Animal welfare matters to Australian farmers, but current policies hinder its improvement

Australian farmers working with animals have been under increasing scrutiny in recent years. Some sections of the Australian population have developed a very high degree of sensitivity towards animal welfare issues, to the extent that more and more animal welfare decisions are being made hastily, with these decisions having little real impact on farm animal welfare.

The Australian Farm Institute has recently completed a research project evaluating whether current Australian farm animal welfare policies effectively improve farm animal welfare. The project included a review of scientific literature on farm animal welfare as well as a historic perspective on the way community and policy-makers have defined farm animal welfare, including meeting with key stakeholders of farm animal welfare policies and science, in Australia and overseas. In order to evaluate the capacity of the current policy system to improve farm animal welfare, the research focused on three Australian case studies: the exporter assurance system for livestock exporters, supermarket programs regarding free-range pork, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) role in defining layer hen welfare.

An important finding of this research was that farm animal welfare science has come a long way since its birth in the 1960s, and animal confinement is no longer seen as the single cause of farm animal pain. Much of what was perceived as cruel then is now understood in much greater detail. One of the first scientific committees to address farm animal welfare was created by the United Kingdom Government in 1965, following a public uproar triggered by the release of the book Animal machines in 1964. The author, Ruth Harrison, published a book containing emotionally loaded pictures and detailed descriptions of chickens’, pigs’ and cows’ living conditions in modern farms. The great majority of readers were city dwellers who had never visited a commercial farm. They were understandably shocked on learning that laying hens were kept in individual indoor cages, and that sows were kept in sow stalls. The scientific committee gathered researchers from different fields, including veterinary and animal behaviour science, most of whom didn’t have a clear definition of animal welfare.

At that time, the scientific committee couldn’t really define farm animal welfare but agreed on some key principles, known as the five freedoms.(1) After almost 40 years of research into the topic of animal welfare, it is clear that these principles cannot suffice to scientifically define farm animal welfare. Although all those five characteristics (requirements for food and water, prevention of injury and disease, provision of comfort, freedom from fear and ability to express innate behaviour) contribute to animal welfare, science can only measure the extent to which they can be achieved in a given context. Fear drives animals to find shelter and hunger pushes animals to seek food, which is provided in commercial farms. In addition, as most scientists would agree, once a list of contributing factors to an issue has been identified, science is there to quantify the impact of those factors.

Unfortunately, although farm animal welfare science has become a well organised and robust field of research, the general public still thinks that farm animals can only be happy if they are unconfined. There are many more solutions to reduce pain and improve farm animal welfare than changed housing conditions. Those include selective breeding, genomics, pharmaceuticals for pain reduction, herd management, and digital assistance. Improving farm animal welfare is far more complex than taking a ‘let them fly’ posture.

This research demonstrates that the fragmented way farm animal welfare policies are designed in Australia doesn’t allow for long lasting farm animal welfare improvements. In the absence of a national leader or decision-maker, private retailers are deciding which policies should satisfy consumer expectations, whether or not they improve on-farm animal welfare. In the absence of a clear distinction between criminal cruelty cases and welfare practices implemented by industry, progress is blocked each time an individual commits a crime, often bearing little relation to farm animal welfare. There is an urgent need for strong principles, superseding the dated ‘five freedoms’, that apply consistently across all Australian states, as a first step to reducing consumer and community confusion.

The report proposes clear recommendations on how to address those shortfalls and how to create a policy system aimed at improved farm animal welfare.

Footnote

1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition, appropriate comfort and shelter (often reworded now as freedom from discomfort), prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment of injury and diseases (often reworded now as freedom from pain, injury and disease), freedom to display most normal patterns of behaviour, and freedom from fear (often reworded now as freedom from fear and distress) from: Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) (1979), Farm animal welfare council, press statement, viewed September 2014.

Images:  Australian Pork Limited, Clare Bellfield, Kerwee Professional Photos, Murrumbidgee Irrigation

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