The President and CEO of the nation’s largest, wealthiest and arguably most influential animal activist organization loves to talk about how changing attitudes about animal welfare — for which he takes a big share of the credit — is leveraging a significant evolution in everything from how medical research is conducted to how we relate to the millions of pets with who we share our house holds to the choices we make in our daily diets.

The basis of Wayne Pacelle’s vision for the future is explored in his latest book, “The Humane Economy,” an optimistic projection of a future society that looks much different in terms of personal lifestyles, political priorities and even the structure of laws and regulations governing animal agriculture.

Many people who earn their living actually raising crops and livestock and producing the incredible variety of food products we Americans take for granted would strongly disagree with Pacelle’s version of the how the future will unfold.

But let’s allow the man to speak for himself, in the conclusion of a one-on-one interview with Drovers Commentator Dan Murphy.

Q. In your new book, you reference a “capitalist solution” to reforming poultry housing and production systems, among other areas. But with the [2008 passage of] Prop 2 in California, a referendum HSUS supported, the result has been what its critics claimed it would happen: A large share of egg production has been moved elsewhere to lower-cost areas. Other initiatives pushed by activists, such as tougher food-safety regulations, resulted in the disappearance of thousands of small-scale, family-run businesses. How is that a good thing?

Pacelle: It’s true that the industry has consolidated. Since I started as CEO of HSUS, the number of hog famers has decreased from about 700,000 to less than 70,000. The numbers of people in the egg industry has decreased by 90%, and the dairy industry by 88%.

But that isn’t just because of regulations. In fact, we have worked hard to reach an agreement with the United Egg Producers to phase in colony cages, and UEP received a lot of criticism from its own members. Yet we didn’t have a damn thing to do with “forcing” the issue. That was an agreement that made sense to the industry.

And in state after state, beginning in Florida in 2006, the voters have passed a referendum that phased out gestation crates and battery cages. That was what the public supported. And many of the biggest corporations in the food industry, including McDonald’s, have embraced [policies] requiring their egg suppliers to implement cage-free production. So it isn’t fair to put the decline in the numbers of producers in [livestock sectors] at the doorstep of HSUS.

Q. But to be fair, for all the support for organic and natural food production, when it comes to animal foods, without access to packing plants, small-scale producers have nothing to sell.

Pacelle: It’s true that conditions in agriculture have changed, with issues such as animal welfare, manure management and the use of antibiotics, the business is more challenging. Farmers these days need to be more adept than ever; they need business skills to survive. Many people think that the policy solutions to which your referred are responsible for driving changes in the industry. But it’s more about the way that society is evolving that is responsible for the way [agriculture] is conducted.

Q. Okay, let’s talk about an issue that animates the activist community: violence. In your book’s chapter on the threats to wildlife, you stated that, “Violence in Nature is part of the cycle of life.” Since that’s acceptable and “natural,” isn’t humane slaughter the way it is now practiced actually a lot less violent than what goes on every day with lions killing antelope, or an orca eating a seal? If livestock housing and management were handled acceptably, isn’t the process of raising domesticated food animals more humane than what wildlife experience?

Pacelle: It’s true that for 99% of human history, killing wild animals was how humans obtained their food. That’s why tribal societies had a ceiling on their populations. The domestication of plants and animals, the development of agriculture, allowed for the rise of civilization. That’s true.

However, we are constantly learning more and more about animal cognition, about their emotional lives, about their intelligence. The reality is that a lions don’t make a moral choice; they only know how to be a lion, and do what lions do to survive. But as humans, we have the ability to make choices. We have the intelligence to decide: Do we want to the cruel, or do we want to be merciful?

Q. All right, let me be specific: If humane slaughter, the way it is conducted in modern packing plants, could be made as painless as human surgery, would you agree that it would be acceptable to activists such as yourself?

Pacelle: Well, I agree that we need to have standards, such as your suggestion. But right now, there is no legal standard for [humane slaughter], so I always ask: What about the outliers? What about the people who don’t conform to the standards? That’s why we need standards; that’s why we push for regulations.

Q. In pushing for those regulations, can you characterize what HSUS does as different from radicals such as PETA? Is reform really your agenda?

Pacelle: PETA has taken the position that animals are not ours to eat or use. Those are not our views. In fact, one of things I’ve done as CEO is to create Agriculture Councils, which include a number of working farmers and ranchers, to advise us on policy issues. Look, [HSUS] gets plenty of criticism from animal agriculture but when I’ve gone around promoting my book, I get criticism from people in the animal protection community, who argue that there is no such thing as “humane meat,” that you simply cannot support the meat industry. But that’s not what I believe.

Look, we are living in an information age. We are all subject to intense scrutiny for everything we do. The technology allows us to follow what businesses are doing, and as a result, many more are more are being responsible.

It’s not about [more] regulations, it’s about focusing on continuous improvement in all areas of animal protection.

Q. Toward the end of your book, you quote Steven Pinker, the author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” who argues that conditions in society have improved dramatically, with one notable exception: factory farming. I could come up a lengthy list of “issues” that are far more problematic than agriculture, but let me ask you this: After all the problems you detail in your book, are you really optimistic about the future?

Pacelle: Yes, I do subscribe to Pinker’s analysis, because it’s data-driven. We need to look at the metrics. With the use of animals in agriculture, in entertainment, with animal testing, reforms have changed dramatically how we look at and manage those industries. I do believe that society is becoming more humane. We are far different from where we were just 20 years ago on all of those issues.

In the end, we do need government to set standards, but we also need other committed leaders, we need philosophers and others to lead the way.

Ultimately, I believe in a fundamental goodness in all of us, and I believe that the way we treat all animals cannot be excluded from the moral calculations that need to be made. The way that that we feed and clothe ourselves can be done without exploiting animals.

I truly respect the hard-working people in food production. I’ve had a chance to meet many of them; I appreciate what they do, and I try to show that respect in what I do in my role at HSUS. □

Wayne Pacelle’s new book, “The Humane Economy,” is available online and at bookstores nationally.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.