SILENT films were notorious for their exaggerated acting. With that in mind, imagine that we're viewing a three-part film about food and agriculture.
Part one serves as the background to the story; we'll call it "square peg." It revolves around terms like corporate food, industrial agriculture or factory farming. Whatever it may be, when those terms are used to describe the food system, the connotation is generally pejorative.
For food system critics, the corporate/industrial/factory farming vernacular attempts to portray agriculture as having become too big and too detached, and generally, such language aims to imply exploitation.
That portrayal gets applied across any number of venues and has become more prevalent over time as the production sector consolidates.
For example, Farm Sanctuary claims, "Factory farms dominate U.S. food production, employing abusive practices that maximize agribusiness profits at the expense of the environment, our communities, animal welfare and even our health."
However, consolidation occurs as a direct result of the free-market system: Consumers desire availability, consistency and value for all sorts of goods, including food, and in response, businesses inherently move toward larger operations and increased synchronization; that's part of an effort to achieve economies of scale while seeking efficiencies of cost and logistics.
Meanwhile, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has been one of the most vocal, and certainly visible, antagonists of large livestock operations.
For instance, an April 2013 HSUS press release included the following observation: "High demand for meat pressures farmers to opt for more industrialized production systems, where they can lose touch with the animals. These systems also squeeze traditional family farmers who have a harder time competing with factory farms."
Now, let's move to part two of our story, titled "round hole." It involves letters Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods recently sent to their respective suppliers.
As reported in the Jan. 13 issue of Feedstuffs, "On Jan. 7, Smithfield recommended to its sow growers to convert facilities to group housing, and a day later, Tyson encouraged its contract and independent hog farmers to implement a series of production practices."
Needless to say, the letters have generated lots of buzz both within and around animal agriculture. Depending on whom you talk to, you'll get varying opinions regarding the motive behind the letters. (For this discussion, let's ignore the contents of the letters.) The intent is impossible to know. However, many speculate that it was an attempt to appease the likes of HSUS.
Whatever the underlying motivation may be, there's no doubt that HSUS has a keen interest in those letters. In fact, a blog from HSUS president and chief executive officer Wayne Pacelle included the following commentary (emphasis mine):
"On Tuesday, Smithfield Foods announced it is upgrading its animal policies by providing incentives for its contract farmers to move away from gestation crates. Tyson Foods, another major pork producer, also took steps in that direction. The company ... has sent a letter to all the farmers in its pork system outlining desired improvements in its animal welfare program. ... This is big movement from an important company. Tyson may still have a ways to go when it comes to shoring up a gestation crate-free supply system, but its first steps on this issue — like all steps on the path toward a more humane way of living or conducting business — are most welcome."
That now brings us to the final part of our film. On one hand, activists and critics want food production to be different. They perceive agriculture as having been stretched too far and proclaim that we'd be better off by reversing direction back toward a more fragmented, decentralized system involving lots of smaller producers.
On the other hand, though, those same entities seem to understand well the realities of the supply chain, and they're now effectively leveraging corporate buying influence over their suppliers to make changes in the production sector.
So, while production systems (e.g., gestation stalls) haven't really changed that much in 20 years, the ability to implement pressure to change (i.e., eliminating gestation crates) looks different now than it did several decades ago. As the system becomes more aligned (more "corporate," if you will), there's a greater potential to send a single, centralized message back upstream. Clearly, HSUS endorses that power, as witnessed by Pacelle's commentary.
The ending of our silent film is where we watch the actors frantically try to pound an oversized square peg into a round hole — but it just won't go in.
That's because you can't have it both ways and maintain your principles, claiming on one hand that industrialized production systems are squeezing traditional family farmers yet on the other hand sanctioning corporate pressure on independent operators. That's an impossible quandary to reconcile.
*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.