canada’s supply management system is proving a deterrent to animal welfare, too. Most provincial egg marketing boards do not recognize the higher costs associated with cage-free egg production. Marketing boards should allow welfare-friendly production systems to be exempted from quota purchase and marketing levies. That way, cage-free eggs could compete on a more level playing field.

Across Canada, the provinces have a patchwork of allowance policies for hens outside quota. For instance, the Ontario egg marketing board allows an exemption of only 99 birds outside the quota system, which is not enough for producers to make a living. British Columbia producers are allowed larger allowances outside quota for certified organic egg producers, heritage breeders and new entrant-producers.

Canada has no laws to govern the treatment of animals on farms, only voluntary industry codes of practice so lenient they entrench confinement practices where animals cannot turn around or spread a wing. Approximately 98% per cent of Canada’s eggs are produced by hens in battery cages, where each hen has a space about the size of a mouse pad. Battery hens cannot perch, nest, or dust bathe – basic bird behaviours.

Metal gestation crates for pregnant sows are so small they cannot turn around during their entire four-month pregnancy. The sows suffer lameness, painful abrasions, stress and boredom until slaughter ends their grim existence.

Farmed animals are subjected to bodily mutilations such as beak cutting, tail cutting, branding, teeth clipping, castration and de-toeing without pain relief. Widespread use of antibiotics and hormones (in beef cattle) is common in factory-farmed animals.

All animals deserve humane treatment – including those raised for food. So why are farm animals confined so inhumanely? Mostly so consumers can have cheap food. In the end, though, cheap food does not reflect the true costs of environmental degradation and animal suffering on factory farms. There are reasons why sustainably- and humanely-produced food costs more: it provides a reasonable living for small local producers and a decent life for animals.

The tide against farm animal cruelty is changing in the U.S. and Europe. The success of U.S. voter ballots is evidence people care about farm animals. These ballot measures and state legislation have proved successful in bringing change to the treatment of U.S. farm animals, with California the fifth state, along with Oregon, Arizona, Colorado and Florida, to ban sow crates.

The animal agriculture industry in Canada would do well to follow the lead of Maple Leaf by moving away from intensive confinement of animals now. It needs to improve the living conditions for the 696 million animals raised for food each year in Canada. Though the Canadian government chooses to ignore the issue of farm animal welfare, consumers are voting with their pocketbooks, choosing sustainable, humanely-produced local food – a trend which is here to stay.

Stephanie Brown is a founder and director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.