“This slaughtering machine ran on,” wrote Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. “Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats” (Sinclair 39). In 1906 The Jungle exposed the terrible conditions that plagued factory workers, underscored by the atrocities committed against animals in the industrial farming system in the early twentieth century. Over a century later, farming conditions have improved. Many agriculturists, including Dr. Helga Willer, credit improvement to the animal welfare standards established by organic farming (26). Though Willer’s claim is valid, its nuances, including the limits of organic farming, are lost outside of the scholarly community. In my experience, my peers have idealized the term, “organic farming.” Instead of recognizing organic farming as an improvement on the old system, they imagine it as the ideal system. Yet this system has flaws, such as livestock experiencing unhygienic and cruel conditions due to the lack of regulation and adaptation. To correct injustices against animals and the misconceptions about the system, animal welfare organizations must make the realities of organic farming apparent and stir a movement to bring its ideal form to fruition.
Agriculturalists who hold sway in the field of organic farming have developed a clear set of aims for the system and recognize that farmers are integral in reaching those aims. Dr. Albert Sundrum, an Organic Studies professor at the University of Kassel, writes, “organic livestock farming has set itself the goal of…sustaining animals in good health [and] realising high animal welfare standards” (207). To maintain healthy livestock, organic farms must provide animals with ample space, dry litter, group penning, and indoor and outdoor quarters. Farms are prohibited from tethering animals together, as seen with hogs in The Jungle, and from using synthetic amino acids and growth promoters. Sundrum explains that animal welfare is harder to define because certain animals have specific needs regarding housing, management, feeding, climate, and hygiene (212). Organic farms strive to evaluate animals’ responses to conditions and to adapt their standards accordingly. For example, they will remove dry litter if parasites become problematic. In Prof. Leslie Duram’s book Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works, Duram highlights the fact that “Successful organic farmers are undoubtedly the experts on organic farming,” and though farmers possess common traits, they do not implement them in the same ways (Duram 2). Duram places the power of animal welfare in farmers’ hands. In theory, adaptable welfare standards should provide the greatest number of animals with benefits suited to their species and needs. However, in reality, less virtuous farmers abuse the adaptability of the organic system in ways to be outlined below. The system’s susceptibility to human error results in mistreatment of animals.
Accounts of visits to specific farms portray the organic system as little more than industrial farming with new branding. The Director of Farm Animal Welfare of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Suzanne McMillan, visited a number of organic farms in 2012 and concluded, “many are still factory farms, often confining animals indoors using severe devices” (McMillan). Confinement and tethering align more with the conditions depicted in The Jungle than with Sundrum’s organic standards. On her blog, McMillan identifies the misconception that animals raised on organic farms are necessarily raised humanely (McMillan). Some of the practices McMillan witnessed, including beak trimming and force-feeding, do not contradict Sundrum’s health standards; however, she also witnessed animal crowding and the use of hormones to accelerate growth rate, which violate organic tenets (McMillan). Without federal regulation, some farmers opt for the easier route – fattening animals quickly and cheaply for ample yield and profit. Additionally, current organic farming standards might not be as beneficial for animals as Sundrum suggests. Alex Avery’s The Truth About Organic Food posits that some organic farming practices give rise to harmful conditions (Avery). For example, the imposition of litter and penning create hygienic issues that debilitate livestock. A Swedish study conducted by two agricultural scientists found inconclusive results after conducting a large study of organic farms. In “Research on Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Farming,” Vonne Lund and Bo Algers concede that “None of the published articles found indications that health and welfare are worse in organic than in conventional livestock farming” (55). However, Lund and Algers explain that any conclusion on such a large scale is “cautious,” because too many variables exist to reach a general consensus (56). Despite Lund and Algers’ hesitation, the existence of reports like those of McMillan and Avery prove that the organic system has room for improvement.
In order to reform organic farming practices, the general population must be made aware of the shortcomings of the status quo. Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and contributor to Sierra Atlantic, writes that she buys organic because she “likes to give her food dollars to farmers who…are kind to animals” (10). Yet buying organic does not necessarily ensure that the animals were treated kindly. The ASPCA has taken a stand in support of farm animals on its website, which reads, “The ASPCA believes that farm animal suffering can be reduced through more humane farming methods” (ASPCA). Widespread dissemination of this belief, and the specific farming methods it entails, is the best option for people to learn about livestock suffering and take it sincerely. Serious advertisements work alongside literature and documentaries to help make the current illusory state of organic farming known. However, it seems that such examples are drowned out by overwhelming support for organic farming. Perhaps if exposés continue to be written and filmed with more frequency, awareness will grow as well. Public support is crucial because the most successful reform movements, including that of the meatpacking industry, occurred due to widespread backing. Adaptable conditions that farmers adjust for unique animals still pose the greatest good to the greatest number of animals. While adaptable conditions can prevent the harm that Avery witnessed, regulations should be imposed to make sure adaptability is not abused. Since there is no way a single government agency can adapt conditions for each individual animal within a species, the task relies on farmers. However, an agency should have the capability to visit farmers annually and ensure that they carry out their duties to animals rightfully. Combined with some stricter standards, such as a ban on beak cutting and a mandate for wider spaces, audits of farmers would improve the conditions of animals. With Sundrum’s emendations, the realization of my peers’ ideal form of organic farming will follow.
ASPCA. “The ASPCA and Farm Animals.” ASPCA. ASPCA, 2014. Web. 14 April 2014.
Avery, Alex. The Truth About Organic Foods. Chesterfield, Missouri: Henderson Company LLC, 2006. Print.
Duram, Leslie. Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works. Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, 2005. Print.
Lund, Vonne, and Bo Algers. “Research on Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Farming – A Literature Review.” Livestock Production Science 80.1-2 (March 2003): 55-68. Print.
McMillan, Suzanne. “ASPCA Asks for Better Treatment of Animals on Organic Farms.” ASPCA.com. ASPCA, 31 May 2012. Web. 3 April 2014.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, 1906. Print.
Steingraber, Sandra. “Tune of the Tuna Fish.” Orion 25.1 (Winter 2006): 24-28. Print.
Sundrum, Albert. “Organic Livestock Farming: A Critical Review.” Livestock Production Science 67.3 (January 2001): 207-215. Print. Willer, Helga, Julia Lernoud, and Robert Home. “The World of Organic Agriculture 2013: Summary.” FiBL & IFOAM (2013): 25-33. Print.