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  • Thanks for your insightful and educational articles. Farmers and producers who make a career out of working with animals have a much better understanding ...

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  • The fact that the sows bite the crates shows they are in deep distress

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  • The problem starts with making an animal a commodity; it's worth is reduced to its' financial worth. The entire system of animal agriculture is based upon ...

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Most recent stories

  • Translating Food Technology: Why do farmers use pesticides?

    Why farmers use pesticides

    From news reports on the possible link between farm pesticides and the mysterious disappearance of bees to the continual publicity machine hyping Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen pesticide guide for shoppers, your customers are flooded with assumptions about the use--and potential risks--of pesticides in food production. If the issue of farm pesticide use is so pressing, why do farmers continue to do that?

    • First things first, understand the broad term "pesticides" encompasses a huge variety of products that farmers generally more typically call "crop-protection" and "pest-control" tools, from weed killers to bug killers to animal-parasite controls to fungus-control products; even rat poison is considered a pesticide. Those products range from relatively harmless compounds like natural soaps and mineral oils to potent chemical poisons. (Indeed, some natural pesticides are used even on organic crops and animals.)
    • With that said, why do farmers use them? In all fairness, what the critics say is true, to an extent: Pesticides are used because they're often the most economical method to control the disease organisms, weeds and insect pests that attack farm crops. Farmers spend billions, literally, on pesticides annually, and the direct dollar return on that investment has been estimated to be from $3 to $5 for every $1 spent. But, in equal fairness, it's not all about crass commercialism, either: It's been estimated that food crops must compete with 30,000 species of weeds, 3,000 species of worms and 10,000 species of plant-eating insects, not to mention countless diseases, according to Canada's crop chemical manufacturers' association. In many circumstances, modern pesticide choices are not only the safest way to control those pests--they are the only way. Before the "green revolution" of the mid 20th century, crop protection tools usually included heavily labor intensive mechanical removal of weeds, a few synthetic organic chemicals, and dangerous toxic inorganic materials, including lead and arsenic. Today's arsenal of an estimated 2 billion pounds of chemical pesticides used around the world annually are highly targeted and regulated products that have been heavily researched to attack specific pests with specific doses through a known biological mechanism, and their availability and use is heavily regulated on farms. Herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides reduce crop losses both before and after harvest, and increase crop yields.
    • Because they are the most economical means to protect crops, that economic benefit transfers directly to your food shoppers. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates between 20 percent and 40 percent of the world's potential crop production is already lost annually--even with the use of pesticides--because of  weeds, pests and diseases. Even after harvest, crop protection products used in stored products prolong the viable life of produce, prevent huge post-harvest losses from pests and diseases and protect food so it is safe to eat. Croplife Canada estimates these crop losses would double if existing pesticide uses were abandoned, significantly lowering food supplies and raising food prices. It's difficult to put an exact dollar figure on the importance of pesticides to making sure enough food is available at affordable prices, but together with fertilizers, improved hybrid seeds, and mechanization, pesticide technology helped increase U.S. farm productivity about 250 percent from the 1940s to 1996.
    • Pesticides also directly help improve both animal and human health by preventing disease outbreaks through the control of rodent, insect and parasite populations and by disinfecting premises like barns, food-handling and manufacturing facilities.

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  • Navigating the New Food Movement: Does moral food really taste better?

    Does moral food really taste better?

    A European study coming in the August issue of the journal Appetite poses a paradoxical question: Why do consumers rush to pay relatively high prices to buy organic, fair-trade and local food in the name of saving the environment, while they stubbornly refuse to substantially participate in other, often cheaper, forms of achieving the same goals, like recycling and charitable donations to overseas relief efforts?

    Apparently, morality alone doesn't explain the growth in spending on "moral food," the researchers write. So what does?

    The researchers combined a large-scale 2005 survey of more than 4,000 shoppers examining attitudes towards organic tomato sauce with follow-up in-depth interviews and taste-testing using university students. The resulting complicated models they developed show that labeling food as of "ethical origin" in fact makes it subjectively taste better. In addition, though, the researchers teased apart the experience of consumers who believe moral food should be purchased purely because it's morally produced from the experience of those who arrive at the same buying conclusion through a longer process that says moral food makes them feel more moral, which in turn makes them expect the food to taste better, which then leads to actually experience the food as better tasting. By that process, they showed the odds of buying such moral food inceases substantially for the latter.

    In fact, such pre-determined taste expectations may be the only criteria identified that can reliably motivate consumers to buy moral food, they showed. From the six variables they included as predictors of the subjective taste experience, only the expectations consumers carried into the experiement had a significant effect. In other words, consumers could only be reliably predicted to say ethical food tasted better when they expected it to taste better. Those expectations were consistently shaped by their expectations that eating the food would make them feel morally superior. "The only significant path through which the experimental condition influenced buying intentions was through moral satisfaction, taste expectations, and taste experience," they conclude.

    In addition, the studies demonstrated--as you might expect--that a consumer's preconceived values about ethical food affects their ability to be influenced to believe the food tastes better. Only the experiment's subjects who endorsed altruistic values in the survey derived moral satisfaction from consuming fair trade vs. conventional food, and only people who endorsed environmental values derived moral satisfaction from consuming locally produced vs. imported foods. As a result, only those who expressed those values experienced the affect on taste. The positive effect on taste is grounded in the individual's value system, the researchers write.

    What causes the effect? The European research team left that question for future research to answer. But they offered two plausible suggestions: One, the moral superiority ethical eaters experience creates a "halo effect" which makes the food taste better by association. Second, there could be an as-yet not understood neurological effect in which feeling morally superior actually activates the reward centers of the brain, creating a sense of well-being that influences taste.

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  • Foresight on Food Politics: What GMO labeling could really cost

    Why support for GMO labeling doesn't go away

    Announcements by Whole Foods that it would require all  suppliers to label any products containing genetically modified organisms by 2018,  similar though less-specific public relations campaigns by Chipotle and Kashi Foods, and last year's high-profile surrender by General Mills to activist demands to take any genetically modified ingredients out of its Cheerios cereal--all have continued to keep the heat on for some kind of legislative or regulatory demand to label foods containing GMOs.

    Some polls show as much as 90 percent support for such labeling in this country, and that kind of popularity has culminated in laws--passed but on hold--in Vermont, Maine and Connecticut, as well as the highly visible but narrowly defeated California ballot initiative Prop 37 last November and similar laws and ballot initiatives in more than 20 states. 

    All the noise continues to fan the flames but add few answers to the perpetual question: Would a labeling mandate help consumers really make more informed food choices, or would it simply cost the food chain more in return for little meaninful improvement?

    Count all the costs

    Labeling advocates argue the costs to add a GMO label pale in comparison to the normal marketing related labeling changes food companies go through routinely. That kind of oversimplification about the cost of label traits explains why the public sentiment for mandatory labeling is apparently high, says Kansas State ag economist Glenn Tonsor. When government requires labeling, Tonsor argues, consumers see it as costing them little or nothing. He  believes that's what lies behind studies showing 75 percent support for mandatory labeling of bST in milk, 64 percent for GMO feeds and 85 percent for growth promotants in beef production. It's easy to be for labeling when it's free. (And, it's notable to point out research shows that kind of popularity falls significantly when respondents find out costs accompany them.)

    Meanwhile, even at those relatively low direct costs, according to other research from the mid 2000s, any estimated benefit consumers gain from mandatory labeling of GMO food is less than the accompanying costs of enforcement and testing, reduced consumer choice for shoppers who prefer to buy lower-priced GMO foods, and loss of international trade. Additional work suggests mandatory labeling regulation likely doesn't even deliver on the all-important "consumer choice:" A mandatory label might lead companies to simply abandon GMO products, switch to non-GMO ingredients and drive up costs, and actually end up reducing choice for consumers who would prefer GMO foods--an argument strongly supported by actual experience in Europe.  When all is balanced, according to the research, the average consumer risks suffering more economically than he gains from mandatory labling policy. 

    Still, the great, hotly debated unknown cost is the question of whether forced labeling of GMO products would automatically stigmatize the food as suspicious, leading to large shifts in consumer demand.  Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk reports on a series of studies designed to try to test that question in a recent issue of the journal Food Policy. Does labeling simply appease already existing consumer concerns, he asks, or does it actually become "self-fulfilling prophecy," in which the labeling itself causes concern about the technology?

    Lusk's series of studies, one with fresh fruit and another with a processed food, put subjects through a series of choices with differing GMO labels, and then gauged their beliefs about the safety of GMO foods and their  willingness to pay a price premium to avoid GMOs. Although his results failed to show any significant so-called "signaling effect" caused by the GMO labels large enough to detect with his sample size, he nevertheless believes this work doesn't rule out the possibility a negative label effect could still exist. For one, he writes, a real mandatory law imposed by government likely carries a different level of seriousness in the consumer's mind than a simple lab survey conducted by a researcher. It's not possible for the sterile lab environment  to impersonate governmental authority and the media influence that would attend to it.  "It must be acknowledged that ‘real world’ effects are possibly more pronounced," Lusk believes.

    But his work uncovered two other reasons he believes GMO labels could still signal danger that would sway consumers.

    No. 1: His study found consumers were willing to pay significantly more to avoid foods labeled as "containing GMOs" than they were for foods that were voluntarily labeled as ‘‘does not contain GMOs.’’ He believes those differences imply a difference about the negativity the two labels signal relatively. The difference in wording could change consumers beliefs about the likelihood that an unlabeled product contains GMO or doesn't contain GMO, and their likelihood to trust its safety.

    No. 2: Another part of his study found consumers were nearly as averse as they were to GMO food as they were to a ‘‘decoy’’ attribute – using ethylene ripening. Atmospheric ethylene is commonly used to control how quickly fruit ripens in storage--the same effect you take advantage of when you put a banana in a paper bag to ripen it quicker. As far as Lusk knows, there's no real controversy over the safety of this natural plant hormone. Yet when asked whether produce ripened with ethylene should carry a required label, consumer willingness to pay to have that label equaled the willingness to pay for GMO labeling. That finding at least implies to Lusk that even an apparently innocuous label could cause danger signaling when put into practice.

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  • Competitive Commodity Insights: Milk and dairy supply outlook

    Dairy supply outlook

    So much milk is now available in this country that a 1,200-dairy New England marketing cooperative last month, for the first time in 50 years, started dumping milk, according to a report by Bloomberg Business News. Dairies in that region dumped 31 percent more milk over the first half of this year than they did during the same time in 2014, Bloomberg cites USDA data as showing. The co-op says the common alternative of shipping surplus milk to this part of the country isn't viable today because no plants have available capacity to process it.

    What’s going on with dairy supply?

    U.S. domestic output in May reached 18.4 billion pounds, the most in any month and up 1.7 percent from April, and it will likely rise to a record 208.7 billion pounds this year, according to USDA date. Meanwhile, worldwide milk production is also on the climb, increasing 2.1 percent to a record 582.52 million tons. Each U.S. cow averaged 1,911 pounds pounds of milk in April, 19 pounds above April 2014, even as the number of cows increased to 9.305 million head, or about 65,000 head more than April 2014 and about a thousand head more than March 2015. Only California, still crippled by drought, produced less milk compared to this time last year, down 2.1 percent.

    U.S. farmers have been in expansion mode since dairy futures reached record territory last September and expectations for low feed prices have increased. Based on April data, the total 2015 forecast for milk production has been raised by 0.1 billion pounds from last month’s projection, as the forecast for yield per cow has been increased by 10 pounds for the year. Even in the face of those supply increases that should pressure costs, though, both dairy product prices and milk prices continue to hold up better than expected. Based on recent price data and strong expected cheese demand, the 2015 forecast for the cheese price has been raised to $1.635 to $1.675 per pound. With recent price changes and abundant supplies, USDA predicts, price forecasts for butter, NDM, and dry whey have been lowered, respectively, to $1.8 to $1.870, $1.005 to $1.045, and 46.5 to 48.5 cents per pound, respectively. Prices have been supported by good butter and cheese sales thus far this year along with dairy product production and stock levels favorable to prices. Butter production has been below a year ago with April down 1.7 percent and year‐to‐date down 2.8 percent. Nevertheless, April butter stocks increased 25 percent over March and were 23 percent higher than April 2014.

    Looking ahead to next year, USDA says, the yield per cow forecast for 2016 has been raised from last month’s forecast by 30 pounds, raising the milk production forecast by 0.3 billion pounds to 213.9 billion pounds.

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  • Meet your Farmers: Henderson's farming senator

    A run-in with the U.S. Department of Agriculture more than three decades ago put then new-farmer Curt Friesen on a path that eventually found him in Nebraska's Legislature. Here, the Henderson farmer and former mayor talks about his family's farm operation and some of the challenges Nebraska farmers face.

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  • On the Lighter Side: A magical Independence Day moment, without a single firework

    The fourth of July fireworks show had just ended, says videographer Benhamin Ames, but his 4-year-old thought she kept hearing them outside. So they sang to keep her mind preoccupied. In the end--and over 12 million YouTube views later--this heartwarming video captures the real magic of family holidays, with or without fireworks.

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Translating Food Technology: Why Would Pig Farmers Insist on Using 'Gestation Crates?'

Why do pig farmers use gestation crates?The last 45 days have seen a line of announcements by food retailers and quick-service restaurant chains that they would soon begin to deman their pork suppliers phase out the use of "gestation crates," individual stalls in which pregnant and newly delivered sows are housed. Spurred by criticism from animal rights groups that the practice is cruel, Smithfield Foods, the country's largest pork farm, first announced in 2007 it would gradually abandon the practice over a 10-year period. Animal-rights groups have lobbied heavily against the practice, often successfully. Ballot initiatives banning sow stalls have passed in many states, and threat of action has led to voluntary agreements to cease their use in other states and Canada. Although Smithfield had earlier backed off on its promise because it was facing financial hardship, Smithfield President and CEO Larry Pope said the company’s hog operations had converted housing for 30 percent of its sow herd and was now back on track to meet the 2017 goal.

Since March, Wendy's, Burger King, Safeway, Sonic, Denny's, McDonalds, Cracker Barrel and Kroger have all released statements in conjunction with the Washington-based animal-rights group Humane Society of the United States announcing they plan to pressure pork suppliers to abandon the practice.

“Kroger believes that a gestation crate-free environment is more humane and that the pork industry should work toward gestation crate-free housing,” said that company in a press release co-authored in early June with HSUS.

“Kroger’s has taken a very important step for animal welfare in declaring that the pork industry must find an exit strategy for its use of gestation crates,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of  HSUS.

Faced with the continual barrage of negative media fanned by HSUS and other animal-rights advocates, grocers and their customers may rightly ask, if so many people believe the practice of crating pigs is inhumane, why do most farmers still use them?

1. It makes indoor housing practical. First, many critics are correct when they say sow stalls are a result of the indoor housing pig farmers evolved toward in the 1970s and 1980s. However, their criticism doesn’t necessarily mean indoor housing is a bad thing—most farmers moved their pigs indoors because they believed it benefited the animals, as well as the caretakers. Indoor housing made sense because it protected both animals and farmers from weather, predators, parasites, and also because it made animal performance both better and more predictable (Pigs left outdoors typically use about a quarter of the feed they eat just to keep warm in winter, for example.)

Once farmers moved pregnant sows indoors, though, they found the traditional group housing for pregnant sows that sufficed in mud barnyards didn’t work well indoors. So they turned to individual housing as the practical solution.

2. It protects individuals from the animal's natural aggression. Why didn't that group housing work for sows housed indoors? Like people who push and crowd to get on a bus where only a few seats are empty, yet will be relaxed and courteous when they know seats are available, sows will fight, wound, and even kill one another when they think their access to feed is at risk. When farmers move 350- to 550-pound bred sows--which are only normally fed a set amount of feed once daily to control their weight--into indoor group pens, sows begin to anticipate the feed delivery, understand there will only be a set amount to go around, and begin to fight for the lion’s share of it. As a result, weaker sows will be injured, as well as be starved of their allotted feed portion. At the same time, the "boss" sows will eat too much, making them overly fat, which will eventually harm their ability to give birth to and feed a healthy set of baby pigs.

By instead training sows to eat in individual stalls before putting them into groups, farmers are in effect training them that fighting doesn’t earn them any additional feed. Each individual is ensured the correct amount of feed and the ability to eat it in peace and safety.

3. It improves the farmer's ability to manage individual animals. It would be disingenuous not to recognize that individually confining animals does also improve the farmer’s ability to manage them, by making it easier and quicker to give them medications, check their condition, and perform other tasks. However, the additional expense of crating sows (it is more expensive to build individual crates than group-housing pens) likely couldn’t justify those management concerns; the predominant reason is to prevent group fighting. Stalling is a trade-off between full mobility and reassurance of feed.

It works, but is it right?

So the question becomes, is it right or wrong to force these trade-offs on an animal? The late Dr. Stan Curtis, who spent his career at University of Illinois studying questions of how animals think and the effect of modern envorinments on them, believed it was. Before his death last year, Curtis was vocally critical of today’s animal behaviorists who conclude that assessing an animal’s well-being based on the animal’s “feelings” was a valid method of assessing the cruelty of practices like gestation crates.

“As long as we can’t yet measure how a pig feels, let alone measure the depth of any such feeling—which everyone agrees we can’t do—we can only speculate, surmise, analogize and anthropomorphize,” Curtis said. In other words, according to Curtis, what humans feel when they see a sow in a crate speaks only to how that human would feel were that human confined in a crate. It says nothing about how the sow feels. Farming decisions can’t be based on those human feelings. “What we cannot do is know, set thresholds, define limits or draw lines. How then is it reasonable to expect producers to manage pigs on that basis?”

To Curtis and those who follow his thinking, the only accurate measure we have of whether the animal is suffering in a crate is what he called the “Performance Axiom:” The best single set of measurable—and manageable—indicators of an animal’s state of being will be how well it produces and reproduces compared to its predicted potential. “When bodily resources become limited because a pig is in a situation requiring extraordinary adaptation, productive processes will be the first to decrease. We can measure that. Reproductive functions will be next. We can measure that. Maintenance processes, which ensure survival, last. These observed reductions in measurable performance traits are the earliest, most sensitive indicators that a pig’s well-being has been disturbed—much more sensitive than behavioral patterns that may indirectly signify some emotional reaction,” he said.

And the research shows that although both group housing and individual crating have advantages and disadvantages, sows peform as well or better in crates than they do in stalls, as long as both systems are managed well. Paul Sundberg, a veterinarian and vice-president of science and research for the National Pork Board, summed it up well in a Washington Post article. “The key to sow welfare isn't whether they are kept in individual crates or group housing,” he said, “but whether the system used is well managed. "[S]cience tells us that [a sow] doesn't even seem to know that she can't turn ... She wants to eat and feel safe, and she can do that very well in individual stalls."

What do you think about the issue? Leave a comment and get some discussion started with your fellow grocers.

Comments   

 
-6 #19 Larry Elias 2015-01-23 16:37
Thanks for your insightful and educational articles. Farmers and producers who make a career out of working with animals have a much better understanding of the animals than those who think of animals as "morally significant individuals with rights."
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+1 #18 Jessica Howe 2015-01-21 00:00
The fact that the sows bite the crates shows they are in deep distress
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0 #17 Nancy Poznak 2015-01-13 18:10
The problem starts with making an animal a commodity; it's worth is reduced to its' financial worth. The entire system of animal agriculture is based upon making animals into commodities. The moment and animal becomes a commodity it loses its freedom and is ultimately put into harm's way. Methods of raising pigs which allow them some freedom of movement do exist, and can be cost-effective. However, atrocities are still committed against pigs (an all commercial animals): castration, tail docking, ear punctures - all with no pain relief. Piglets not performing well are brutally killed. How do you get a pig out of the gestation crate when sending to slaughter? Do you tickle her belly? Do you gently find ways to hoist her up because she cannot walk after being imprisoned for months, or years? For those who consider it "normal and acceptable' to kill animals for food, would YOU be able to slit the animal's throat, watch the blood and life leave their body, look into its eyes and still feel this process 'normal and acceptable'?
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0 #16 Jean 2015-01-08 18:09
my parents in law fed pigs in their village many years ago. It's not a big room, but definitely they can turn and walk for a few steps. Look at the environment now, to make more money, what did people do to pig, chickens,cows. A lot of people talked about food safety, but the root of all the the problem is human's moral standard dropped so quickly in this few decades, it's not only the problems of the farmer. That is the issue of the whole world I believe. eve rybody need to improve yourself from the inner, that the way to change the world.
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-2 #15 M. Graham 2014-12-25 13:28
Gestation crates are unbelievably inhumane. Imagine yourself living in a crate so small that you cannot even turn around, and being continually impregnated. Pigs are incredibly smart and sensitive animals. These are LIVING BEINGS we are talking about here. This is about nothing but profit. Period. Factory "farm" pig "farmers" can spin all the narratives they want to try to excuse this abomination against creation, but the bottom line is that this treatment of God's creatures is nothing but evil. And for those of you who support this abomination against innocent creatures, and believe in God, you're really kidding yourselves if you think you are not going to pay for this. If Americans had even the smallest bit of a conscience, they would simply boycott the entire industry. But we are a nation of people so bereft of any moral compass, and so sold to the god of profit, that we will lie ourselves into the inferno rather than face the truth of our own complicity in this inconceivable violence against living beings, whose cries in the vacuum of our collective deafness go unheard.
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-2 #14 Nancy S Poznak 2014-12-03 03:04
The intelligence of pigs is well-documented by scientists who study them. They are now known to be among the top four most intelligent nonhuman species. Read this article: http://modernfarmer.com/2014/03/pigheaded-smart-swine/ - not that you need to as you are most likely aware of how smart they are. I have seen many pictures and videos of sows in gestation crates. They obviously suffer. One does not have to be a veterinarian or farmer to see this. Only an idiot would deny the fact they suffer. The reason sows' aggression becomes a problem is because they have been placed into a completely unnatural environment. Pig farming must change and become far more kind to the pigs if it wants to stay in business.
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+1 #13 Lemony Crickets 2014-11-21 00:00
Ah yes, how can any of us fools know better than a farmer about how to raise his animals for breeding or slaughter. We should have no say whatsoever and farmers should be able to do whatever they want with their livestock. I notice that there are no pictures or videos of pigs in these crates. I have seen video of these things and my common sense tells me that they are inhumane. The pig cannot lay down or turn around, and it cannot tell you just how bad it is. This goes on for most of the gestation period. All you need to do is look at video of pigs in these things and unless you have no sense of decency it becomes clear just how awful it is.
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+3 #12 HS 2014-11-20 00:00
Don't the dividers just need to be larger to allow the pigs to move and stretch and turn? Or perhaps separate the pigs into small manageable groups of 3 or 8 or whatever. Regardless, jamming them in a small box is just horrible.
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+3 #11 BobC 2014-11-12 05:02
This is a very informative article with interesting comments. My reactions are: 1) Pigs, especially pregnant and nursing sows, are aggressive and potentially dangerous animals; dangerous to their handlers as well as to other pigs, including their piglets; 2) Pigs may be sentient but how much and in what ways is not known and has not been measured to date, so the assumption of sentience is largely faith not science; 3) Sows kept in crates meeting accepted standards show no objective adverse effects; confinment in gestation crates is primarily to protect the sow; benefits to farmers and consumers is secondary; 4) those advocating interdiction of gestation crate confinement need to present reproducible scientific data to support their position; I'm not aware of any such data, and emotional appeals won't do.
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+4 #10 Sabrina 2014-11-06 00:14
Every argument basically explains how crates benefit the farmers.... If pigs are better off on this confinement (which anyone with any sense, knows is untrue) then why can't these farmers simply allow the sows enough room to turn around?!? Carnivores and vegetarians alike believe this is a cruel and inhumane practice. I applaud everyone who sees the truth of the situation and is lending their voice to this issue!!!
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