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Uphill battle to ensure better welfare for farm animals

Convincing consumers to buy high-welfare animal products is the best way to improve the lives of animals, but high costs and a rising global population suppress these ethical ambitions


60 percent of the eggs purchased in Denmark come from caged hens who share one square metre of space with up to twelve other chickens (Photo: Dyrenes Beskyttelse)

August 3, 2013
07:11

by Peter Stanners


Animal welfare should be higher on the political agenda, animal rights groups and politicians are arguing, following a prolonged debate over the ritual slaughter of animals.

 

The debate focussed on the increasing tendency to slaughter animals according to Islamic halal practices. But what about the animal’s life before the slaughterhouse? The fact is that Danish farm animals can lead vastly different lives. Some spend their lives in cramped cages without ever seeing sunlight, while others walk freely outdoors with plenty of space to roam and display normal behaviour.

 

While there is a wide availability of free range and organic animal products, they are generally more costly to produce. The resulting  higher price can deter consumers, who instead opt for animal products from cheaper, conventionally-bred animals. This in turn stifles the market for food products created with high animal welfare in mind.

 

This problem is compounded by the expected rise in global population of at least two billion over the next 50 years. With limited space and resources, the pressure to farm even more intensively and productively may discourage politicians from implementing new legislation that could improve the lives of the animals that we cultivate to feed us.

 

The cost of welfare

 

Take eggs, for example. The cheapest eggs come from caged chickens. Up to 13 chickens share one square meter of space and they have no access to the outdoors or natural light.

 

The most expensive are eggs from organically-certified chickens that live in barns where there are no more than six chickens per square metre and where each chicken is provided with four square metres of outdoor space.

 

At a discount supermarket in Vesterbro, 12 organic eggs cost 40 kroner (3.30 kroner per egg), while 15 eggs from caged chickens go for 23 kroner (0.65 kroner per egg). If an average person eats around 200 eggs a year, the extra annual cost of buying eggs laid by organic chickens is a mere 530 kroner.

 

While ten kroner a week may seem like a small price to pay for higher welfare chickens, 60 percent of eggs bought in Denmark are from caged hens, while just 14 percent are organic. The remaining 26 percent of eggs are from barn and free range hens, whose standard of living falls between that of caged and organic chickens.

 

The Danish animal welfare society, Dyrenes Beskyttelse, thinks that the dominance of eggs from caged chickens can perhaps be blamed on a lack of public awareness about the chickens’ living conditions. The organisation is raising awareness about the living standards of caged hens in order to convince consumers to switch to more ethical alternatives, and would ultimately like to see caged chickens banned.

 

“The hens are treated really cruelly,” said Yvonne Johansen, Dyrenes Beskyttelse’s project manager for chicken welfare. “They spend their whole lives in these cage systems where they don’t have  room to express their normal behaviour such as stretching, dust bathing and nesting. Recent EU legislation means they have bigger cages than they did before, but we still don’t think it’s as good as living outdoors.”

 

Dyrenes Beskyttelse’s campaign is an example of market-driven animal welfare. If they manage to encourage consumers to switch to eggs from better treated chickens, the increased demand will lead the market to produce more of these higher welfare products. In this way, consumer behaviour raises the average level of welfare for chickens.

 

MEP Dan Jørgensen (Socialdemokraterne) also wants Danes to give up eggs from caged chickens. He argues that eggs are not properly labelled and that it should be easier to identify which eggs are from better cared-for chickens.

 

“When consumers stand in the supermarket, it’s not clear to them what all the consequences of their actions are,” Jørgensen said. “They either don’t know or it’s simply too tough to make an in-depth analysis on the spot. Consumers are not properly informed.”

 

Jørgensen argues that the packaging of eggs from caged hens should include pictures of the cages in order to encourage consumers to choose another option. But if it were up to him, he would prefer to ban the practice altogether.

 

“My dream scenario is that organic conditions become mainstream conventional rules,” he said.

 

Unwilling legislators

 

So what’s stopping us? According to Peter Sandøe, a professor of bioethics at the University of Copenhagen, after two decades of improving the welfare of farm animals without seriously affecting the economic effectiveness of the industry in Europe, further legislation is likely to prove costly and reduce the competitiveness of Danish producers.

 

“Even though they like to talk about their support for improving animal welfare, politicians are increasingly anxious about jobs moving abroad, making them less willing to introduce new legislation,” Sandøe said.

 

Sandøe says EU legislation can be thanked for providing minimum welfare standards, but that the progress is too slow. For example, EU legislation forced farmers to let sows loose while pregnant. The EU was expected to extend this right to sows that are giving birth and nursing their piglets, but according to Sandøe, this step was not taken and is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

 

“Today the EU is mainly concerned with global competition and there has also been an expansion of the EU to include a number of countries that seem to care more about cheap food than animal welfare,” Sandøe explained. “It’s a depressing situation because the economic crisis has seen a stalling of market driven animal welfare and at the same time politicians are concerned about pushing legislation because of fear of losing local jobs.”

 

This situation is highly relevant to a Danish economy that is highly dependent on agricultural exports. According to the latest figures from the agricultural association, Landbrug & Fødevarer, Denmark exported almost 464,000 tonnes of pork products in the first three months of 2013 alone.

 

Jørgensen agreed that the current economic climate makes it unlikely that consumers will agree to pay more for animal products, even if it means the animals are assured a higher standard of living.

 

“There is undoubtedly a pressure within society to protect animals, but agriculture is also facing demands to become more efficient,” Jørgensen said. “I don’t know which way it’s going, but I’m slightly pessimistic because the planet’s growing population and rising standard of living is increasing the demand for meat.”

 

The responsibility of care

 

The very existence of higher welfare animal products means that many consumers are willing to fork out extra to make sure the animal products they eat come from animals that are treated humanely. The challenge is to make more consumers make the switch.

 

The Danish animal ethics council, Det Dyreetiske Råd, recently argued that animal welfare needs to be more highly prioritised in the political agenda and that producers, retailers and consumers all share a responsibility to improve farm animals’ living standards.

 

“The council calls for the development of new products that have a special focus on animal welfare, for initiatives that increase the availability and improve the marketing of these products, and initiatives that contribute to improving the communication of information about animal welfare to consumers,” the council wrote in a new report.

 

The council argues that animal welfare will only improve if there is an increased demand by consumers and this, in turn, will only take place if consumers are made more aware of the living conditions faced by farm animals – animals that Dyrenes Beskyttelse argues we have an ethical responsibility to care for.

 

“We have chosen to eat meat which means we have the obligation to take care of them and ensure them the best possible welfare,” Johansen said. 



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