On October 1st, Dickinson College hosted Professor James McWilliams from Texas State University. Professor McWilliams critiqued conventional and alternative forms of livestock farming and offered his own solutions to the problems of animal welfare in contemporary agriculture. Below is a response written by one of the students in attendance, Keriann Pfleger ’17. Keriann is a Biology Major and student farmer, we hope you enjoy her commentary below…

By Keriann Pfleger

The most recent Clarke Forum in this years “Food” series was, “Bringing Animal Welfare to 21st Century Agriculture”. This was a talk led by James McWilliams, a professor of history at Texas State University. Being a student farmer and also an animal lover I was particularly excited for this talk. I had hoped it would discuss how to offer some of the best care possible for livestock but I was surprised at how different it was.

McWilliams began by discussing that he was, in fact, not vegan but constantly thinking and processing the morals, the deeper philosophical questions, behind meat. He mentioned that no matter how much we care for livestock we are still raising them for slaughter and how we give these animals some moral consideration but then kill them. At this point I felt I could relate to these statements, I recently became vegetarian and, though environmental reasons were a big part of my choice, these were things I considered. He touched briefly on the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, passing it off as old news. Then he began his seven narratives of animal agriculture.

At this point, I realized there really would not be a discussion of animal welfare techniques or management but I was open to hear what he had to say. His narratives were: slaughter, grass fed beef, DIY slaughter, pastured chicken and eggs, free range pigs, welfare labels, and welfare organizations. For each one he discussed the good and the bad, what it did well for animal welfare and what it could potentially do wrong. I thought this was an interesting way to look at these issues. I’m all for learning new, credible, information and using that to help myself make better choices. However, most of McWilliams’s research in support of his arguments was vague and superficial.

Many of his arguments involved the words “could” and “potentially” which seemed like a way to put something that isn’t really accurate on paper. He pulled a lot of statements from websites where people discussed caring for chickens on their farms or in their backyards.  The quotes he used to demonstrate that raising your own chicken doesn’t mean you are killing it humanely were from people who were slaughtering birds for the first time. At first this was very thought provoking because it was paired with graphic quotes about botched butchering. But in the question and answer session, a student brought up to him that many of the quotes he pulled were from people slaughtering for the first time and he agreed it’s possible that people could do better with education.

McWilliams also made comments about chickens being subject to predation, a big issue in poultry production. Here he argued that chickens on farms without outdoor access would hypothetically be safer. I thought that was a strange statement to make. He then suggested that humans would not be able improve, learn from failed attempts to raise birds. For example, they would keep letting foxes predate their livestock and not think to make an adjustment to the pen or raisers would keep botching their chicken slaughters and fail to learn from their mistakes. I don’t agree with his argument, it puts very little faith in human’s intelligence.

As he wrapped up his talk, McWilliams spoke about the future of meat. He suggested turning to meat alternatives like, bugs, oyster farms, lab meat, roadkill. I was not satisfied with his conclusionI did enjoy hearing the various sides of narratives I often see as one sided, but the information shown to me seemed fitting for a Facebook argument, not a college lecture. I felt unsure of how to share the information I took away from the evening and even unsure if I should. I was happy I attended this event;it did get me thinking and made me more interested in doing my own research to better understand the consequences that what I eat has on animals and the environment alike.