Norwood and Lusk, Compassion by the Pound

by Rural Reads

F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk: Compassion, by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare. Oxford University Press, 2011.


This book may be unique in that it presents (among other things) a detailed, non-biased portrait of factory farms. There’s plenty of literature out there on the subject, but it’s generally written either by overzealous animal activists or by industry insiders seeking to spin public perception. Norwood and Lusk seek only to inform. They certainly offer opinions, with which you may disagree, but they also offer facts, some of which are inconvenient to the stories I (and others) like to tell about factory farming. For example, antibiotics are generally not used in egg or dairy production, and milk or eggs from animals treated with antibiotics are generally diverted away from human consumption. Of course some of the facts do conform with our stories: caged hens have 48-67 in2 per bird, and hens in a barn system have 200 in2 per bird. My chickens, in their winter housing (where they admittedly have more space than they really need), have over 2,000 in2 per bird. Chickens raised for meat have .7 ft2 per bird, against 1.6 ft2 per bird in the Polyface/Salatin system.


The authors, being economists, also look at the cost of improving animal welfare and attempt to evaluate the extent to which consumers are willing to pay that cost. They even devised some pretty ingenious experiments in order to gather data on consumer preferences. Because ordinary people are for the most part are ignorant about livestock production – on average consumers believe only 37% of all eggs produced in the US come from a cage system (against 90% in reality) – the authors had to provide them with a lot of information before accurate data collection could occur.


Here are a few of my favorite passages, with some commentary:


“Another reason for defining free-range as an optional component of the cage-free egg farm has to do with costs. The free-range farm depicted in Figure 5.10 has dramatically higher costs of production. This farm allowed the authors to study their accounting data, and we determined that they lose a considerable sum of money in their egg enterprise. Unless they find a creative way to charge higher prices or lower their costs they stand no chance of making money. In fact they would probably have to charge more than $6.00 per dozen to break even on their egg production enterprise. Although the free-range farm in Figure 5.10 is interesting, the economics of the enterprise cause us to eliminate the system as a viable alternative…. A farm such as the one in Figure 5.10 is not studied, though perhaps in the future it may become a viable alternative.”


As always we should be hesitant to generalize from a limited sample set. In this case the farmer said that one year he lost 50 hens out of a flock of 250 to hawks. He also said that he never has to decide what to do with old hens, past their prime, because hawks always get them before that happens (!). I am curious what the authors would think about Forrest’s or Joel’s system. However I do tend to think that pastured eggs are under-priced, as compared with pastured meat.


“Pigs’ intelligence is illustrated nicely by the following, a common occurrence witnessed on hog farms. Some farms have automatic feeders which respond to computer chips placed in collars on each pig. When the pig approaches a feeding stall, the collar communicates with a computer whether the pig has been fed yet. If the pig has not eaten, the stall automatically drops feed. Pigs have come to understand that it is the collar that causes feed to drop, not the pigs themselves. If a collar is found on the floor, a pig will pick it up and take it into the stall to receive an additional feed allotment. This is not something that has happened as a one-off coincidence, but it is something that has been repeatedly observed, making the observer confident that the pig must be thinking, “If I pick up this collar and take it into the stall, I will get feed.”


(I love pigs.)


“Regardless of the extent to which food is labeled, the average consumer will always know little about how an animal is raised. If consumers cannot discern the level of animal care, the farmer has the incentive to set low welfare standards. There is little incentive to incur the expense of raising happy animals if the only information the consumer will have is a pretty picture and an appealing brand name–which all products have, by the way. Even if farmer Bill wants to set high standards for personal reasons, so long as other farmers are willing to raise animals under worse conditions the market will force Bill to mimic the others. In turn, consumers know they are uninformed, and the natural cynic within them will cause them to surmise that farm animals are raised in unappealing conditions. Farmers then expect consumer cynicism, providing them even less incentive to employ high welfare standards–and so on because the product label does little to convey information, the market provides little incentive to employ high welfare standards.”


A sad state of affairs! And hence our emphasis on direct-marketing and consumer interaction. A portion of the price premium paid at farmers’ markets is related to qualities evident in the product, e.g. freshness or taste. However another portion (perhaps especially for meat-vendors?), is related to qualities verified only through inspection of the farm or absolute trust in the farmer/vendor. If someone shows up with the same happy stories, but a product disconnected from those stories, we depend on consumer vigilance to prevent that person from driving his competitors out of business. At least that’s my take on it. I’d be curious what any of you might think about consumer vigilance vs. certification programs vs. self-policing as tools to ensure that consumers are buying what they think they’re buying.

Andrew Barnet, Open Book Farm.