Meat Matters: 10 Years of Changes in Animal Agriculture

From ag-gag laws to advocacy against extreme confinement and the plant-based boom, the conversation on animal ag continues to evolve.



In the past decade, animal welfare advocates, ranchers, and a public increasingly seeking transparency in the food system have swung the barn doors wide open on animal agriculture. To date, 12 states have banned one or all forms of extreme confinement of animals, and a number of others are currently debating similar laws. At the same time, “ag-gag” laws—those which seek to silence whistleblowers’ efforts to document farm animal abuse—have become increasingly common, although some are being overruled as unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment.

Alongside all this legislative activity, the public is starting to connect the dots between animal agriculture and corporate consolidation, climate change, and human health—although in recent weeks a new study on how much red meat is safe to eat—and subsequent criticisms of the study—have continued the whipsawing nature of diet and health recommendations. And there’s a growing interest in regenerative ranching and plant-based alternatives.

To mark Civil Eats’ 10th anniversary, we’re conducting a series of roundtable discussions throughout the year in an effort to take an in-depth look at many of the most important topics we’ve covered since 2009. In the conversation below, we invited four experts to discuss their own work on animal agriculture, as well as trends in the field and potential solutions.

Josh Balk is the vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. Nicolette Niman is a rancher, attorney, and author. Craig Watts is a former poultry grower in Fairmont, North Carolina.

Civil Eats’ editor-in-chief, Naomi Starkman, and associate editor, Christina Cooke, facilitated the discussion, which has been edited for clarity and length.

How you have seen animal welfare and animal agriculture in general change over the last decade? What were some of the bigger issues that existed a decade ago, and what are they today?

Josh Balk photo

Josh Balk

Josh Balk: Over the past 10 years, we have seen our country take a strong stance against extreme confinement of farm animals. This has been through corporate policy changes like fast food chains, grocery stores, food service companies, and CPG [consumer packaged goods] companies ending and or phasing out their use of products from farm animals confined in cages.

At the same time, public policy is mirroring these [company] policies. We now have roughly a dozen states banning the practices of confining hens in cages, mother pigs in gestation crates, and baby veal calves and veal crates. Some states are going so far as to ban the sale of those products as well, no matter where they were produced.

Temple Grandin photo

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin: Well, a lot of my work has been on implementing auditing programs for supply chains working with large corporate buyers on how do you make sure that the sow stalls are gone, for example. You have to go out to farms and visit. You’ve got to put audit programs together. I worked about 20 years ago on implementing McDonald’s slaughter audits, and that resulted in great change. There were many problems there that were just caused by bad management and broken equipment. Large buyers can really help bring about change.

But we also have to make guidelines that are very clear and simple, something like a sow stall—you either have it or you don’t. But there are other things we need to be looking at. And one of my biggest concerns I’ve seen with animals coming into the slaughter plant right now is lameness. We’ve got to audit basic care issues with animals such as lameness, body condition, sores and lesions, ammonia levels inside buildings—just very simple, straightforward critical control points.

Craig Watts photo

Craig Watts

Craig Watts: My scope is limited to chicken, but I saw it go from the race to the bottom to get the cheapest chicken, and then Food, Inc. came along and exposed things. And that’s what I try to do—I opened my doors to Compassion in World Farming to give consumers more transparency, and when they actually saw what was going on in those buildings, it upset people and it pushed these companies to form the policies that Josh was talking about. And I think at the end of the day it helps the animals; people are now demanding better.

Nicolette Niman: I have seen the mainstreaming of this whole question. I started working on these issues in 2000, and when I used to talk to people about what I did, they had no idea what I was talking about or why it was necessary to try to reform animal agriculture. And I’ve seen that change radically, especially in the last decade.

Nicolette Hahn Niman photo

Nicolette Hahn Niman

Similarly, and I think more hopefully, I’m finding the issue being mainstreamed within the agricultural community. If I mentioned animal welfare 20 years ago when I was talking to the typical farmer, there was an immediate discomfort with the topic, because people didn’t often make the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare. Now, there’s more understanding within mainstream agriculture that this is a very serious and important topic, that there is growing consumer concern. The topic has gained a kind of a currency, a mainstream understanding and interest and credibility.

What are some of the environmental and economic issues impacting farmers and communities when it comes to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and what challenges and successes you have seen over the last 10 years?

Watts: My first thing was pushing for better farmer contracts. [As a farmer], you get so deep in debt that you become dependent on that one-sided contract. And as far as environmental [issues], all that stuff is externalized to the taxpayer in some aspects, and in [other] aspects, the liability is left to the farmer.

Niman: I started working on these issues as a lawyer, so I really have paid a lot of attention to the legal cases in this arena. There are lots of court cases around the country that have been helping to move the industry in the right direction in terms of forcing it to be a lot more concerned about pollution, odor, and ultimately the whole way the systems are operating. The doors are being opened to what’s happening inside these operations through these court cases. What’s happening in the courts has been a really important lever for change.

Grandin: It was really interesting, when I worked with a number of executives from McDonald’s and other companies, to see animal welfare issues go from an abstract issue that you delegate to the lawyers and PR [department] to something real. I took executives on some of their first tours of farms and slaughterhouses. When things were going well, they were fine. But when things were bad, it was like that show Undercover Boss. Now animal welfare had become real. I’ll never forget the day when an executive saw a half-dead dairy cow go into their product.

The other thing I’ve learned is that big is not automatically bad. Badly managed is bad, and I have seen badly managed in both big operations and in small operations. Management has got to decide they’re going to do things right.

Another issue that I’m really concerned about is what I call biological overload, that we’re pushing the biology of animals too hard. Cattle that lay on concrete too long, they get swollen joints and lameness caused by various issues, some of it genetic. We have got to give that animal a life that’s worth living.

Balk: What I’ve seen in the last 10 years is the increased scrutiny of CAFOs by environmental organizations. For so long, environmental organizations were focused on the coal and gas industries—and understandably so, of course. At the same time there was a glaring hole, and that was the oversight and movement around CAFOs being tremendously detrimental to our environment, whether it is air, water, soil pollution, or greenhouse gas emissions.

Now more than ever, environmental groups see CAFOs as a top-of-mind issue when it comes to problems related to the environment. And environmental groups are often singing with one voice regarding cracking down on CAFOs and intensive confinement. They are more active than ever encouraging switching food companies and consumers to more climate-friendly diets that don’t revolve around CAFOs.

Could you discuss the nationwide rise of ag-gag laws, which prevent whistleblowers or undercover activists from recording footage on farms or in slaughterhouses? Why should they matter to the average person?

Niman: Michael Pollan said so well if the confinement animal industry had been required to use glass walls, it never would have risen to prominence. What has become the norm in animal agriculture was really not in line with most Americans’ values in terms of how they think animals should be treated. The vast majority of Americans feel that farm animals deserve good treatment just as companion animals do.

There were quite a few states around the U.S., including Idaho and Missouri, that adopted laws saying that you couldn’t, for example, photograph a confinement animal operation—even from the road, even from a public space. The laws took a number of different forms but essentially made it impossible to criticize agriculture.

It’s being shown, through the court cases—and common sense is just prevailing, is the way I view it—that this doesn’t make any sense. If something is true and someone is not breaking other laws in order to show the operation, [documentation] shouldn’t be prevented. And I think most people are in agreement with that idea.

Transparency is a key to sustainability and healthiness in the food system, and I think more and more people want to access more information about their food and understand better what they’re putting into their mouths. In my view, everything that pushes against that trend is ultimately going to fail. And we’re beginning to see that now.

Balk: With the outcry of consumers demanding change and saying that the status quo does not reflect their values, agriculture has sometimes done the opposite—and that is actually going backwards and hiding what they’re doing.

What type of business model is it when consumers demand change, and agribusiness says, “No, in fact not only are we not changing, we’re going to make it a crime if you expose what we’re doing”?That’s a business model that is meant for failure. And that’s why the CAFO model simply is not meant for the future.

Grandin: When you get bashed, you need to be opening the door instead of closing it—show what you do. And this is the reason why a number of years ago, working with Janet Riley at the American Meat Institute, which is now the North American Meat Institute, we did the glass walls videos. [Watch tours of a beef plant, pork plant, sheep plant, or turkey plant with Grandin.] We need to show what we do.

Watts: Naturally, it was lobbying groups in North Carolina, specifically the Pork Council and the Poultry Federation, that worked really hard to pass these ag-gag laws. They should be going the other way—they should be opening the doors, not shutting the doors. In a perfect world, officials don’t serve a few powerful companies. But there’s no such thing as a perfect world.

Bobby Morgan checks on broiler hens in one of his chicken houses in Luling, Texas. (USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

Bobby Morgan checks on broiler hens in one of his chicken houses in Luling, Texas. (USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

If you poll the American public, time and again, they squarely oppose [animal welfare violations]. Even if animal welfare were not one of the top issues, food safety should be. If you’ve got a problem in a plant or a farm or you have a disease situation going on, and you can’t report that, that’s just wrong. And it’s about as un-American as things can get. We need more transparency, not less.

How is consolidation impacting the business of farming animals? And what do you think needs to happen to ensure that best practices prevail and that small- and medium-sized farm operations can stay in business?

Watts: My sole focus is chickens. But in that case you have one buyer for your product—the guy who brings you the birds is the same guy who buys from you. That ought to run up a red flag. You trust the folks to do what they say they’ll do; they just don’t do it that way. The worst thing in the world is to have too few buyers. As far as how to solve it, I read a lot about the holistic type—the regenerative farms, the smaller farms, the more diverse farms. That’s where I think the future is.

Niman: The more I’ve learned about this issue over the last couple of decades, the more I have become convinced that the rise in the power and control of corporations in our political system and economy is really tightly tied to this whole question of sustainability in the food system and the welfare of animals. I view the viability of the individual independent farmer and their opportunity to make a living as key to the success of regenerative agriculture, which I think is essential for the survival of the human species.

What gets me worried is people not being concerned about the incredible power of corporations in the political system. There is more and more consciousness about this, but I think we need to each as individuals try to learn more about what we’re eating and support people in our communities producing things in ways that conform with our values.

Grandin: Whether it’s telephones or airlines, it doesn’t matter—if one company monopolizes everything, then there’s no competition, no way for improvement. No one entity should have more than 51 percent of a major market.

Big is fragile [too]. In 2007, an ice storm took out about three miles of electric towers. Ice formed on the cables and pulled the towers down, bent them over, these great big Eiffel Tower-sized things. It cut the power supply to major parts of the food supply. Big is fragile, and I think that’s an important concept. One of the reasons for having a more distributed system is so when one part of it breaks, you don’t have a catastrophic failure.

Balk: There is starting to be an increased number of larger companies that have shown they can be leaders when it comes to animal welfare. And when that happens, change can often happen quickly.

As an example, Rose Acre is the second largest egg company in the nation, based in Indiana, and they publicly stated that they’re going 100 percent cage-free in all of their production. That’s a tremendous announcement that will cause tens of millions of animals to have a much better life. And it demonstrates to the food industry and fellow egg operators that it’s not just smaller family farms that can raise animals in a cage-free system. The larger players can move in that direction as well. Often, change has come with leaders who happen to be very large but demonstrate to other large players that change is possible and progress is a good thing.

Let’s talk about the increasing awareness of the connection between climate change and industrial animal production. Where does high animal welfare fit into that discussion?

Niman: Well, a lot of what I’m trying to do these days is to get people thinking about what truly ecologically regenerative systems would look like—it’s about animals and plants and fungi all operating together the way natural systems function—and trying to create agricultural systems that look much more like nature.

Black Angus cows and calves graze organic pastures at Nick’s Organic Farm in Adamstown, Maryland. (USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

Black Angus cows and calves graze organic pastures at Nick’s Organic Farm in Adamstown, Maryland. (USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

The problem really isn’t about animals. For me, the real challenge is getting people to stop thinking so myopically, simplistically, and single-issue-wise, and to think in a much bigger way about how we design ecologically appropriate systems. And where we are not, as Gabe Brown says, thinking every day about what we’re going to go out there and kill—are we going to kill this weed? Are we going to kill that fungus? Are we going to kill that insect?—but rather thinking about how we foster life, complexity, and diversity. Those are the systems that are going to address not just climate change, but all the major ecological problems that are connected with agriculture

Balk: I certainly hope that animal agriculture does shift to more of a regenerative model. And if all animals live the type of life that Nicolette described—outside, roaming around, and engaging in natural behaviors—what a world we’d live in. Right now, it’s a very small percentage of animals who are able to live that way. Hopefully, we can ensure that increases every week, every month, every year.

There are also things we can do. If we look at how we can take a stand against climate change when we eat, it’s incorporating more plant-based proteins into our diets—and that’s what the food industry is allowing us to do. Mainstream grocery stores are offering more types of plant-based proteins than ever before; restaurant chains are now moving in that direction [too]. And frankly, to give the meat industry credit—so many of them are investing in plant-based proteins, either other companies that they’re invested in or they’re putting out their own products focused on plant-based proteins.

I think that we can have a two-pronged approach. Let’s work to ensure that animals have a better life outdoors that’s regenerative and reduces the impact on the environment while at the same time eating more plant-based proteins that reduce the type of impact that our diet has on greenhouse gas emissions.

We want fewer animals raised but more farmers; and we want less cruelty and more husbandry. When you align those ideals, it leads to a more humane system and a more environmentally friendly system as well.

Watts: Land-use changes significantly lead to climate change. You see these large-scale changes such as deforestation and then that leads to soil erosion, and a lot of machine- intensive farming methods lead to soil erosion. It all at leads to increasing carbon concentration. Going back to what Nicolette said, we’re going to have to go back and do something that looks more like nature instead of us in there destroying nature.

Grandin: When you do grazing right, it improves the land, and there are huge amounts of land in the world that cannot be cropped. The only way food can be raised on that land is grazing animals. But I want to emphasize—it has to be done with good management. You do grazing right, it improves land. You overstock it, it wrecks the land. You also need to be using methods to herd the cattle so they don’t cherry-pick the best spots. The other thing that the livestock would do on the land is add natural fertilizer. If you do things right, you can actually sequester carbon. I’ve been getting increasingly interested in some of the research that has been done on grazing.

What do you wish that the general public knew or understood about animal agriculture, and what you think the biggest misconception is? And what would you have consumers keep in mind as they make decisions about what to put on their plates?

Watts: I think that the education of the consumer is critical, that they think about what’s in the center of their plate, which is a lot of the reason I did what I did [in opening the doors of my chicken farm]. I would look at a situation where we would look at consuming a little less meat but a little better quality.

What I wish the public knew is what goes on inside the buildings, these intensive buildings, because they would be upset. I was sitting in a motel room in Brookings, South Dakota, in 2012 and a Perdue commercial came on [television], and it showed the inside of a chicken house. It was totally pristine—totally brand-new shavings and everything was nice and shiny. And it was not what I was seeing [as a Perdue contract grower], and it upset me. I felt like at the end of the day, I was a farmer, and the consumer was my customer, even though I had a contract with that particular chicken company.

Consumers needed to know that image and reality were very different. It’s not a white-picket fence, and it’s not a red barn it’s not a Ma-and-Pa [operation]; it is industrial agriculture.

George Kloph checks on the health and safety of laying hens at Nick’s Organic Farm, in Adamstown, Maryland. (USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

George Kloph checks on the health and safety of laying hens at Nick’s Organic Farm, in Adamstown, Maryland. (USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

Balk: Consumers start learning about the treatment of animals and begin to move away from eating red meat and switching to eating chickens, when the reality is the cattle industry has done dramatically more to improve the welfare of animals. Those animals have a dramatically better life than typical chickens do.

Chickens in the meat industry are bred to grow so big, so large, that when people eat chicken, it comes from baby chickens. They’re slaughtered at roughly 45 days, and they are confined in warehouses where they’re walking around in their own fecal matter. There’s no enrichment, and by the end of their very brief life, they can barely move because their legs are in so much pain. A leading cause of death for chickens inside these sheds is a heart attack, and in no other animal, whether in the natural world or in farming, is a leading cause of death for babies a heart attack. And that is because of the type of breeding we’ve been doing to chickens, where they grow so fast and so fat so quickly.

When consumers hear about that, they are appalled. And that’s when they start moving away from supporting those type of practices, whether it’s supporting family farmers using different breeds, or shifting more to plant proteins. The [industrial agriculture] type of system of caring for animals simply is out of step with how everyday consumers feel animals ought to be treated.

Watts: Another thing the public needs to know: you can put enrichments in the houses or you can do a lot of different things that sound good in the media, but until you get to the root of the problem, which is the breed, you really have not accomplished a whole lot—you’re just hacking branches, and branches grow back. You’ve got to get it at the root, and that root is that that bird is bred to suffer. It cannot be done overnight, but it can be done in steps, and I think if consumers push it, demand it, it will happen. Because I’ve seen changes that I wouldn’t never in my life thought would happen.

Niman: Not just with animal foods, but with all foods, cheap food is not cheap, and you get what you pay for. The whole process of industrialization of our food production, which really began mid-20th century, was a system where we swapped out traditional agricultural practices for technologically generated inputs like chemical fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, herbicides, pesticides, etc. We have made the entire food system one that is dependent on and creates “cheap” food by all of these inputs that have tremendous downstream effects on human health, on the environment, on wildlife, on soil health.

There’s been this massive awakening—especially in the last decade, but it’s been happening for several decades—of people realizing that you pay for all this cheapness. We may have become accustomed to paying a very small amount of money for our food, but we are paying for this in tremendous, massive public health problems—not just in terms of obesity and diabetes but in terms of cancers and many other health problems that are connected with what we’re eating and the environment in which we’re existing that is just loaded with chemicals.

I think that people are starting to realize that all of this cheapness in the food system is something that we are all paying for and we need to begin re-evaluating and reassessing value as opposed to cheapness. How do we get a food system and create food that supports ecological health and human health and gives animals and farmers and community members who live near agricultural operations good lives? That’s what I most want people to know about the food system that I think that they don’t know yet.

Grandin: One bright spot in the cattle industry is cattle handling. When I first started in the industry in the ’70s, the ’80s, and a good part of the ’90s, cattle handling was completely atrocious, and I want to commend the National Cattle Association for stockmanship training and really emphasizing to feedlot operators and ranchers that good and low-stress cattle handling methods are really, really important.

Now on the negative side—we’ve greatly improved the handling, but we’ve gotten into some problems. This gets into pushing the animal’s biology; cattle from certain irresponsible operators are getting lameness issues and problems—let’s not have cattle go down the same road chickens did.

There are some cases where there’s been some improvements [in animal treatment], and animal ag has failed to communicate them. I wrote in my book Animals in Translation about rapist killer roosters that were ripping hens apart in the boiler breeder colony. Well, about a year ago, I found a new rooster that is a gentleman, and not tearing hens apart, and it was just done with natural breeding. Here, you’ve fixed the problem—you’re no longer cutting the toes off the rooster—and nobody knows about it. I went into the literature and tried to find scientific papers on breeding the gentlemen, nicer rooster, and I could find nothing about him—or even an advertisement for the rooster. That is just stupid—you fix something and then you fail to tell people about it.

Where do you think animal welfare and animal agriculture will be 10 years from now? And is there anything in what you’ve been seeing that gives you hope for the future?

Watts: I think that consumer is waking up. Perdue and Tyson and those companies, I don’t think they’re going anywhere, but the pressure is being put them to change the way they do things. Ten years from now, you’re not even to recognize these companies anymore. They’re already invested in plant-based, they’re already putting those products out, and 50 years from now, there may not even be the confined systems. Plant-based meats won’t replace animal agriculture, but they’ll be a much more significant part of the food system and more mainstream. Now is an exciting time, and 10 years from now, it’s going to be more exciting.

Balk: Craig said something earlier which was he hopes to see less meat from better-treated animals. And I’ve got to say, I feel like that is the future. I think that in 10 years, we are going to see an end of intensive confinement systems for egg-laying hens, mother pigs, and veal calves. We’re also going to see the chicken industry start shifting to healthier breeds of birds because of the demand from corporations that stems from consumer opposition to the way that they are currently raised and the type of breed that currently exists.

I also see more and more meat companies getting involved in plant-based proteins along with other types of technologies that don’t necessarily involve the raising and killing of animals. That’s what we’ve seen just over the past couple of years, and over the next 10 years, that trend and trajectory is going to go even faster.

I feel a lot of hope for the future. I think we are moving in a very positive direction. And the main reason is that most people are good people. Most people want animals to be treated well, farmers to have a good life, the environment to be clean, for us to eat healthier. I think our food system is finally starting to reflect all of those basic beliefs that most of us have already in our hearts.

Grandin: Well the youngest consumers are really concerned. They want to know where their food comes from. They’re concerned about a lot of different issues. Now there’s a professor named Candace Croney at Purdue University who’s done some really interesting research. She found that high-income and low-income consumers had some of the biggest concerns. And it’s kind of surprising that the low-income consumer was in there; maybe they can sympathize with an animal living in a bad environment.

Now getting onto clean meat and meat substitutes. One of the issues with a total meat substance where you actually grow muscle in a lab rather than a plant-based substitute is going to be energy use.

Another thing we’ve got to look at is the whole GMO thing. In the future, we’re going to have huge challenges with some of the things we can do with genetic engineering. I would say in 20 years, we’ll probably have the genetic code completely deciphered, and we could just create any kind of animal you wanted. Then the ethical problems are really going to are going to start, big-time.

Niman: I am I hopeful for the future. For me, what’s exciting are the connections that are being made in the public mind and the understanding of the connectedness between healthy, ecologically appropriate farming producing healthy food and healthy food creating healthy humans, and ecologically appropriate farms providing good lives for animals. I think the era of disconnectedness is coming to an end.

That’s what I hope for, more connections being made and a greater understanding of the complexity of truly ecologically regenerative farming. We have people pioneering it all over the world, but there’s also a certain amount of rediscovering of ancient wisdom of how to rear animals and raise food in a way that is not environmentally damaging and creates food that is full of life and supports healthy humans. I am optimistic.

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