1. Understanding animal welfare
What do we mean by animal welfare?
There is no getting away from the fact that we explicitly use farm animals for our own advantage. We deliberately breed and rear them to produce eggs and milk, to provide meat and wool; we decide what they will eat, how they will live and when they will die. But in doing this we have a clear moral responsibility to consider the quality of the life we give them to lead.
We refer to this quality of life by the term “welfare”, and it is important to appreciate what the aim of ensuring good or acceptable welfare for farm animals means. It does not just mean avoiding cruelty or inhumane treatment – something which all reasonable people would find disturbing. Nor does it mean treating farm animals as though they were pets – which is unrealistic given their role in our food supply, and impossible for commercial farmers to achieve anyway.
Rather, our obligation is to ensure that animals enjoy conditions that support all their essential needs and protect their wellbeing – providing what the Farm Animal Welfare Council refers to as “a life worth living”. An important aspect of research in animal science is to discern what factors are important to an animal’s wellbeing, rather than relying totally on our human perceptions of what makes them “happy”. In general terms we must always ensure their basic needs are met, providing at all times appropriate food and water, shelter where relevant, protecting them from the natural dangers of predators, parasites and disease, allowing the companionship of others, and generally creating a living environment that is as physically appropriate and stress-free as possible – and then ensuring a calm and painless death when the time comes.
Why is animal welfare important to people (as opposed to just the animals)?
As a civilised society it should matter to us how our farm animals are kept. They are, like us, sentient beings capable of experiencing fear, pain, discomfort, loneliness, hunger and thirst. We run their lives for our own advantage, we make them dependent on us, and so have a moral obligation for their welfare. But in addition to this it will matter to all right-thinking people how our food animals are treated. We would feel great unease if we thought that animals suffered in providing the products we take from them; it would in some sense ‘taint’ those products and reduce their value to us, much as the discomfort we feel about products known to be produced under slave labour or otherwise at the expense of vulnerable groups. Increasingly nowadays the conditions under which things are produced are recognised as an intrinsic characteristic of the products themselves – as with their environmental credentials or where they were produced. We are now a sufficiently affluent and aware society that ‘cheapness’ is not the sole criterion of value.
Who is responsible for doing anything about animal welfare?
The main responsibility for the care of animals lies obviously with the livestock farmer, who determines the lives they lead on a day-to-day basis. Generations of farming experience and the established principles of ‘good husbandry’ are their basic guide. But because individuals can fail to live up to the required standards the government has a key role in specifying minimum standards of care (the so-called “welfare codes”) and ensuring they are enforced. And since 2006 there is now a law obliging all animal keepers to exercise a formal “duty of care”. Food retailers have a clear responsibility to insist their suppliers meet the highest standards of quality, safety and welfare that they typically claim and that their customers want. Animal welfare charities, like the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, take upon themselves a major responsibility to advocate high standards in livestock farming, and it is in this arena that the Farm Animal Welfare Trust pursues its objectives.
FAWT sees its distinctive role as being to seek out and explore improved animal production systems that promise better animal welfare, and to support the testing of them on working farms to ensure their practicality and commercial relevance – because there is no point in advocating welfare standards that are inconsistent with the everyday realities of profitable farming.
But every member of the food-buying general public, too, should take some interest in and responsibility for the welfare standards under which our food is produced. By gaining an understanding of how livestock products are produced you can make more informed judgements about the standards you should reasonably expect. By asking and looking for evidence of the welfare standards attached to the livestock products you will know the ‘quality’ of what is offered. By choosing to purchase products that have a clear ‘good welfare’ provenance you can signal to food suppliers (farmers, retailers and catering outlets) what standards you expect to be associated with what you buy. In the end, only if there is sufficient and declared demand for high welfare products will the food system supply them.
How can you help?
It is often too easy for hardpressed farmers to stick with established production methods that became the norm in an earlier era when the sole emphasis was on expanded production and cheap food. In many cases these methods could be substantially improved to the advantage of the farmed animals and to the farmer, as well as easing the concerns food consumers have about how animals are kept. Your support for the Farm Animal Welfare Trust is one significant way in which you can further this aim. Help us to seek out and assess the improvements in livestock farming systems that offer enhancements in animal welfare and a better quality of life for the animals. Support us in our efforts to work with commercial farmers to test out, evaluate and modify these improvements and encourage them into widespread practice. That is a very practical way of working towards better farm animal welfare.
2.Breeding for better welfare in broiler chickens