Our Heroes: Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved

For some farmers, an interest in natural systems and animal welfare might lead to some “aha” moments, resulting in improved animal husbandry practices or even, as it did for Andrew Gunther, a major undertaking like the pioneering of the world’s first organic poultry hatchery. But for Andrew, the hatchery was a stepping stone toward work with an even broader impact – work that would help outline and promote the most humane practices in the business and help open up markets long since closed to farmers and ranchers who raise animals according to those principles.

As Program Director for Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Andrew leads a fascinating and vital program that centers around auditing and certifying family farms that raise their animals humanely, outdoors on pasture or range. Under Andrew’s leadership, the organization has experienced extraordinary growth, increasing the number of AWA-approved farms significantly, promoting farm viability for humane livestock farmers and growing market strength. (The AWA standards have been rated “most stringent” by the World Society for the Protection of Animals.) The program also works with restaurant groups and retailers to increase the availability of AWA meat, dairy and eggs in traditional retail settings. In addition, Andrew is a member of the American Association of Agricultural Scientists.

The first time we spoke, a few days before meeting in person at the 2011 Aspen Environment Forum, I was immediately struck by his level and breadth of knowledge, his eloquence, his thoughtfulness, and by how many irons he has in the fire (and how deftly he handles them).  If you've met Andrew, you know what I'm talking about. If this is your introduction to him, you'll see what I mean.

In today’s conversation, Andrew talks about the future of agriculture and animal welfare and what brings him hope. Listen to the entire interview by clicking the audio player on the left or download the full podcast episode. (A full pdf version of the transcript is also available here.)

Here are some excerpts from the interview.

When did you first become interested in the subject of animal welfare? Were there any specific instances that led to your awareness?

I think growing up as a country boy at heart and farming all of my life it was an easy transition to see that some of the things we were doing seemed normal, routine, but for some reason didn’t seem right. And then I got the opportunity to convert the farm into an alternative system, working on how I could make a smaller farm profitable, and I discovered organics. And in Europe the organic system is somewhat different than the American system, insomuch as it requires pastoral access; it requires genetics that are appropriate to health and welfare; and it has a lot more to do with connection to the soil. And as part of that process I started to understand that some of the reasons the guy walked up your drive to promote an antibiotic or to promote a hormone or to promote whatever it was he was selling, had less to do with improving what you were doing on your farm and more to do with making sure they earned a living. And I can’t say there was a light bulb that went off, I just more and more found myself seeing the interaction with the ground, the interaction with the planet being represented in the methodology of farming.

I think simply it’s a matter of evolution. The European system has had so many years to evolve in its pastoral systems, it’s used to smaller pastures, it’s used to having to maximize and even optimize its resources. I think in America we've been able to design systems that have used vast tracks of resources because when we started this process following the World War, our resources seemed endless, nobody could see the end of oil--or at least very few people could see the end of oil. Nobody could see that our rivers would become contaminated with arsenic, could become polluted with algae blooms, that some of our water systems could have birth control and anti-depressant drugs within them. So I think there’s a history in America of a brave new world, an almost indestructible world. And I think there is a realization, certainly amongst the colleagues that I'm working with who are fantastic people, that we may have run some of our resources into overdraft. We may be in a position where we can no longer find clean land and we have to look to going back to some of our land that, sadly, we've contaminated.

How can corporations better support pastured animal farmers?

You raise an interesting point and I'm about to use the devil’s name in two contexts. I'm quite outspoken against your Smithfields, your Tysons and your Cargills.   But all they've got to do is see this as a market, apply their expertise to it, and they could change what they are doing overnight. The challenge for them is their reliance on quarterly profits. Their reliance on systems that are broken and an accounting system that means they have to have 30 years use out of something. We need to engage with those organizations, we need to make them understand that what they are doing now is not sustainable, but not just on an environmental basis, not just on a social basis, not just on an animal welfare basis. It’s not sustainable financially. At some point you cannot outsource, resource, downgrade, upgrade, in-source: there is no room to do it. We are coming to a point where the planet is saturated with people.  And we can’t keep making our financial profit on a quarterly basis. These companies have to understand clean water is a definition of profit, clean air is a definition of profit, a healthy populace is a definition of profit, not how many billions of dollars they pay their executives on an annual basis.

Can sustainable agriculture feed the world?

Without a doubt. I mean, I think the challenge is, does the world recognize that it needs sustainable agriculture. What we're finding more and more is there will be a group of people who will listen to this and will either agree or disagree with my opinions, and that’s absolutely fantastic. But there will be 98 percent of the population probably aren’t aware of the size of the challenge. They are probably not aware that their drinking water is contaminated. They are not aware that the air they breathe is full of pollutants. And I think, I don’t think the world knows it needs sustainable agriculture. Because the moment the world knows it needs it, we can do it. We need to feed herbivores. We need to feed our cattle. We need to feed our sheep, and we need it to feed our goats on marginal land. What we shouldn’t be doing is growing grain to feed the chickens, which they then turn into protein less efficiently than I can. We've got some massive challenges on how we eat as a nation.