Farm Forward: Against Animal Abuse in Factory Farming
01 Jan, 2010
Numerous philosophies—and sciences as well—incorporate the principle that all life is interconnected. Harming one sector of life brings harm to others. The evidence in this age of global ecological crisis has never been clearer.
According to non-profit advocacy group Farm Forward, in the last 70 years—a tiny blip in the history of farming—cruel, unsustainable factory farms have grown to the point where they produce more than 99 percent of the domesticated farm animals raised to provide food in the United States. Globally, livestock now cover 30 percent of the earth’s surface. During this same period, industrial farming methods have devastated rural communities by reducing the number of farmers in the nation by 85 percent—even as the US population has more than doubled.
Farm Forward goes on to state that, given the unprecedented scale of production and consumption, it is no surprise that the food choices we make when we eat, along with how and where these foods are produced, have a bigger impact on our own health, the animals’ well-being, global warming and other major environmental concerns than any other single activity.
“The definitions of what a factory method is can be open to a bit of interpretation,” Ben Goldsmith, director of Farm Forward, told Organic Connections. “But for the average consumer—you know, for me, my family, my friends and my community—the common practices within these facilities would warrant cruelty-to-animals charges if done to a dog or a cat. I don’t know if there is really any question in our minds that what is happening is wrong, and it is certainly more indicative of an industrial system than anything we might imagine, based on some idyllic farm from days of old.
“Because of this industry, turkeys are no longer capable of reproducing without human interference,” Goldsmith explained. “Chickens are bred to grow so quickly they are not able to stand or stand freely after just several months of their lives, and they certainly can’t live out the normal life span that they once could. Cows and cattle are confined to feedlots by the thousands and cramped in filthy conditions. Hogs in most states are routinely confined to crates so small that they can’t turn around.
“Recently there was an investigation into a chicken hatchery by a leading animal advocacy organization that made national news. This video was shot in one of the largest hatch facilities in the United States and is representative of true industry standards. The hatchery was producing baby chicks that were intended for egg production. When the chicks hatch, the males and females are separated; females are sent to facilities that produce eggs and the males are destroyed.
“Once grown, the chicks are confined in cages where each bird has less than a standard piece of printer paper’s worth of space. The vast majority of these hens will live their entire lives crammed into these tiny cages, standing on a wire-mesh floor.”
Similar conditions were also graphically depicted in the recent documentary Food, Inc. (see Organic Connections, September–October 2009).
Due to the environments in which these animals are raised, increasing amounts of antibiotics and antimicrobials are used to ward off disease. According to a recent report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production entitled Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America, “Major risk stems from the routine use of specially formulated feeds that incorporate antibiotics, other antimicrobials, and hormones to prevent disease and induce rapid growth. The use of low doses of antibiotics as food additives facilitates the rapid evolution and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. The resulting potential for ‘resistance reservoirs’ and interspecies transfer of resistance determinants is a high-priority public health concern.”
The Pew report also concluded: “The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.”
Reversing the Trend
Fortunately, Farm Forward is making great strides in reversing these trends. Farm Forward implements innovative strategies to promote conscientious food choices, reduce farm animal suffering, and advance sustainable agriculture. Incorporated in 2007, they are at the forefront of pragmatic efforts to transform the way our nation eats and farms. Their executive staff and board have been working on behalf of farmed animals since the early 1990s, and this accumulated expertise helps solidify Farm Forward’s unique role as the first centrist organization where disparate interests opposed to the abuse of animals on factory farms can unite in coordinated and effective ways.
Farm Forward’s board of directors is representative of forces that have been united and would most likely have never come together under other circumstances. It includes John Mackey, chairman of the board and CEO of Whole Foods Market; Frank Reese, owner and founder of Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch and president of the Standard Bred Poultry Institute; Jonathan Safran Foer, novelist; Jonathan K. Crane, PhD, ordained rabbi and ethicist; and several notables in other fields.
Much of Farm Forward’s work is done through consulting. “Our CEO, Steve Gross, has been providing consulting services to some of the largest animal advocacy non-profits in America for many years,” Goldsmith related. “He has helped groups like PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] create mass corporate campaigns, which have resulted in some of the most meaningful victories for farm animals ever. And he’s been instrumental in negotiations between these advocacy groups and corporations to find common ground where the lives of animals can be improved while corporations can continue to do what they do best, which is to produce products that people want.”
Gross has helped lead successful negotiations between animal advocacy groups and some of the nation’s biggest companies—including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Safeway and Whole Foods Market—which have bettered the living conditions for hundreds of millions of animals. Gross is currently working with animal advocacy groups such as Global Animal Partnership, The Humane Society of the United States, and PETA to address the urgent need for increased auditing to ensure that companies properly implement animal welfare improvements following a negotiation. Experience has shown that auditing, which is often neglected, is a crucial part of real progress in chipping away at the most troubling methods of factory farming.
Farm Forward has also been working to get laws changed in favor of animals. “Just in Michigan we’ve seen some incredibly promising legislation pass recently, which will increase the life span of hogs and chickens confined in cages so small that they can’t turn around for their entire lives,” Goldsmith said. “It echoes the landmark legislation in California that took place in November 2008, which did much the same—mandating changes to farm policy and animal handling, no longer permitting pregnant sows, as well as chickens that produce eggs, to be confined to cages so small that they can’t turn around.”
Another major step by Farm Forward was achieved in November 2009, when board member and best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer released his book Eating Animals—a unique exploration and deeply personal exposition of the issues that arise from factory farming and the alternatives that are available to conscientious consumers. The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Esquire call Foer “brilliant,” and his previous works have been translated into 30 languages.
It is through such vehicles that Farm Forward helps to bring about the change that will really count—a shift in general thinking. “One of the major ways that we are making a difference is promoting the production of culturally significant works to change the conversation about food in this country and to change how we individually and together think about our obligations to the animals we are eating,” said Goldsmith. “I believe that Jonathan’s book does just that. And the response to this book that we observed from people on all sides of this issue, even before it was published, is just so heartening to see. This conversation is really beginning to shift.”
Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch
Some very important work is also being done by Farm Forward board member Frank Reese, who runs the Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas. “Frank Reese maintains what are now the last viable flocks of true standard-bred heritage turkeys and chickens in the United States,” Goldsmith continued. “They are one of the last diverse and viable flocks in the world. Frank is committed to protecting and preserving poultry species that are capable of, among other things, natural reproduction. They lead long, productive lives outdoors and are not given any antibiotics. For a large percentage of their lives they’re free to come and go, and they have immune systems that have been lost in industry poultry for decades.”
This year Reese plans to breed 15,000 standard-bred turkeys, 40,000 standard-bred chickens, 500 ducks and 200 geese. He sells them through a local market and online through Heritage Foods USA (www.heritagefoodsusa.com) and his own site (www.reeseturkeys.com).
A new label for Reese’s poultry has been approved by the USDA, a complicated process. It includes the descriptive words Heritage and Standard Bred, and specifies that the chickens are not younger than 16 weeks old.
A heritage chicken is a standard breed of chicken (as defined by the American Poultry Association)—such as the Buckeye, the Java or the Jersey Giant—which can reproduce naturally, grows slowly and can thrive outdoors. These birds were once raised by small-scale family farmers around the country and bred for hardiness, survivability and flavor. They are now in danger of extinction because of mass-market industrialization.
What Can Be Done
“Everyone can help by making conscientious choices every time they sit down to eat, and certainly by learning more at farmforward .com or by reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book,” Goldsmith concluded. “Retailers specifically can reach out to organizations like Farm Forward to begin a discussion on the kinds of practices they should be favoring for various types of animal agriculture, and then take a look at their own policies of what they can do to encourage their producers to strive to incorporate the newest and most humane and sustainable practices available to them.
“There are a great number of small changes that make a large difference, and often it takes the retailers reaching out to their own suppliers to demand these changes before anything is done. So it’s very important that retailers begin to understand the amount of power and responsibility they have in determining the way the product they sell is produced, and maintain relationships to the extent possible with individual farmers to ensure that the farmers are upholding these standards that their customers would expect. They can also support progressive farmers like Frank Reese by supplying his product and by educating customers on the difference between a Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch heritage turkey and the other turkeys available in the supermarket.”
To get further information on what’s being done, visit www.farmforward.com.