Is food a basic right?  Do animals and other organisms have rights? 

These and related questions are becoming important to farmers.  Farmers raising chickens in cages and keeping sows in farrowing crates may have to consider alternative production methods that require additional costs and work-related stress in localities and states where voter referendums are determining how farmers raise animals.    

This is the third in a series of articles about innovations in agriculture.  It’s not the lament of an animal rights activist. 

I raised beef cattle, chickens and turkeys for decades and enjoy meat, fish and eggs in my diet.  I try to be a respectful hunter and fisherman.  I like animals a lot and don’t kill animals or fish as trophies.

My family consumes the wild game we harvest because they are tasty and healthful; for example, they usually contain less “bad” cholesterol than grain-fed livestock.  I release fish that appear pregnant or are small; I don’t shoot at animals that don’t have a sporting chance of escape. 

That said, this article takes a serious look at animals that are raised for food, and how all organisms for that matter, are treated by humans.  Besides my own thinking, I drew on several agricultural ethicists, scientists, biologists and the writings of activists on all sides of animal rights issues.

About 3.2 percent of Americans are vegetarians and .5 percent are vegans.  Vegetarians don’t eat meat; vegans don’t eat or use any animal products if possible.

We know humans were hunter-gatherers for many thousands of years and developed as omnivores.  We benefit from the protein and other nutrients in meat and organisms with nervous systems.

Almost everyone knows there is a vocal minority of people and a few organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere that desire constraints on animal farming, hunting and fishing.  A few decry killing any organism with a nervous system, even insects; some request honoring plants and all forms of life. 

Our society can’t dismiss these proponents of life outright without considering their arguments.  They generally desire what they consider to be ethical treatment of all forms of life.  However, definitions of “what is ethical” vary.     

To respect all forms of life is laudable and difficult to argue against.  The martyred Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, contended that all forms of life have dignity and fill niches in the web of survival. 

Gandhi was not the first person to view all forms of life as having dignity.  Most Native Americans and the people of many other cultures around the world believe nature and its bounty cannot be owned, and instead are to be shared with gratitude to Mother Earth (God). 

To this day many Native American hunters, and a growing number of all hunters, take a few moments to thank God for the animals they harvest.  It’s a common ritual for agricultural producers everywhere to thank a Higher Power for flourishing crops, livestock and produce of all kinds, likely taking inspiration from observing crops spring forth and the birth and death of animals on a regular basis. 

Their observations exhibit the agrarian imperative that infuses the thinking, the DNA and the motivations of most agricultural producers.  It’s in our genes to farm and to survive, and perhaps even to want to thank a Higher Power that generates these opportunities.

Perhaps that’s why Thanksgiving Day has become a national holiday in many countries to express appreciation for food and life in general. 

All organisms have an urge to live.  Besides an urge to live, all species invariably struggle for success in the environments in which the competing organisms coexist. 

That doesn’t mean any organism has a greater right to live than others.  The world is a competitive place; sometimes we humans choose to combat and exterminate deadly viral, bacterial and parasitic diseases that deter our survival; moreover, we have chosen to develop genetically modified (GM) organisms that we think will enhance our survival.

Nonetheless, all forms of life deserve respectful consideration of their possible contributions.  All forms of life may find niches in the web of survival.

All forms of life seek to maximize their destiny within a framework of competition that alters their present and future capacity to endure.  That’s how life has developed.

The long-term status of humans on Earth is not known, especially as people and other forces may be altering our own survival.  Humans may be dominant for now, and there is a good likelihood our superiority will continue for a while, but other life forms could achieve dominance.

Diversity contributes to the ultimate survival of life.  This means we should try to salvage inadequately researched species from extinction, because they may hold answers not yet known for our own survival. 

Both GM and non-GM species deserve to live.  The rights of all organisms will continue to be hot topics for debate by ethicists and the general public.  Farmers should have input into the discussions.

Dr. Rosmann is a farmer/psychologist at Harlan, Iowa.  To reach him, please see: