Advocacy in action

Harry Snelson Science versus emotion

We face an interesting conundrum in swine production today. What role does science play in the decisions made by industry leaders when the science is unclear and the issue emotional? The adoption of science-based technological and managerial changes over the last 20 years have resulted in dramatic improvements in the quality, safety, and wholesomeness of the pork our industry produces and the way our animals are reared. However, today we find that very same scientific process often ignored to promote the agendas of well-funded organizations determined to destroy animal agriculture.

A perfect example is the issue of sow stalls versus pens for gestation housing. As all of us involved in the industry are well aware, the vast majority of commercial sows are housed in gestation stalls post breeding. A lot of research has attempted to answer the question of which housing system maximizes the animals’ welfare. Not surprisingly, the research findings are mixed. It would appear that the level of management and attention to detail are more important factors associated with animal welfare than is the type of housing system.

Part of the dilemma is that there is no universally agreed-upon method to measure all facets of animal welfare. Likewise, not everyone agrees on which facets should even be considered when evaluating the quality of an animal’s state of being. I think many would agree that providing adequate shelter from the elements, freedom from predation, recognition and treatment of disease and injury, and access to appropriate nutrition and water would form the minimum basis for “humane treatment.” Others would argue, however, that additional amenities are necessary, such as something larger than minimum space requirements and access to bedding or nest-making materials. And, then, of course, at the extreme end of the spectrum, some are adamant that nothing short of a lifestyle as depicted in Charlotte’s Web1 is adequate.

In other words, welfare exists on a continuum because our estimation of an animal’s welfare is ultimately measured and defined by human beings using measures derived from our experience, previous exposure, and system of values and beliefs. From a scientific perspective, we attempt to compare different systems in the hopes of detecting variations in the responses we can measure in variables we consider as “good” and “bad” indices. In the case of sow stalls, the science tells us that no one system is consistently “better,” given our measures of sow welfare. As we all know, animal welfare is an emotional issue and thus it’s relatively easy to portray sow stalls as “bad” because emotion doesn’t require proof. It’s intensely personal and there is no clearly defined “right” or “wrong.”

Now, however, we have the additional influence of product perception and marketing. In today’s highly competitive commodity markets, everyone is looking for a niche or a differentiator. Shifting away from sow stalls is one of those issues that marketers see as putting a favorable face on their product. Smithfield Foods and Maple Leaf Farms have both announced plans to phase out gestation stalls gradually over the next few years. Both were quick to point out that the scientific research was not the basis for this decision, but rather a response to what the companies perceive as their customers’ preferences.

I think, however, that there is a legitimate concern about the welfare effects on the animals were there to be a widespread, rapid shift from today’s stall housing systems to pen gestation housing. Much work needs to be done to adjust our management styles, facility designs, and training programs to adequately meet the needs of the animals in pen gestation. Potentially, we may even need to change our genetics and nutritional recommendations to maximize the production performance of animals housed in a different system.

Our critics like to point out that it is not natural for a sow not to be able to turn around or exhibit other “natural” behaviors. The thing they fail to convey is that not all “natural” or innate behaviors are necessarily good things. For instance, in many cases, the instinctual behavior of pigs in a group setting is to develop a hierarchy for purposes of access to favored resources such as feed. This hierarchy is often achieved by establishing dominance through aggressive behavior and fighting, which in turn results in the subordinate animals (often the weaker or diseased) receiving less feed or fewer feeding opportunities and may result in severe injury. While these considerations are well understood by the scientific and production communities, it is a difficult message to convey to the average consumer. Thus, in an attempt to “do what’s right” we may wind up with a situation that is significantly worse for the animals and less productive for the farmer.

The recent ban on horse slaughter is another example of what I see as a disturbing trend of ignoring science and expert opinion in favor of an emotional response. Overlooking the facts that 90,000 to 100,000 unwanted horses are slaughtered for human food in the United States each year, that this bill offers no alternative for caring for those horses, and that in this country horses are considered private property, the US Congress is poised to pass legislation outlawing the business of processing horses for human consumption or even transporting your horse to Mexico or Canada to be processed.

By the time you read this, we will likely be in the throes of debate over the 2007 Farm Bill and appropriations. More than likely, our critics will be actively promoting legislation or amendments supporting their vision of how swine producers should be raising pigs and even how you should practice your profession. I’m sure all of us do not agree precisely on all the issues facing our profession and the swine industry. We are somewhere along that continuum.

I would, however, ask that you be aware of the forces that are working to reshape animal agriculture today and the declining influence that farmers and agricultural scientists have on those making decisions that will affect all of us in the future. To this end, I encourage you to be involved in this process and ensure that your opinion is heard. It’s now more important than ever. It is no longer a given that animal agriculture is in charge of its own destiny. Decision-makers who know nothing of what you and your producers do are being influenced by folks whose agenda is likely much different than yours. I encourage you to contact your state and federal elected officials and let them hear your opinions.


1. White EB, Williams G. Charlotte’s Web. New York, New York: HarperTrophy Publishers; 2006.

-- Harry Snelson