Twitter has killed civil discourse. 140 character limits make having a discussion about complex topics like food production next to impossible but for some reason it has become a platform of choice for exchanging ideas. I have watched many of my fellow food producers howl when A&W, Subway, and other food businesses work to create supply chains that go beyond the base standards laid out by the CFIA and various provincial regulations. From time to time, I will wade into the fray and often my view is rather unpopular among my counterparts. Rights of the individual is very important to me, it is part of why we live such wonderful lives here in Canada. Our rights are respected and protected by a series of laws and ultimately, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For me, there is a logical extension to businesses and when a company in the food industry makes a decision that they feel is best for the health of their business, I skip over the indignation and go straight to looking at what new opportunities this opens up for growers. We can bluster all we want, but this trend will continue and we will see greater segmentation within our food industry.
This is a large part of why Jess and I are working to start up a certified humane production loop to produce pigs. We weighed the options available for growth of our business and this avenue offered long term price stability in of one of the fastest growing segments of the protein market. We don’t think that the pork we will produce is ‘better’ and I will admit that I don’t like the way the label implies that commodity pork is somehow now ‘inhumane’ because it is not. Regardless of production system, farmers care for their livestock, ensuring that animals’ needs are met and the grocery shelves are always full with safe, affordable food. That said, a growing segment of consumers have said loud and clear that they are concerned about animal welfare and they are willing to pay a premium for an audited production system that adheres to specific requirements. We have made a decision to take part in that.
The larger issue at play for me is how defensive Agriculture has gotten as an industry. Case in point, yesterday I got into a back in forth with an author who published a blog criticising Temple Grandin for an article in which she shared her concerns surrounding the long term implications that genetic selection for higher production is having on dairy cow longevity. I have serious issues with someone going after one of animal agriculture’s strongest advocates in the public eye because she had the audacity to say that everything is not perfect on the farm. He cherry picked quotes and sprinkled in some anecdotal evidence using Gigi, the 9 year old wonder cow. My former thesis advisor had a saying, “an n of 1, a study does not make.” Trying to use one cow as justification that Grandin is wrong is misleading when we know that the average age of a dairy cow has declined as productivity has increased. Oltenacu & Algers published peer reviewed research back in 2005 highlighting this phenomenon; a long term study of Holstein cows in Northeastern USA showed that 80% of cows lived to 48 months in 1957. By 2002 this had dropped to 60%.
Switching to our farm, I will be the first one to admit that our longevity of sows has a negative correlation with productivity. In 2012 we weaned an average of 21.84 piglets per sow per year and our average parity on the farm was 2.98. In 2016 we are weaning 29.91 piglets per sow per year and our average parity has decreased to 2.6. Our animals are healthier, better fed, and better cared for than ever before, they just are not staying on the farm as long. This leads to a bigger question; does a reduction in longevity equate to poorer welfare? I don’t think it does, as I stated above, our animals are better cared for than ever before but we do need to consider the long term ramifications of basing much of our genetic selection on productivity traits.
We as food producers need to come to grips with the fact that we are not perfect and in this world of instant communication, the drive for transparency in food production will continue to intensify. The odd thing is, I think we all know that we are not perfect but for some reason most of us are very defensive. My guess is that much of the anger is rooted in the fact that we are doing a great job of producing more food while greatly reducing the environmental impact of said production. All we want is to be left alone to continue doing what those who came before us did, feeding people. Rightly or wrongly, this simply isn’t an option and as long as there is Twitter, Instagram, Insert New Social Media Platform Here, and full grocery store shelves we are going to face continued scrutiny around our practices. Each generation of food producers have had to grapple with new challenges; maybe ours is learning to accept that non farming people will play a significant role in shaping how we grow food.
“We can talk all we want about the safety and the science, but if we can’t convince consumers, producers must find other markets or change their practices.” Michael Von Massow