The United States is having a big discussion about farm reform right now in spite of the ag-gag laws that are working double time to silence exposés of the reality of conditions on farms and the resistance to conversations about factory farming and animal abuse. Animal welfare has become a concern for a growing percentage of society, and not just vegetarians and vegans, but those who want to eat ethical animal products from cheeses to racks of ribs — the thought of eating food from animals who have been abused and tortured is, understandably, upsetting.
It reflects a shift in our cultural consciousness about animals and how we relate to them, as well as a push from organisations like the Humane Society of the United States and investigative journalists working to expose abysmal farming conditions. Some foodie organisations have joined the cause as well, arguing that our food should be sourced in sustainable ways we can feel good about, that if our steaks come served with a side of torture, we need to be asking why we are eating steak instead of fighting the factory farming system.
Animals aren’t the only ones who would benefit from substantial farm reforms, though, nor is the environment, which is suffering from issues like eutrophication caused by leaking manure containment facilities, which leads to an overgrowth of bacteria and algae. Before delving into why reforms matter so much for humans, it’s worth briefly noting what these reforms should look like — because they should include much tighter regulation on which drugs can be used on farm animals and how, the size of farm facilities and how many animals can be kept there, the minimum square footage set aside for each animal, the number of staff required at farms to look after the animals and the larger facilities, and the level of training required for those who administer medications (if someone is injecting antibiotics into a sick cow, for example, that person should have appropriate training).
One of the first line of people who stand to benefit from farm reforms are, of course, farmworkers. The unsung heroes of the US food system risk their lives and health every day across the agricultural sector, and farmwork is extremely dangerous. Working with livestock doesn’t just pose obvious risks like being trampled by cattle. There’s also the potential for issues like picking up infectious diseases and developing respiratory infections as a result of working in close quarters while surrounded by dust and debris.
Farmworkers need adequate protective gear to work with, and having more sanitary conditions on farms would also help them avoid common risks. With more room to work in and fewer animals, they would be less likely to contract zoonotic diseases, for example. Less cluttered work environments mean that they can focus on animals and they’re less likely to be distracted and thus surprised when an agitated animal attacks. Less crowded conditions mean fewer respiratory infections, less risk of acquiring injuries like cuts and scrapes that could become infected. For those living on farms, better control of waste means that the water supply won’t be tainted with manure that may carry parasites and other infectious organisms, and it also means that people won’t be developing antibiotic resistance by drinking water tainted with a slurry of antibiotics.
Antibiotic resistance is also a larger issue that extends to the regions around farms, representing another circle of humanity who will benefit from farm reforms. If drugs are used less frequently on farms, only on animals who need them and only on animals who are isolated for the duration of their illness so they don’t infect the herd, that means fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria will have a chance to develop. That’s good news for herd management but also people, especially those with compromised immune systems who need effective robust antibiotics to prevent potentially serious medical complications.
There’s also concern about not just antibiotics in groundwater supplies, but antibiotic-resistant organisms in meat. While processing is supposed to theoretically lower the risk of passing transmissible organisms along to the end consumer, that’s not always the case. At every stage of handling, new organisms can be introduced, and if people fail to prepare meats properly, they run the risk of serious infections. With milk products, unripe cheeses and poorly stored milks are also a concern — because these are environments where bacteria love to grow.
Farm reform isn’t just about animal welfare, although it’s undeniably an important component, because we shouldn’t be torturing food animals. It’s also about public health and human welfare, whether we’re talking about safety for farm workers or the chance that a child in recovery from leukemia gets sick from the chicken breast her father prepares for dinner. We are producing food on a mass scale in a society with a massive population, and we need to be more cautious as we move forward, because if we aren’t, the costs could be extremely high. Every life lost to infection linked to farmwork or contaminated animal products and water supplies, and every life permanently affected by farm injuries, represents a stark illustration of why we have been waiting too long on agricultural reforms in the US, and we must act now.
This is no amazing offer — this is, at this point, a social and structural imperative that has huge ramifications for what we leave to future generations. Without a functioning agricultural system and without tight regulations to protect people, those generations may pay a heavy price.
Image: Cow, Ian Britton, Flickr