Celebrate those who grow our food, and do it right

March 26, 2015

During every meal, Americans quietly celebrate the nation’s hardworking farmers and ranchers. However, last week’s commemoration of National Agriculture Day on March 18, is a good opportunity to reflect more in depth on our food—and give thanks.

Food production has changed greatly over the years. Farmers today produce 262 percent more food than in 1950, while using fewer inputs such as labor, seeds, and fertilizer. Farmers also provide an affordable bounty for Americans: While our grandparents spent almost 20 percent of their disposable income on food, today we spend less than 10 percent, according to the USDA.

At the same time, fewer people are directly involved in food production. Just 2 percent of Americans are farmers, down from 38 percent in 1900. Meanwhile, agriculture has changed dramatically from the days of horses to the days of horsepower. And we’re also confronted with people now curious to know more about how food is produced.

With tens of millions of homes owning cats, dogs, and other pets, it’s no surprise that humane treatment of animals, whether at home or on the farm, is a universal value. According to a recent poll we commissioned, 95 percent of Americans care about the humane treatment of farm animals. Consumers care about “humanely raised” more than labels such as “organic,” “natural,” and “antibiotic-free.”

With such concern, and lots of information and misinformation on the Internet, several organizations, including the American Humane Association, have started third-party humane certification programs to link consumers and farmers and build trust.

The programs can vary widely. Some are internal to a restaurant or supermarket. Others are general programs that certify producers across a variety of industries and methods. So which one(s) should a consumer support?

The balancing act is guaranteeing humane treatment of animals, choice for producers, and choice for consumers—all while not sacrificing affordability, which would make humanely raised food an elitist commodity available only to the wealthy and leave many animals without guaranteed protections. Our American Humane Certified program now ensures the welfare of more than 1 billion U.S. farm animals, far more than any other certification, under standards covering everything from adequate space to food and water, lighting, warmth, clean air and the ability for animals to be animals.

These probably seem like common-sense standards to anyone who owns an animal, but they have additional backing. These standards were created through an advisory council of 18 veterinarians and animal science experts, including the renowned Temple Grandin.

The resulting standards produce a wide variety of options for consumers at the supermarket. For instance, consumers can choose between eggs from enriched-cage, cage-free, free-range, or pasture-raised systems. The systems are different, but they all provide for animal welfare, giving the consumer choices commensurate with their wishes (and their grocery budget).

In 1930, one farmer could feed 10 people. Today’s farmer provides food to more than 150 people, a 15-fold increase. Along with production efficiency, significant advances have also been made in veterinary care and animal behavior science that allows for animals to be raised in healthier, less stressful environments.

As the industry flourished, government agencies became burdened with oversight and regulation for safe products and adherence to basic production standards. But the subsequent consumer unfamiliarity with farming and farm animals—they’re not the talking caricatures we see in movies—has helped fuel interest.

There are many ways to learn more. Ask a farmer. Visit a farm. And celebrate farmers this National Agriculture Day by looking for humane labeling and supporting farmers who not only provide plentiful and affordable food, but also who produce humane food.

Ganzert, Ph.D is president and CEO of the American Humane Association.