I’ve been talking about fair, sustainable and healthy food systems for some years now. And whilst issues of global food security, food poverty and sustainable farming practices are familiar topics of discussion, the importance of food systems that deliver high levels of animal welfare often gets overlooked.
At best that’s a major oversight, the result of a people-focused tunnel vision. At worst, it’s plain wrong that the importance of animals’ wellbeing is hugely undervalued or completely ignored.
There’s no denying that the ethical issues relating to farm animal welfare are huge and varied, but that’s not a good enough excuse to shy away from them. As we say in our diagnosis of the key underlying causes that undermine our food system, “we are discouraged from facing up to the trade-offs between the interests of humans and animals or humans and the environment, or even between different people and communities. But the more we learn about farmed animals, the more obvious it is that we must take their welfare into account – as sentient beings – in developing ethical meat production”.
Perhaps people don’t want to engage in the issue because once they start thinking about farm animal welfare they find themselves facing other important questions about whether, how much and what sort of meat they should eat.
It was the chance of tackling those issues that made me so keen for the Food Ethics Council – in conjunction with farm animal welfare consultant Heather Pickett – to do a piece of research into past and potential future changes in farm animal welfare in the UK. Commissioned by the RSPCA’s Freedom Food scheme to mark its 20th anniversary, it drew on views from a range of experts.
The resulting report looks at what has driven the changes in farm animal welfare that have taken place in the UK over the past 20 years, including the role of farm assurance schemes and labels. It goes on to explore what might happen in the next 20 years and what the key influencing factors might be – from climate change to genetics, from changes in global trade to growing demands for transparency and beyond.
One of the key insights I took away from the research was the importance of people in all this – particularly how treating the people who look after farm animals well is a vital component of giving farm animals a better life.
It was reassuring to see that there have been improvements in recent years. But further action is urgently needed to better understand and improve farm animal welfare outcomes in the future.
My youngest son is one year old and loves playing with his well-chewed toy farm animals. I hope that long before he reaches the age of 21, the 2034 vision we outline in the report – where “farm animals have the opportunity to experience a good life and farmers, the food industry, governments & citizens share the responsibility and are motivated to ensure that this happens” – has become a reality. In my view, only a collective effort can deliver that.
Please do read the report. Let us know what factors you think will most affect farm animal welfare in the future and how you think farm animal welfare issues can get the profile they deserve.