Designing balanced and effective farm animal welfare policies for Australia

Farm-animal welfare practices and policies in Australia have been under increasing scrutiny over recent years, and are currently the subject of considerable community and political debate. Australia has very high animal welfare standards, as well as internationally acknowledged scientists, and innovative and proactive industry leaders. However, a section of the Australian population has developed a very high degree of sensitivity to animal welfare issues, to the extent that it could be argued that more and more animal welfare decisions are being hastily made, with these decisions having little real impact on farm-animal welfare, and bearing little relationship to the scientific view of what constitutes animal welfare. This report presents the results and recommendations of research recently undertaken by the Australian Farm Institute.

This includes a review of national and international animal welfare science and policies. It also covers the current farm-animal welfare policy systems in Australia, including the main stakeholders and the principles which underpin this policy. Three case studies are discussed which expose the confusion and risks inherent in existing farm-animal welfare programs: live cattle exports; supermarket programs; and the role of the competition authority in defining farm-animal welfare in the egg industry.

You can purchase a copy of the report here.

If you are a member of the Institute you can download your PDF copy of the report in the library section, here.

Freeing all the pigs may make people happy, but not the pigs

One of the outcomes of the initial efforts by the UK Government to implement stronger farm animal welfare standards in 1965 was the development of a set of principles that it was considered should form the basis of any farm animal welfare policy. These principles were what have now become known as the “Five Freedoms”, and almost any animal welfare organisation and indeed many businesses involved in livestock production or processing express their support for these principles. Current examples include McDonalds, Nestle, and the RSPCA. The five freedoms can be summarised as follows:
  1. freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition
  2. freedom from discomfort
  3. freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. freedom to display most normal patterns of behaviour
  5. freedom from fear and distress.

Whatever a person’s beliefs are regarding the way that farm animals should be treated, it seems hard to disagree with these principles. But with the development of vastly improved scientific understanding of animal welfare and behaviour over the past forty years, the Five Freedoms are becoming increasingly outdated, especially when it comes to making decisions about what might enhance farm animal welfare.

When the Five Freedoms were first detailed, the publication of the book ‘Animal machines’, which described the industrialisation of livestock production, triggered a community uproar. The book detailed the way pigs and layer hens were housed in modern farms in the United Kingdom. The shock of most readers was understandable as most of them had not realised that farming had greatly changed in the previous 50 years. They still imagined farms with a handful of hens roaming around and 2 or 3 pigs playing in the mud in the back paddock. Suddently they were seeing pigs kept in cages, similar to ones used in jails, and hens housed in multi-storey cages. 

Fifty years ago, doctors and biologists were just starting to understand the ‘stress response’ of both humans and animals, which results in the release of hormones such as cortisol into the bloodstream. Specialists in animal behaviour were only starting to observe, understand and correlate the relationship between animal housing conditions, animal stress and animal health. Many experts jumped into this new field of research, and a range of different approaches were developed to consider the welfare of farm animals. The included the so called ‘natural approach’ based on what the animal would experience in its natural environment, the ‘biological approach’ (focused on organ functioning and biochemical responses) and the ‘affective approach’(focused on animal behaviour and choices).
Since that time, a lot has changed. The ‘natural approach’ has gradually died out as a scientific method, as none of the research has been able to show that farm animals living in pre-modern conditions were coping better with their environment than animal living on modern farms. The two other approaches are now largely been consolidated into a consolidated approach, none of them have confirmed that the five freedoms were relevant principles to understand and measure farm animal welfare.

For example, an animal has to be able to experience some degree of stress or hunger in order to trigger it to seek food and comfort. A pig kept outdoors in a large enclosure with other pigs will certainly experience some stress (for example when the weather gets cold) and a certain level of hunger (for example if dominant animals monopolise access to food). What matters the most for the welfare of the pig is its capacity to access shelter and food in a reasonable time, not to be completely free from these experiences.

It’s also often said that pigs kept in pens, such as is the case for pregnant sows, display disruptive behaviour like biting the bars and lack the ability to socialise. This certainly seems contrary to the ‘freedom to display normal patterns of behaviour” principle. But scientific research also shows that at the beginning of pregnancy, hormonal changes in the sow lead it to display aggressive behaviour and, if housed in a group with other pregnant sows, can lead to fights for food and aggressive behaviour that disrupts the health and welfare of the other pigs. The Five Freedoms are no help when it comes to making decisions about the best management of pigs in this situation, or which of the five freedoms should have priority. Instead, animal welfare science now makes it possible to objectively understand and monitor whether farm animals are coping well with their environment. It is even possible to design optimal solutions that address both animal welfare and production needs.

These issues have been the subject of a major research project, recently completed by researchers at the Australian Farm Institute. If you want to know more about the finding of this research report, book your seat now for the forthcoming seminar.