Nothing stirs the passions of anti-industry types like confinement production. Yes, other welfare issues take their turn whenever some undercover video can capture atypical activities. But the iconic image of a piglet with its snout pushing through the bars of a farrowing stall is the catalyst that makes CAFO a four-letter word in all activist rhetoric.

Both state and national industry groups have worked hard to counter the mythology and misinformation surrounding modern production methods, with uneven success. It’s difficult enough to educate a disconnected audience of consumers, much less explain the complexities of animal behavior and the science that underscores mortality and morbidity data.

In the last few years, however, the visibility of global hunger issues, the emergence of sustainability as a production driver and a newfound awareness of resource limitations have created something of a perfect storm that has created an urgency to the implementation of modern livestock production in the developing world—and sooner, not later, if we are to avert the potentially devastating occurrence of widespread food shortages and even famine.

The need to feed the world by ramping up agricultural productivity elsewhere is a cause that creates little vocal opposition among the activists responsible for demonizing production systems in North America. The same spokespeople who rail against American farmers and producers for their (alleged) cruelty to livestock raised in warm, comfortable housing have no problem demanding that the United States has a duty to help alleviate hunger around the world—a mission which requires, of course, deployment of the very same animal science and modern production methods used so successfully here for several generations and counting.

The strength of science
Not only that, but additional leverage is emerging in the form of recent studies from the developing world documenting the public health impact of confinement production. It seems that modern methods of raising pigs not only provides the increase in productivity so desperately needed but could also improve the public health parameters that are also critical to improving the social and nutritional status of populations in less developed countries.

A major scientific review in the current issue of Foodborne Pathogens and Disease titled, “Intensive Swine Production and Pork Safety,” by Prof. Peter R. Davies of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, demonstrates with compelling clarity that confinement production has made a dramatic and positive impact on public health. Virtually eliminated are such previously harmful pathogens as trichinella and toxoplamas. Equally important, the data show that modern production does not increase the risk for foodborne pathogens, such as salmonella, campylobacter and listeria.

As Davies elegantly notes in his article, “Platforms of opposition to intensive livestock production are diverse: Sociological (the impact on rural communities and anti-corporate sentiments); ethical (questioning the acceptability of animal housing conditions) and environmental (odor, pollution and carbon footprint); and sanitary (zoonotic and emerging disease and food safety). Inevitably, all parties [in the debate] lay claim to science, yet most discussions are ideological and heavily value-laden.”

He further notes that “misinformation in public discourse” has reached epidemic proportions with the rise in blogging and social networking. But for science to retain its influence in both public discourse and in the policymaking process, Davies argued that the scientific community must step up to the plate.

“Scientists must be visibly engaged in refuting misinformation, as well as presenting new information” that supports the public health progress that is a direct consequence of confinement production, he concluded.

To that imperative, I would add that farmers and producers, individually and collectively, can contribute to the momentum beginning to build for making agricultural productivity a front-burner issue around the world by using every opportunity to speak out on the public health benefits associated with livestock production as it has evolved today.

Scientific data won’t win the argument that raising animals indoors is inherently cruel. That’s an emotional hot button that can only be diffused through the long, slow process of education, awareness and positive media coverage of the benefits consumers enjoy thanks to modern agriculture.

But when the science that supports such production is questioned, everyone involved in pork production must respond. Facts are irrefutable; data doesn’t deceive.

Unfortunately, those facts and the relevant data need to be discussed and detailed endlessly before the public and the politicians eventually grasp their significance.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator