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Should livestock farmers need a degree?

Profound changes in society require a different response to reassuring the public about animal care

With growing public scrutiny of livestock production, the time has come to consider requiring livestock farmers to be professionals like lawyers, doctors and accountants, said a veteran animal welfare educator.

The training and certification a livestock production professional would require “would be the most powerful way to assure the public about animal care,” said David Fraser, a professor in the animal welfare program at the University of British Columbia.

Farming “is already a job and a way of life,” he told the recent conference of the Canadian Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council. “It could be transformed into a profession that people would trust more than one that is not regulated. Animal welfare is greatly affected by the care of farmers.”

His views are based on a 44-year career as an animal welfare researcher and lecturer. He has expounded on his idea in an article in Livestock Science Magazine.

He’s not suggesting the current crop of livestock producers is doing a poor job. Rather he thinks the profound changes in society require a different response to assuring the public that animals are properly cared for on farms. Just listen to all the rants about factory farms with the advent of larger and more specialized livestock operations.

However, it’s not hard to see how many people view this trend as the industrialization of agriculture, which they instinctively oppose.

Introducing a professional status would recognize the skills, knowledge and commitment needed to properly care for livestock, he said. It would be a long-term process. “Make it look like a profession providing service; animal production could become a specialized occupation.”

Consumers want to know that livestock production practices are both scientifically sound and humane, he said. “If producers are open and able to address these concerns, it would bring us much closer together.”

Fraser said farmers should look at policies that have been introduced in Europe to restrict confinement of farm animals and improve their living conditions. Is this approach preferable to moving to a professional livestock farmer?

If livestock producers were accredited professionals, they would be governed by ethical standards such as apply to doctors and others, he said. “That would really make it look like a profession. Competence would be demonstrated by adherence to ethical norms.”

Current animal welfare and food safety programs are checked by an outside agency, he notes. If livestock production was a profession, farmers would be verified by licensing bodies like the bar associations for lawyers and medical societies for doctors. “Participation in the licensing body would drive success.”

That way when concerns surface about animal welfare, the issue would go first to the livestock governing body to deal with, he noted. With the development of livestock care codes, Canadian farmers have shown they are addressing animal welfare issues.

Research shows that the knowledge and skill of the farmer has far more impact on the welfare of livestock than the size of the farm, he adds. “Quite different outcomes are found in the same type of environment.”

About the only thing Fraser couldn’t answer was what a certified livestock production professional would be called. He’s open to suggestions.

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