Is the Glass Half-full or Half-empty?

John F. Grimes, Extension Educator, Highland County, Ohio Valley EERA

Governor Ted Strickland recently announced that an agreement has been reached between Ohio agriculture leaders and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). As a result, HSUS agreed to drop their ballot initiative for 2010 that they had been in the process of getting placed on the November ballot. The proposed HSUS ballot initiative was requesting voters to approve specific language that would have established specific criteria on how certain species housed and managed their animals.

The recently announced agreement does contain some very specific guidelines that will impact animal agriculture in Ohio for years to come. While we do not have the space here to cover all of the details of the agreement, here are some of the key principals of the agreement:

  1. Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) will issue a statement in support of the mission and purpose of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board (OLCSB) and will engage and work with the Board. Organizations representing Ohioans for Livestock Care and the HSUS will examine and jointly fund independent research projects and studies to identify best practices and to work for the highest farm animal care and welfare standards.
  2. Recommendations will be made to the OLCSB for current hog producers to phase out the use of gestation stalls by December 31, 2025. After December 31, 2010, any new facilities must utilize alternative sow housing (not gestation stalls).
  3. Recommendations will be made to the OLCSB to adopt the American Veal Association 2007 agreement to transition to group housing for veal calves by 2017.
  4. Recommendations will be made to the OLCSB to adopt standards to instruct the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) to deny permits of new egg facility applicants, based on current permitting standards that call for the use of battery cages.

This agreement has resulted in passionate opinions being expressed from individuals and groups with wide-ranging interests. Many view it as a “win” for agriculture because the proposed ballot initiative was stopped thus saving the agriculture industry from investing millions of dollars in another costly campaign, a longer time frame was established to implement these housing changes when compared to other states, and HSUS is required to jointly fund research with the livestock commodity groups that is mutually agreed upon to examine farm animal care and welfare standards. I believe the passage of Issue 2 in Ohio last fall had a large influence on the adoption of this agreement. I am sure that HSUS was much more willing to negotiate an agreement knowing that 64% of the voters and 87 out of 88 counties approved Issue 2.

Not everyone has viewed the agreement as positively as stated above. Many believe that the industry helped to pass Issue 2 in 2009 and we could have defeated the HSUS initiative this fall. Other negative sentiments expressed concern that we allowed HSUS to impact the responsibility of the OLCSB by determining housing criteria before the Board could debate the issue. Others just don’t like the “taste” of compromise with a group that has fought against the interests of animal agriculture.

To be honest, I fully understand both sides of the argument and have felt positive and negative feelings about the agreement since it was announced. As a livestock producer, I believe in doing everything possible to insure that we are producing a safe and wholesome food product for the public. Extension has historically conducted educational programs such as Quality Assurance training and other species-specific topics to lay a solid foundation for youth and adult producers that will better equip them to implement recommended practices to promote animal welfare and productivity.

However, I have an inherent mistrust of any group that has an expressed pro-vegetarian agenda to provide animal agriculture with sound recommendations that will keep it a viable industry that can keep a growing world population fed. Do you believe the Democratic National Committee would solicit political strategy advice for the next Presidential election from Rush Limbaugh? I believe that the land-grant university research system is still the best option to provide unbiased, science-based recommendations in the areas of animal welfare and efficient food production. The OLCSB can use this research-based information to formulate a sound animal welfare plan for Ohio’s livestock industry in the years to come.

However, I believe that many are missing the bigger picture here. I think that anyone who believes that those individuals involved in food production (animal, grain, and others) will be able to use production systems that suit their own needs without input from outside interests are in for a rude awakening. The free market system will ultimately have a significant voice in how our farm animals are managed. We are already seeing early indications that the food industry is starting to dictate on-farm production practices. A certain national restaurant chain openly brags about the integrity of their food with ingredients raised with respect for the animals, the environment, and the farmer. Other chains are requiring their suppliers to raise animals that meet their company’s specific standards. We have a better informed clientele thanks to modern technology although I’m not sure Twitter applies here! The bottom line is that our clientele wants to know more about the food we are producing. If you are not willing to produce a product that meets specific demands, you will certainly be facing the prospects of fewer buyers and probably price discounts for your commodity.

The effects of this historic Ohio agreement will not be fully understood for years to come. Some currently view it as a blessing while others will view it as a “deal with the devil.” Eventually we will figure out whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.