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Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Interview: Wayne Pacelle and the “Humane Economy”

June 9, 2016

MTM4MDYyMzIwNzMwMzg0MjM2What do chickens in cramped cages and pigs in tight crates have to do with elephants in circuses, orcas at SeaWorld, or trophy-hunted tigers?

According to Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), all of these animals – and more – are being liberated, so to speak, by a new “humane economy,” in which consumers (including humane meat eaters) are driving corporations to improve their animal welfare standards.

In Pacelle’s new book, The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals, we learn that within vastly different industries — agriculture, tourism, medicine, beauty — consumers are making their wishes about animal welfare known, largely through what they choose to buy or not buy. (This, of course, is what humaneitarians do every day, when they make it a point to only buy humanely raised meat and thus influence the marketplace.)

Favoring a product or a company based on its animal welfare policies is not a new concept — I remember shopping at The Body Shop back in the 90’s, to support their disavowal of animal testing in cosmetics. But Pacelle argues that over the past five years there’s been a notable uptick in companies willing to shift on animal welfare, as consumers learn more about animal emotions and needs, demand corporate transparency, and use social media to make their opinions known.

In the food and agriculture realm, egg-laying hens stand to benefit greatly from this humane economy. A cascade of restaurants and grocery chains have pledged to stop buying eggs from industrial farms that pack hens into crowded, filthy cages. Pigs will also stand to gain, as pork companies transition away from gestation crates for pregnant sows and toward group sow housing, where mother pigs can walk freely, socialize, and engage in natural behaviors.

These corporate pledges came about, in part, because of the influence of the HSUS, a nonprofit working on an array of animal issues. HSUS not only persuades retailers to think about where consumer preference is headed, but also facilitates new purchasing relationships between those retailers and any industrial food company willing to transition to more humane systems.

“It’s clear we’re on the trajectory of ending extreme confinement of animals in agriculture,” Wayne Pacelle told me in a phone interview this week. Within a decade, he predicts, the clausterphobic confinement of industrially raised pigs, chickens, and veal calves “will be a thing of the past.”

But how can the HSUS and other farm advocacy groups ensure that these corporations will keep their promises? Without much transparency in Big Ag, it could be hard to know, for example, whether Smithfield will truly phase out gestation crates by 2017, Cargill will end the caging of laying hens by 2018, and the entire veal industry will be crate-free by 2017, as all have promised.

Pacelle says companies should be audited by an independent third party. If they’re not, he says, it wouldn’t be difficult to ascertain from a visual standpoint and from company workers whether “humane washing” was going on. But Pacelle doesn’t think corporations will be deceptive.

“Why would they take the risk?” he said. “If you’re deceiving the HSUS, Wal-mart, and all your customers, you’re courting a corporate calamity.”

Wayne Pacelle

Wayne Pacelle

Many farmers and ranchers have been skeptical of the HSUS, believing that its mostly vegan and vegetarian staff are hostile to the idea of animal farming. While it’s true that HSUS outreach materials encourage plant-based eating more than the choosing of ethically raised meat, Pacelle, a vegan, doesn’t come across as antagonistic to farmers. He notes in his book that many industrial farmers are not out to hurt animals, but instead have gotten caught up in systemic forms of cruelty “that people came to tolerate.”

In his book, Pacelle often recounts how he simply talks to industrial farmers and other people he may be at odds with, rooting around for common ground. “I treat everyone as a potential supporter of animal welfare,” he told me.

He also seems to be a realist when it comes to humans’ proclivity for meat. “I don’t have any illusion that we’re going to become a vegetarian or vegan society in the forseeable future,” he said.

And so, to improve the lives of all the food animals that will inevitably be raised long into the future, the HSUS under Pacelle’s watch has organized a new Rural Outreach division and state “agriculture councils” made up of humane-minded farmers who advise the HSUS on agricultural matters. Pacelle himself is on the board of Global Animal Partnership, where he works with ranchers and food company executives to come up with 5-step animal welfare ratings for nearly all the meat products sold at Whole Foods stores.

The chicken on the left: a typical Cornish Cross bird, overbred and out of proportion. The chicken on the right: what a normal breed look like.

The chicken on the left: a typical Cornish Cross bird, overbred and out of proportion. The chicken on the right: what a normal breed looks like.

From his vantage point, Pacelle believes that the next frontiers in farm animal welfare have to do with inhumane breeding and humane slaughtering of poultry. Indeed, other farm animal welfare groups, such as Compassion in World Farming and the ASPCA, are beginning to educate consumers about the suffering of the Cornish Cross, the dominant chicken breed in America, which grows so big so quickly that the birds regularly suffer a slew of health problems. And a few big poultry companies have already switched to “controlled atmosphere killing,” which uses inert gases to render birds unconscious before slaughter.

In his book, Pacelle doesn’t just credit consumers for sparking change, but also innovators who are harnessing technology and science to help all kinds of animals. He details the projects of a handful of entrepreneurs who are trying to grow in vitro meat, develop plant-based “burgers” in a lab, and create dairy products from genetically engineered yeast.

As someone who is skeptical of the human engineering of food, no matter how noble the motivation, and as a believer in the essential role that animals play on sustainable farms (providing manure and strengthening grasslands, for example), I didn’t get excited by the chapter on non-animal meat. But I understand how important it is for people to eat less meat, and I recognize that having products on the market that fully taste like meat (and not Tofu Pups) could help put a dent in our consumption.

I would have liked to read more in Pacelle’s book about other activists and organizations that have done good farm animal welfare work. I also would’ve liked to learn more about the unsuccessful 2011 push by Pacelle and his counterpart at United Egg Producers, an industry group, to pass federal legislation ensuring minimum welfare standards for laying hens. (Legislators balked, under pressure from Big Ag lobbyists.)

It’s obvious that a lot more work has to be done to reform factory farms. And it’s unclear just how big the humane economy is. But the metric I’m most familiar with has certainly improved of late: it is vastly easier to find humanely raised meat products on store shelves than it was even five years ago.

If you’re feeling powerless or distressed about the state of the world, The Humane Economy will cheer you to no end, for it shows how our daily choices really do make change for animals.

To paraphrase that famous 1992 comment about the role of the economy in political elections, “It’s the (humane) economy, stupid.”

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