Editor’s note: This commentary is by Kara Shannon, of Montpelier, who holds a J.D. and certificate in food and agriculture law from Vermont Law School. She is the senior manager of Farm Animal Welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Animal agriculture has followed the trajectory of many other industries in the U.S., motivated by the desire to produce the most with the least and placing efficiency above all else. This aim has resulted in an increasingly consolidated food system, where a handful of companies control the vast majority of meat, eggs and dairy produced in this country, and use economies of scale and outsized leverage to continually push the price of these products down. But the pandemic has underscored what advocates and sustainable farmers have urgently been warning for decades: we are hardly getting a bargain when the cost-cutting efficiencies of factory farming put animals and human lives at risk.
For farm animals, efficiency means being raised by the tens of thousands in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in — at best — cramped conditions and — at worst — intense confinement in cages and crates. For workers, efficiency means working in one of the most dangerous professions in the country, resulting in both acute injury and long-term physical disability, with limited protections and disproportionately low pay. And for farmers, efficiency often means entering into contracts with vertically integrated companies that rob them of their ability to make the best choices for their animals or their livelihoods. Even farmers outside of the factory farm system are negatively affected by it, forced to compete with artificially low prices and misleading claims like “natural” and “cage-free.”
The industrial farming system has consistently put profits ahead of the well-being of animals, workers, farmers and consumers, but the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted just how disastrous that can be. Workers in slaughterhouses are attempting to maintain output at breakneck line speeds without proper personal protective equipment, causing coronavirus hotspots resulting in thousands of sick workers and more than 90 deaths. These outbreaks have forced huge slaughterhouses that employ hundreds of workers and process tens of thousands of animals each day, to close, exposing just how fragile our industrial supply chains really are.
With access to the relatively few federally inspected slaughterhouses now even more limited, farm animals are being depopulated — a euphemism for often inhumane mass killing — by the millions. The system we’ve built is so dependent on economies of scale and raising as many animals as possible as quickly as possible that farmers simply cannot keep animals on the farm beyond their intended slaughter date. They do not have the space to keep animals who are still rapidly growing and cannot afford to feed them. Meanwhile, more piglets and chicks are piling up, waiting to be moved through the system. Amid the Covid-19 crisis, farmers stuck in these industrial systems must watch as animals they were told would “feed the world” are instead killed and discarded.
The good news is that federal legislation — the Farm System Reform Act — has now been introduced to transition our society away from this fragile food production model toward more humane and sustainable practices. The legislation calls for an immediate moratorium on new, large CAFOs with the aim of completely phasing them out by 2040, while allocating billions of dollars in funding to help farmers transition to higher welfare practices or specialty crop production.
As so many Vermonters know, this alternative farming model already exists and it is proving its value in real-time, faring far better in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Smaller, independent farms raising animals in higher welfare systems have been more flexible and resilient, finding new ways to connect with consumers. Smaller processors have been able to adjust and innovate to keep people safe and keep meeting the needs of local farms and buyers.
But this values-based food system will not succeed as long as agriculture policy continues to incentivize and prop up the destructive factory farming system. We must institute government policies at both the state and federal level that support the more humane, just, resilient and equitable farming our country needs. Here in Vermont, we must ensure that state Covid-19 relief funding is allocated to the higher welfare, more resilient farms that have pivoted to feed our communities in these trying times. In D.C., Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch must support the Farm System Reform Act to help build a more humane food system in Vermont and across the country. Rather than a food system that only values cheaper and faster at any cost, we can create a food system built on values of connection and relationships, stewardship of the land and animals, and feeding our communities.