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Why Big Farming won’t buy Nicholas Kristof’s ‘happy cows’ | Victoria Bekiempis

Category : Business

Anthropomorphising cattle won’t improve farm animal welfare: agribusiness needs a business reason to reform

This week, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D Kristof told a truly heartwarming tale about his high-school friend Bob Bansen, a “third generation dairyman”, who earns “a good living running a farm that is efficient but also has soul.”

In the piece, “Where Cows Are Happy and Food is Healthy“, Kristof especially relishes in the rarity of writing an uplifting food column. Indeed, he initially laments that the subject “can be depressing. If it’s tasty, it’s carcinogenic. If it’s cheap, animals were tortured.”

With Bansen, however, Kristof sees the potential for family farms to prompt positive environmental and ethical reforms in American agriculture. That’s because Bansen, who has opted not to use antibiotics or lock his cows in a barn, claims that:

“For productivity, it’s important to have happy cows … if a cow is at her maximum health and her maximum contentedness, she’s profitable. I don’t even really manage my farm so much from a fiscal standpoint as from a cow standpoint, because I know that, if I take care of those cows, the bottom line will take care of itself.”

For Kristof, smaller, indie operations such as Bansen’s – where these gleeful, freely roaming livestock even have names – prove that

“[F]ood need not come at the cost of animal or human health and welfare. We need not wince when we contemplate where our food comes from.”

Of course, all of this sounds great: who wouldn’t support profitable and sustainable food production that also safeguards cute farm animals from harm (and the very justified warm-fuzzies that go along with that)?

However true Kristof’s thesis might be – and I do agree with his point wholeheartedly – the way he executes his argument is more suited for a feelgood vegetarian camping trip than the kind of logical analysis that should influence business practices and public policy. In fact, it should be irrelevant whether we think cows are “happy” when we talk about green farming, because anthropomorphizing animal emotion is both beside the point and possibly even a setback to the cause.

The reasons are pretty simple, and rooted in rhetorical best practice. Obviously, if there’s a strong likelihood that the audience of an argument already backs said argument’s thesis, you don’t need to do all that much convincing. So, in this context, blatant appeals to emotion – which the author seems to recognize he’s doing – probably won’t prompt outcry. Sustainable farming and animal welfare sympathizers probably aren’t going to roll their eyes at excessive sentimentality.

But these aren’t the people whom Kristof and like-minded thinkers need to convince. Agribusiness perpetuates dirty, mean, exploitative and environmentally deleterious practices because executives’ definition of the “best” way to farm is driven by competitive pressures and the bottom line (read: most profitable). They are in business to make money and, driven by the logic of capitalism, will likely act “heartlessly” or, at best, faux-conscientiously so long as it produces a profit. That’s both the ugliness and beauty of this situation: businesses really do not care about non-monetized forms of value – such as the intrinsic value of pastoralism or the pride people take in owning their own business or in how they perceive their animals “feel” about it. And businesses have little incentive to do anything that interferes with the key objective of making a profit.

So, when it comes to advocating in favor of earth and animal-friendly farming practices, the most effective way of doing so would be to play up their benefit to the bottom line, for which there is evidence. It’s similar to how debate over organic food’s benefits misses the point – a lot of people eat organic for political, ecological and moral reasons, not health reasons. Heartstring-tugging neglects a key component of farming controversy: many, if not most, of the influential stakeholders in this industry are motivated by money, not emotion.

Some will surely counter this by saying that talk of happy cows is fact-based, and that evidence supporting animal cognition and emotion – hence our moral obligation to them – is plentiful. Even for an animal lover such as myself, such claims still remain philosophical hard sells. If you really want to change the way the industry does business, and its approach to animal welfare, you’re better-off with economics, not ethics.

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