Policy

You=11,500 Sheep

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sheep

Want to know what people really think about animal suffering? Check out this quirky new poll from the Farm Bureau, which finds that people are willing see a heck of a lot of cows in pain before they'll hurt a farmer.

The proposition was phrased thusly, in a telephone survey of 1,000 people:

If a new technology were created that could either eliminate the suffering of 1 human or the suffering of X farm animals, it should be used to eliminate the suffering of the 1 human.

Different respondents were asked the question with the number of farm animals randomly set at 1, 10, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000.

At an exchange rate of one human's suffering for one animal's, 86 percent chose the human. As the numbers grew, the percentage choosing the human tapered off. At 10,000 only 50 percent chose the human, with 34 percent rejecting the proposition (the remainder chose "don't know" or a similar response).

Extrapolating outwards, says assistant professor in the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics Bailey Norwood, "the suffering of one human was found to be equivalent to the suffering of 11,500 farm animals."

Interestingly, most people believe that their private purchasing decisions impacted animal welfare:

Consumers understand animal welfare is a result of their shopping decisions, in addition to farmer decisions. A majority of consumers believe their personal food choices have a large impact on the well-being of farm animals, and that if consumers desire higher animal welfare standards, food companies will provide it. Thus, when consumers choose to purchase traditional meat instead of more expensive meat raised under alternative production systems (e.g. organic meat or free-range meat), they understand that their purchase directly determines the level of animal care provided.

Norwood concludes that "if consumers are happy purchasing traditional meat, this signifies they approve of the animal care provided on traditional farms."

This may overstate the case for a variety of reasons, including the fact that most consumers--perhaps the urban consumers most likely to have choices from alternative production systems in particular--don't really know what happens on farms. And one must, of course, consider the source.

Still, these figures provide some food (cud?) for thought.