US livestock agriculture has developed and intensified according to a strict productionist model that emphasizes industrial efficiency. Sustainability problems associated with this model have become increasingly evident and more contested. Traditional approaches to promoting sustainable agriculture have emphasized education and outreach to encourage on-farm adoption of alternative production systems. Such efforts build on an underlying assumption that farmers are empowered to make decisions regarding the organization and management of their operations. However, as vertical coordination in agriculture continues, especially in the animal agriculture sectors, this assumption becomes less valid. This paper examines how the changing industrial structure in four US livestock sectors (poultry, hogs, beef, and dairy) affects possibilities in each for promoting more sustainable production practices. Comparisons between the sectors are based on the relative ability to employ an intensive pasture or alternative (deep-bedded) housing system, which are widely seen as sustainable livestock alternatives. While the highly integrated poultry sector appears impregnable to traditional sustainable agriculture approaches, the cow-calf sub-sector of the beef industry, non-feedlot dairy operations, and small parts of the hog industry, especially in the Midwest, still retain some potential for effectively targeting the farmer. Building on the presentation of barriers and opportunities in the four livestock sectors, the paper concludes by evaluating several structurally-oriented approaches to promoting a more sustainable livestock agriculture that should complement more traditional approaches. They include developing alternative coordinated networks in livestock agriculture, pressing integrators to permit more sustainable production practices, and working for legislation that shifts more decision-making within integrated systems towards growers.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Agronomy and Crop Science