Editor’s note: Dr. Bernard Rollin is the founder of veterinary ethics and is a world-renowned scholar in animal rights. He has testified before Congress and is a principal architect behind multiple animal welfare legislative initiatives. A frequent lecturer, he is also the author of numerous books, including the groundbreaking Animal Rights and Human Morality. His most recent book, Putting Descartes Before the Horse, is both a memoir and a wide-ranging discussion of ethical issues like the one he focuses on here in his first column for Vetstreet: Why has factory farming replaced common-sense animal husbandry?

Factory cows

During my youth, in the 1950s and ’60s, no one thought much about where food came from. And as late as the mid-1990s, the majority of Americans were content to believe that plant and animal foodstuffs came from stereotypical mixed small family farms of the sort depicted in Disney movies. Some people, in fact, aggressively disavowed any interest in the sources of food. My wife, for example, steadfastly ignored any relationship between foods of animal origin and the animals from which they came. (She regularly drew distinctions between cows and milk — the latter coming from supermarkets, while the former were animals.)

Over the past decade, things have changed dramatically. Thanks in part to feature films like Food Inc. and Behind Closed Doors, numerous television documentaries, legislative efforts directed by the humane movement against some of the worst practices of factory farming, undercover videos that have circulated to millions on the Internet and extensive press coverage, a large portion of the public now realizes that "Old MacDonald's Farm" has increasingly become "Old MacDonald's Factory."

Animal agriculture is roughly 10,000 years old. For all but 75 of those years, the key to agricultural success was good husbandry, which meant taking great pains to put one’s animals into the best possible environment one could find to meet their physical and psychological natures (which, following Aristotle, is something I call telos — the idea that “fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly”). The good farmer then augmented his animals’ abilities to survive and thrive by providing them with food during famine, protection from predation, water during drought, medical attention, help in birthing and so on. Traditional agriculture through the ages was roughly a fair contract between humans and animals, with both sides being better off in virtue of the relationship. Husbandry agriculture was about placing square pegs into square holes, round pegs into round holes, and creating as little friction as possible in doing so. A farm animal’s welfare was therefore assured by the strongest of influencers — a farmer’s self-interest — with the anti-cruelty ethic needed only when dealing with sadists and psychopaths.

The rise of confinement agriculture, based in applying industrial methods to animal production, broke this “ancient contract.” With technological “sanders” — hormones, vaccines, antibiotics, air handling systems, mechanization — we could force square pegs into round holes and place animals into environments where they suffered in ways irrelevant to productivity. If a 19th-century agriculturalist had tried to put 100,000 egg-laying hens in cages in a building, they all would have died of disease in a month; today, such systems dominate. Breeding sows are kept in "gestation crates," small cages in which these 600-pound animals cannot stand up or turn around. Veal calves are also severely confined alone in small crates and kept anemic and not exercised so their meat is tender. Laying hens are kept as many as seven or more to a small cage.

Not only has the turn toward industrial operations negatively affected animal welfare, it has also led to major problems of waste disposal; loss of rural communities based in small, extensive farms; dependence on antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals deleterious to human and animal health; environmental despoliation; loss of sustainability; and the complete inability to allow farm animals to live in accordance with what their natures dictate. In less than a century, the beautiful symbiosis exemplified in the ancient contract with farm animals fell victim to a greed-based quest for efficiency and productivity, with agriculture as a way of life increasingly supplanted by the quest for windfall profits.

Happily, ordinary people are blessed with common sense and common decency and a sense of fairness that extends to the animals we consume. The chance of people abandoning animal products is virtually nil. But the chance of people demanding a return to husbandry or its equivalent as they learn more about modern agriculture is virtually guaranteed. Twenty-five years ago, when I was involved in trying to get federal legal protections for the interests of animals used in research, because the research community was failing to control pain in those animals, I was touched by the groundswell of public opinion across party lines demanding legislation. We as a people will do no less to protect an appropriate life for the farm animals we grew up with as they peopled our bedtime stories and charmed us with their innocence.