By Andrew Gunther
| July 30, 2010
My family and I are traveling through the American West, and I am awed by its wild majesty and beauty. During a stop at Yellowstone, we paused by a river to watch six bison cross. Soon, we were treated to one of the most astonishing sights I’ve ever seen—something I feel grateful that my sons were able to witness. Those six bison were soon followed by their herd mates, and we were able to see something not many Americans have experienced since bison were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century: the awe-inspiring power of a bison herd on the move.
Probably 200 bison forded that stream as they moved to new grazing lands, and witnessing it was an unparalleled experience. Despite their powerful size, bison are graceful creatures and move almost daintily, but with speed and purpose. And they really do thunder.
In 1800, it was estimated that more than 40 million bison roamed the United States; by 1900, after an unprecedented and sustained massacre, fewer than 600 bison remained. Most of the bison you see today are descendents of a ragtag group of several dozen bison who had been saved by conservationists dedicated to their survival.
Historically, bison were the lifeblood of a number of Native American tribes, providing meat, skins, and other important supplies. Indeed, bison meat has fed humans for thousands of years. Six years ago was the first time I saw bison being farmed for meat. The animals were being raised on 13,000 acres in Texas and were roaming their homelands in family groups, just as nature intended. They were carefully overseen by skilled stockmen who knew that the best management for these magnificent creatures was to ensure that they had the space and freedom to utilize the land to their own advantage.
By Andrew Gunther
| July 23, 2010
The manipulation of the Shirley Sherrod video for partisan gain was not just an egregious injustice to Shirley Sherrod, it was an egregious injustice to all of America’s black farmers, to elderly black farmers in particular, to Dr. John Boyd, Jr. and the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), and to the employees of the USDA and other governmental organizations who have worked to make amends for one of the most shameful periods in the history of American agriculture.
Injustice is injustice wherever and whenever it occurs. Righting an injustice can be a long and thorny process, as Dr. Boyd, President of the NBFA, can attest. He has fought for years to get justice for black farmers who were victims of widespread, decades-long discrimination by the USDA. Finally triumphant, in 1999 and again in 2008, he won settlements from the government that will provide legions of now mostly elderly black farmers, victims of the blatant racism formerly displayed by the USDA, with the money they are rightfully owed.
The Senate still won’t fund the 2008 settlement. The injustice continues. Animal Welfare Approved has long supported Dr. Boyd in his quest to see his fight brought to an end, especially since, as he often points out, the farmers for whom the settlement is intended are beginning to die. “I’m frustrated,” Boyd said Thursday in an NPR interview. “I’m frustrated that I’m still begging for votes in the Senate for something that should have been done years ago.”
Shire Gate Farm of Owensville, Missouri, owned by Tennessee Titan middle linebacker Will Witherspoon, has earned the Animal Welfare Approved seal. Animal Welfare Approved certification is an assurance to consumers that the cattle at Shire Gate Farm have been treated according to the highest welfare standards. Witherspoon raises 100% grassfed White Park cattle on his 500-acre farm.
Witherspoon, who played college ball at the University of Georgia, has been playing in the NFL since 2002, when he was drafted in the third round by the Carolina Panthers. In 2006, he signed with the St. Louis Rams, where he was named Team MVP in 2007. He played the 2009 season for the Philadelphia Eagles before being signed by the Tennessee Titans in March of 2010.
The quiet and somewhat solitary lifestyle of farming can seem at odds with Witherspoon’s day job of being a linebacker, a position where the job description is, basically, put yourself in the path of a really big and powerful player while he tries to run right through you. However, it’s the transition from the thunderous, bone-crushing ferocity of football to the lush green peace of Shire Gate Farm that Witherspoon values. Shire Gate Farm is not just a business—it’s also a getaway for Witherspoon, his wife Rebecca and daughters Layne, Maya and Shaye. “Shire Gate is a total escape for us. It’s a place where my daughters and I can work with the animals and the land. I use the companionship of the animals and the beauty of the land to refocus myself after the demands of playing football. Shire Gate is our retreat from the world.”
By Andrew Gunther
| July 19, 2010
At a hearing of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday, July 14, 2010, a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) finally caught up with the rest of the world—and his peers at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and admitted that the use of antibiotics in farm animal feed is contributing to the growing problem of deadly antibiotic resistance in America.
Dr. John Clifford, Deputy Administrator for Veterinary Services for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) read from his previously submitted testimony that the USDA believes it is likely that U.S. use of antibiotics in animal agriculture does lead to some cases of resistance in humans and the animals.
Why is this news? Because the USDA has been continually playing the Three Wise Monkeys game—it sees no evil, hears no evil, and speaks no evil—when it comes to deadly consequences to humans of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals. In fact, Dr. Clifford looked as he’d been given a choice between testifying or having his eye poked out with a stick and he lost the toss.
Others, though, readily stepped up to the plate. Despite the feeble nature of the recent FDA Guidance to Industry on farm animal antibiotics (read more about this in our blog), Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Principle Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, was clear in his testimony that the overall weight of evidence supports the conclusion that using antibiotics for production purposes in livestock farming (as growth promoters and to prevent rather than treat illness) is not in the interest of protecting and promoting public health.
Dr. Sharfstein also turned away a challenge from Representative John Shimkus (R-IL 19) about the soundness of the science upon which his findings rest. Mr. Shimkus, obviously unhappy with Dr. Sharfstein’s testimony, badgered him to come up with up a U.S. peer-reviewed study (which Dr. Sharfstein did—a 2003 Institute of Medicine study) and then questioned the veracity of the findings. Dr. Sharfstein assured Mr. Shimkus that the Institute has a peer-review process in place and reminded him that “the Institute is considered our nation’s leading scientific expert…”
By Andrew Gunther
| July 13, 2010
The American Humane Association’s (AHA) farm animal welfare certification program – American Humane Certified – announced in June that it will permit the use of so-called enriched battery cages for laying hens as an option for humane housing.
Humane? My first reaction on hearing this was, “Hey guys, you do realize this is still a cage, don’t you?” But let’s be evenhanded about this and look at the reasoning put forward by the American Humane Association.
The American Humane Association’s rationale for this decision is that these cages are “enriched” to allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors. In making this decision AHA states that it has carried out an extensive scientific review of the behavior and welfare of laying hens housed in such systems – mainly looking at research from Europe where conventional cages are soon to be totally banned.
Okay, so I might consider accepting that an “enriched” battery cage possibly offers better welfare opportunities than a standard battery cage. But AHA fails to recognize some key behavioral needs that hens are driven to perform. I am talking about providing the birds with space to run, stretch, flap their wings, and fly; litter and somewhere to dust bathe; and vegetated areas to peck at and forage in. AHA also significantly underestimates the ability of enriched cages to provide adequate nesting and perching. So what does the research really tell us about “enriched” battery cages? And are they really a humane option? I was pretty confident that a lot of research existed to say some of these behaviors are not wants but programmed driven behavioral needs.
Animal Welfare Approved is pleased to announce that it will offer a third year of Good Husbandry Grants. AWA is seeking proposals for projects to improve farm animal welfare with a concentration on three areas: increased outdoor access, improved genetics and improved slaughter facilities. “We have awarded funding for 65 projects in 25 states and are delighted to be able to continue these grants for 2011,” said Andrew Gunther, AWA Program Director. “The impact of these grants has been extraordinary—the finished projects prove that there is an inextricable link between high-welfare, pasture- and range-based husbandry and successful farms.” Current Animal Welfare Approved farmers and those who have applied to join the program are eligible for grants of up to $5,000.
Jeremy Vargo of AWA-certified Vargo Farms in Bullock, North Carolina, raises hogs and received a 2010 grant to improve his mobile housing system. “The huts have greatly benefited my hogs,” he explained, “by improving herd health and expanding our ability to rotate pastures while providing shelter from the elements. This grant program, like AWA, is a win-win for the whole farm.”
By Andrew Gunther
| July 8, 2010
On June 28, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a draft Guidance to Industry document for the use of antibiotics in farm animals. It’s the first time in over 30 years the FDA—the agency charged with regulating drugs in the U.S.—appears to be taking steps to limit the use of important antibiotics in food animal production.
Good news? Sadly, the draft guidance contains only two recommendations, both so weakly worded they would allow the agricultural industry to carry on just as it is has. Even more distressing, once the document is finalized, it only represents the FDA’s current thinking on the topic; it doesn’t carry any regulatory power whatsoever.
In what appears to be a saving grace, the guidance summarizes many reports dating back to 1968 showing the link between antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance. In fact the best part of 10 of the 19 pages is used to demonstrate this very point. In fact the FDA press release announcing the release of this guidance states “that the overall weight of evidence available to date supports the conclusion that using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production or growth enhancing purposes (i.e., non-therapeutic or sub-therapeutic uses) in food-producing animals is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health.”
However, the rest of the world has already acknowledged this link and has acted to reduce the very real risk of indiscriminate antibiotic use in the livestock industry. In the U.S. we have listened to Big Ag, allowed the powerful agricultural and pharmaceutical lobbies to have their way, and continued to put tons of antibiotics into farm animal feed and water. There are estimates that as much as 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used to promote growth in farm animals, not to treat animals that are sick or ailing.