Farm animals are animals that are kept for agricultural purposes. This includes such domesticated animals as cows and chickens, and wild animals that are raised in confinement, including mink and fish. Animals are farmed for a variety of reasons. Most are raised to be killed. Meat from cattle, hogs, and chickens provides the bulk of protein in the American diet, while animals with beautiful fur are killed for their pelts. However, some farm animals are more useful and profitable alive. These animals produce something of value to humans, such as milk, eggs, wool, or honey, or are farmed for their skills, like horses, mules, and burros. Whatever the reason, the cultivation of farm animals is an enormous business.
Table 4.1 lists the top twenty-five moneymaking agricultural products in the United States during 2003. Seven are animals or animal products. In fact, farm animals and their byproducts accounted for about half (49.8%) of all agricultural income in the United States.
The number of animals involved is staggering. As of 2004, U.S. farms included:
- 8.8 billion chickens
- 264 million turkeys
- 103.6 million cattle
- 60.5 million hogs
- 7.65 million sheep
- 3.0 million mink, rabbits, etc.
- 2.5 million goats
In addition, there were millions of horses, quail, ducks, pheasants, fish, and honeybees and several hundred thousand geese, mules, burros, donkeys, and other farmed animals.
In 2004 more farm animals were living in the United States than there were humans on earth. The use and well-being of these animals is of major importance to people concerned with animal rights and welfare. Most animal rights activists abhor the idea that animals are commodities at all. Many believe that animals should not be used for any purpose, especially to feed humans. Welfarists focus their attention on the treatment of farmed animals—how they are housed, fed, transported, and slaughtered.
People in the American livestock business argue that farm animals are well treated. They point to the high productivity of the industry as proof. In other words, farm animals must be thriving because there are so many of them. The American Meat Institute (AMI) is a trade organization that represents the meat and poultry industry. On its Web site in 2005, the AMI summed up its viewpoint: "Healthy animals whose welfare is carefully respected result in safe, wholesome, high quality meat and poultry products." In January 2001 the AMI published a brochure entitled "Animal Welfare in the Meat Industry: A Commitment to Consumers and Livestock," in which it noted that livestock farmers practice humane animal care because it is ethical and results in calmer animals. In turn, calmer animals help make farms and meat plants safer working environments, resulting in higher quality meat. The link between humane animal treatment and high production of good-quality products is commonly cited by the livestock industry.
Critics argue that high productivity is an indicator of the efficiency of the overall system, not the welfare of individual animals. They have a long list of complaints about how farm animals are raised and slaughtered in the United States.
Farming animals is a very old and respected business. It feeds people and supplies products they want. Forcing farmers to radically change the way they treat animals might jeopardize the relatively cheap and plentiful supply of animal products that Americans enjoy. Would society
Top 25 agricultural commodities, 2003
SOURCE: Adapted from "United States: Leading Commodities for Cash Receipts, 2003," in United States: Leading Commodities for Cash Receipts, 2003, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, August 5, 2004 http://www.ers.usda.gov/StateFacts/TopAgCommodities/TOP25US.txt%20(accessed February 5, 2005)
||Value of receipts
||Percent of total receipts
||Livestock and products
||Cattle and calves
||Cane for sugar
tolerate this just for the sake of the animals? This is the ultimate question at the center of the farm animal debate. However, animal rights supporters, welfarists, and environmentalists point to evidence that the use of farm animals as a food source is an inefficient and in some ways harmful practice and argue that alternatives to the most common modern farming techniques would provide for a more sustainable and humane agricultural system.