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Animal welfare

Animal welfare, based on the "rights of animals", is becoming a major issue and even a point of contention in agriculture. Intensive livestock systems attract criticism for the harm they do to cattle, pigs and poultry and, while producers may plead necessity in order to meet demands for increased production and reduced cost, consumers are increasingly sensitised to the suffering caused to the animals concerned. Do animals suffer? Are animals sufficiently sentient to be said to suffer? An international conference in London in March heard academics, scientists, vets and animal rights activists from Europe, Canada, US, Egypt, India and China present their points of view, of which New Agriculturist offers a selection. The conference "From Darwin to Dawkins: The science and implications of animal sentience" was organised by the Compassion in World Farming Trust.

Defining animal sentience and welfare

We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties such as love, memory, attention and curiosity, imitation, reason etc. of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient or even sometimes in a well-developed condition in the lower animals... There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties... The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is one of degree and not of kind.
Charles Darwin, cited in conference literature.

We now have a number of well-tested ways of asking animals how they themselves see the world. They may not have a language as we know it but they can vote with their feet - and their beaks and their paws - and, as Darwin recognised, they can express their emotions in a variety of ways, particularly through their behaviour.
Dr Marian Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behaviour, University of Oxford.

Sentience is the capacity to subjectively experience feelings... Concern for an animal's welfare is concern for an animal's feelings.
Dr James Kirkwood, Chief Exec. & Scientific Director, Universities Federation for Animal Welfare & Humane Slaughter Assn.

There is increasing discussion of farm animal welfare in the USA, but relatively little improvement in the treatment of livestock compared to that of Europe. Producers often claim that the welfare of their animals is satisfactory. The National Pork Board, for example, says that 'because the welfare of their animals directly affects their livelihoods, pork producers work to ensure their animals are treated humanely. Anything less would be self-defeating.' Such claims generally disregard sentience.
Dr Mike Appleby, Humane Society of the United States.

Assessing impacts on farm animals

Emotional states, positive and negative, influence animals' motivation and therefore play an important role in the causation of behaviour. The scientific study of animal motivation provides a promising approach in understanding the requirements of farm animals.
Professor Edmond Pajor, Dept. of Animal Sciences, Purdue University, USA.

The behaviour of an animal was shaped to function in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. During domestication, modifications have been introduced in behavioural strategies, but domesticated animals still basically behave in a manner that was functional in that environment.
Professor Per Jensen, Linkoping University, Sweden.

Why should we allow for natural behaviour in farm animals? For three reasons: First, some behaviours, such as nest building in mother sows, dust bathing in hens or suckling in young calves, are behavioural needs. If the housing environment does not provide conditions for the natural run of these behaviours, the animals will perform them anyway, albeit in a distorted and sometimes damaging form. Second, some natural behaviours are not needs in the strict sense, but their performance substantially improves the quality of animals' lives. Third, allowing farm animals to behave naturally is often a more sustainable option to husbandry techniques based on costly equipment, high energy inputs, and/or labour-intensive management.
Dr Marek Spinka, Research Institute for Animal Production, Prague, Czech Republic.

Animal welfare and sustainable agriculture

The real challenge of sustainable development is about values: creating societies whose values we can admire and respect... An ethically decent society is simply not compatible with using other species merely as a resource.
Dr Kate Rawles, Environmental philosopher

With intense anthropogenic pressures on natural resources, we are faced with meeting the requirements of the large, rapidly growing human population whilst trying also to protect biodiversity and the welfare of sentient animals that we use or whose fates we dictate. Sound inferences and judgements about animals' feelings are required so that, where our interests conflict with theirs, we are equipped to balance these interests wisely and kindly, and to minimise risks to welfare.
Dr James Kirkwood, Chief Exec. & Scientific Director, Universities Federation for Animal Welfare & Humane Slaughter Assn.

Go into a supermarket, and it costs less to buy a litre of milk than a litre of fizzy bottled water. Considering the grinding hard work that farmers and cows put in to producing milk, it's obscene. We have been getting our food on the cheap.
Professor John Webster, University of Bristol.

Animal welfare is now an important public and political issue in Europe. The impact is being felt internationally, and the ultra-intensive livestock industry, which causes so much misery and suffering, is having to recognise that the public will no longer agree to buy animal products without being aware of the method of production. This revolution is even being experienced in countries such as the USA, Brazil and Australia.
Dr David Wilkins, Co-ordinator, International Coalition for Farm Animal Welfare.

Accepting responsibility for welfare

The consumer has to demand, not just desire, higher standards of animal welfare.
Professor John Webster, University of Bristol.

This is not just something for farmers. It's also a problem for the community as a whole. People in general are not aware of how animals are handled at abattoirs. I once suggested in Sweden that we put up webcams in the abattoirs so that anyone can look and see what's going on. Of course, this created an enormous, frantic response from the slaughter industry, which can't do it. But I think we must have systems of food production acceptable to the general public. If we can't install webcams, there must be something wrong with the system.
Professor Bo Algers, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

The consumer drives the food chain. The focus is on the suppliers, but they can't change faster than the public demands.
Dr Vandana Shiva, Founder & Director, Research Foundation of Science, Technology and Ecology, India.

I think farm animals are the 'canary', the litmus test, of the situation food policy finds itself in. Animals are caught in the contested space between state, supply chain and civil society.
Professor Tim Lang, City University, London, UK.

I think vets have got to live up to their Hippocratic oath. They have got to take more responsibility about welfare, and not just treat a problem, take their money and run.
Roland Bonney, Director, Food Animal Initiative.

International commercial breeders have been breeding animals unfit for purpose. We have the evidence clearly with the broiler chicken, and with the dairy cow with a [productive] life expectancy of two lactations. We do know with the dairy cow that farmers are finding it increasingly hard to hold the line against cows that are unfit for purpose. People have to demand different breeding standards that don't ensure maximum productivity for just one year but [animals that are] fit and in comfort for all of their working lives.
Professor John Webster, University of Bristol.

Cruelty towards farm animals is inexcusable. Animals don't provoke people to be cruel to them, so why do it? ...We must always be prepared to review how we treat animals in the light of present-day ethics. Things move on, things change, people have a better understanding of how to treat animals.
Robert Kynaston, Linking Environment and Farming demonstration farmer.

If farmers ignore ethics in animal welfare, eventually I think they will find that they have lost the plot because consumers will have moved ahead and will not want the cruelly produced products... They are already doing it with eggs, and I think they will extend that to meat.
Joyce de Silva, CEO, Compassion in World Farming Trust.

McDonald's cares about the humane treatment of animals. We recognise that our responsibility as a purchaser of food products includes working with our suppliers to ensure good animal-handling practices. Our animal welfare programme is an on-going process of study, consultation and innovative improvement.
Keith Kenny, McDonald's Restaurants, UK.

Date published: May 2005


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