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Realities of animal welfare getting lost in personalities and emotion

Mick Keogh - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The four-page feature piece on Animals Australia CEO Lyn White in the Good Weekend supplement of the Fairfax weekend newspapers highlighted one of the major problems with debates on animal welfare in Australia. The focus on personalities and emotions diverts attention from objective information about real changes that are being made, and creates the risk that policy changes will be made that actually reduce animal welfare standards, especially for farm animals.

Lyn White is obviously a highly dedicated and driven person. She has a very specific focus on improving the welfare of animals, and especially factory-farmed animals, according to Nikki Barrowclough, the journalist who wrote the feature story on Lyn that appeared in the weekend newspapers. 

Animals Australia, the organisation of which Lyn White is CEO, reported an annual operating budget of approximately $2.1 million in 2012, of which 91% was donations from supporters. Of total funds expended in that same year, 87% was spent on campaigns and investigations. The prominent billboards and advertising on public transport in major cities are evidence of this focus on campaigns, as are the "Make it possible" television commercials featuring various farm animals. In most cases, the advertising and campaign material is designed to trigger an emotional response from the audience, and leaves the audience with the belief that supporting Animals Australia or making a donation to the organisation will help to relieve the suffering of the animals and enable them to live out their lives in a tranquil and idyllic manner. "Factory farming" is a particular focus of Animals Australia campaigns, and the organisation's website makes it clear that its objective is to end factory farming in Australia.

There are obviously a number of major contradictions that quickly emerge from any detailed consideration of this objective, which in the end lead to the conclusion that based on objective measures, this would actually worsen rather than improve the welfare standards associated with the animal products that are consumed by Australians. The experience of those involved in the Australian pork industry is a case in point. 

The immediate consequence of imposing additional restrictions on the use of sow stalls and farrowing crates in Australian pork production is an increase in the importation of pigmeat from overseas, much of it from nations that do not impose the same restrictions on their pig industries. The Australian pork industry has attempted to respond to this by branding and promoting Australian pork products, although it is very evident from studies both in Australia and overseas that consumers have only a limited propensity to purchase higher-priced pork products on the basis of its providence. With the Australian/US dollar exchange rate currently lower than it has been for a number of years the pressure from imports is less, but will ramp up again as exchange rates change. 

From a global perspective, the net result in terms of the stated animal welfare outcomes sought by Animals Australia could well be worse rather than better, although of course the 'problem' would be less evident in Australia and Animal Australia may claim that as a 'win'.

There are, however, other animal welfare implications for the pig industry arising from restrictions on sow stall and farrowing crates, and the pressure to move pig production to free-rage like conditions. Piglet mortality rates are higher in virtually all the alternative production systems, and can be considerably higher in free-range conditions - especially during wet and cold weather when a sudden cold snap can result in up to fifty percent piglet mortality, and also the onset of diseases. There is also an increasing body of clinical research that indicates that, based on objective indicators of animal stress, some of the less intensive pig production systems actually result in more stress being experienced by the animals than is the case in more intensive production systems. 

A similar situation applies in the case of beef and dairy cattle production. While the concept of free-range production is aesthetically pleasing to consumers, the reality is that intensive feeding systems (cattle feedlots and feed-based dairy systems) can frequently result in what are objectively better animal welfare outcomes (assessed by animal stress indicators) than free-range conditions. The very obvious case in point is the current drought affecting much of the beef production areas of western Queensland. The existence of beef feedlots has meant that rather than having no alternative other than to let livestock die due to lack of feed and water, cattle producers have been able to move those animals to feedlots to fatten for sale.

The simplistic and emotion-laden images and messages conveyed by Animal Australia in its campaigns (and by the media in reporting these issues without attempting to address some of the complexities) provides its supporters with an emotional sugar-hit by conveying the image that by supporting the organisation they are freeing pigs and hens from their cramped cages and allowing them to run free. Few of those supporters are likely to understand that they are effectively making value judgments about the value of the apparent welfare of a sow compared to the welfare of her piglets, or the apparent preference of an animal for confinement with freedom from disease, climate, hunger and predator stress, versus free-range conditions where some or all of these stresses may frequently be experienced. 

There is an additional question that few Animals Australia supporters probably bother to ponder, and that relates to the claim that by supporting Animals Australia, people are actually improving the welfare of farmed animals. As is evident from the financial statements that are published by the organisation, Animals Australia does not contribute to research and development activities aimed at investigating or improving farm animal welfare. What is also evident from the Animals Australia website is that the organisation does not acknowledge the substantial improvements that have been, and that continue to be made in farm animal welfare outcomes, as a consequence of investments that are being made by the livestock industries. 

A very simple example that highlights this issue is the improvements that have been made to the survival rates of live exports. As a consequence of substantial research efforts and changes that have been made by the industry, mortality rate of animals on board export ships are arguably lower than those occurring on farms, and the improved welfare outcomes are evidenced by the fact that livestock put on weight during their period on ships. This, in combination with the implementation of ESCAS means that the justification for seeking a ban on live exports has largely disappeared, but these changes have not resulted in any acknowledgement or change in policy by those organisations seeking that the trade be banned.

There is no doubt that campaigns by groups like Animal Australia have pressured Australian livestock industries to improve animal welfare outcomes, although often this has been at a cost to livestock producers and not consumers, and has only been possible as a consequence of the investment in livestock research - also funded by the livestock industries. The failure of groups like Animal Australia to acknowledge farm animal welfare improvements, and the role of the industry in achieving those improvements,  is in part driven by the campaign-focused nature of the business model which relies on triggering the emotive responses of potential donors. 

Ultimately, this is an approach that will experience a diminishing-response curve, and will make claims by Animals Australia that it is improving the welfare of farmed animals in Australia increasing difficult to justify.

 
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