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Livestock producers keeping close eye on welfare vote

Livestock producers – especially those who raise cattle – are watching closely as a potential timebomb ticks away in the western U.S. And so should we as consumers.

In Colorado, animal activists are a breath away from getting the state’s citizens to vote on a ballot initiative that could change the face of animal production there and likely pave the way for similar efforts across North America and beyond.

The ballot initiative is being driven by a group called Protect Animals from Unnecessary Suffering and Exploitation (PAUSE). If passed into law, it would see the state set a minimum slaughter age for livestock and make artificial insemination illegal.

Their thinking is that livestock should be allowed to live a portion of what activists say is their natural lives. The portion they think is fair is one-quarter of the time they’d walk the Earth if left to their own devices.

For a cow, they say that’s 20 years, 15 years for a pig and eight years for a chicken. So, according to the bill, cows would be five, pigs three and a half and chickens two before they reached the end of their road.

Activists rarely accept any livestock slaughter as acceptable, but that’s the mastery of this proposal. On the surface it looks like they are caring individuals who have laid down their placards and are prepared to compromise.

The reality though, and they know it, is that their bill would turn the livestock sector on its ear, or worse, and cause an upheaval that’s nearly impossible to recover from.

Let’s start with artificial insemination. It’s being opposed by activists because it denies livestock natural sex and because it and other reproductive measures such as checking for pregnancy involves humans penetrating female genitals, which activists say is tantamount to having sex with an animal.

However, artificial insemination has been an established part of livestock production for decades. In almost every way imaginable, it’s a safe, economical, efficient and effective way to introduce favourable traits (better disease protection and better milk production, among them) from one animal to another, without having to bring them together – from across the street or from the other side of the world.

And then there’s the idea of holding off slaughter until the animal has lived a quarter of its life. Fine, but everyone, be prepared to pay proportionately higher prices for meat if farmers have to feed and house their livestock for that long. Depending on the species, that’s at the very least two or three times longer than farmers keep their animals now.

Are consumers willing to pay that much more for meat? And will they be happy with meat that old?

Not likely. And again, these activists know it. The Colorado initiative would lead to the kind of legislation that would paralyze animal agriculture in the U.S.

If countries like Canada and other major livestock producing nations allow conventional practices to remain, it would be a boon to producers there, selling into the U.S. market. But it’s more likely to set a huge precedent everywhere, certainly throughout North America.

This is yet another example of activism having moved from the streets and into the courts. In Ontario, activists are legally challenging the so-called “ag gag” law that prevents them from entering farms where they believe animal cruelty is taking place and witnessing farmers’ activities inside the farm for themselves. Imagine if the law is thrown out and people can simply barge into a farmer’s production facility. They say it’s their right, to protect animals. Others envision anarchy.

It boils down to three issues. First, how much are we willing to pay for food? Second, do we want meat in our diets? And finally, are we willing to have laws enacted that are catalyzed by self-interest groups? I suppose the latter happens a lot.

But with the cost of food being a huge consumer concern, making production more expensive needs dialogue first, then laws if desirable or necessary. We’re not there yet.

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