An Old Wives Tale

October 14, 2012

Gird yourselves, blog readers. What follows is a big headbuster in agricultural ethics.

It seems that there is this old wives tale among animal producers: The animals’ interests are fully consonant with those of the farmer. (Well it’s true that very few farmers would use a phrase like “fully consonant,” but hang with me a moment). What this boils down to is the belief that if I’m making money, my animals must be doing just fine. Hold on to your hats, dear readers, because I’m going to ‘splain (in excruciating detail) why this just isn’t the case.

Biological productivity is a measure of how efficiently an organism converts biological inputs (nutrients [such as feed], sunshine and water) into energy that the organism uses to grow and sustain its life. There’s some ethics buried deep in the definition of biological productivity because farmers may place more emphasis on “grow” than “sustain”, but it’s not unreasonable to think that biological productivity is a decent proxy for how well the animal is faring. Animals that are sick and/or stressed have reduced biological productivity.

Economic productivity is a measure of how efficiently a firm (and here we mean a farm) converts money that the farmer spends on the production process into money that the farmer earns from the sale of farm commodities, (and in the case of animal agriculture, that means meat, milk, eggs or fiber goods such as wool or hides). If we cast our thoughts back a century or so, biological productivity tracks pretty closely with economic productivity. That’s because of all the things a livestock producer would spend money on (like land, fences and fuel) the return on money he or she spent on their animals (in buying and maintaining them) dominated the efficiency of the whole operation. Although good or bad land could certainly make a difference in profitability, the effect was pretty much fixed once the initial purchase was made. And the money being spent on fences and fuel was pretty trivial. So the bottom line is this: Around 1900 or so, the old wives tail wasn’t an old wives tail at all. It was pretty much the truth.

But as we move forward through the twentieth century, a larger and larger share of the farmers’ expenses started going toward buildings. By the 1970s, most poultry and swine were being raised indoors. These buildings were expensive in their own right, and they were chock full of equipment—feeders, fans, waterlines and in some cases manure removal devices—that was both expensive in its own right and expensive to power and maintain. At this point, economic productivity starts to be determined by the relationship between what the farmer spends on equipment and fuel or electricity and the return on meat, milk, eggs and fiber goods—still coming from the animals we note.  At this point, we start to see some daylight between economic productivity and biological productivity.

And the herd sizes grow, too. Which means that it’s not so much the biological productivity of each individual animal as the average biological productivity of the entire herd. And as herd size increases, it can be expensive to divert resources from the total operation in order to insure that the less intrinsically fit individual animals are faring as well as possible. You can tolerate a certain death loss if fixing that problem would require allocating labor and capital to something that is more crucial to the bottom line (like managing fuel costs, for instance). Suddenly it’s simply no longer the case that total farm profitability is a reliable proxy for animal welfare.

Of course, none of this gets us to the ethical bottom line. If you think that animals don’t matter at all from an ethics perspective, you would probably think that the dollar-sign bottom line is more important than animal welfare. And there’s a more subtle point too: If food is cheaper as a result of these economic efficiencies, maybe poor people benefit in ways that offset the harm to animals. But I’m at my word limit, and in classic Thornapple Blog fashion, I’m going to duck those questions to reiterate the point I did want to make: Profitability as a proxy for good animal welfare? That’s just an old wives tale.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


One thought on “An Old Wives Tale

  1. So, Paul, you’re saying trickle down economics does not work for pigs and cows and chickens, not to mention ducks and horses, either?

    Should this new knowledge affect my vote on November 6?

    By the way, I just learned…by googling… that a thornapple is an Angel’s Trumpet.
    This is reely a edjicashunal web thingy.



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