Food Sustainability Index must strengthen its farm animal welfare analysis

Farm animal welfare is a critical indicator of sustainability and additional indicators are urgently needed, says ffinlo Costain

Farm animal welfare matters.  Not just because in a morally progressive society we should give a damn about the animals we rear for food, but because the way we farm them affects the state of nature – the climate, soils, water and air we all need to survive and thrive.

But sustainability is a complex web of interrelationships – many of which are in demonstrable crisis. Because we need to make rapid progress on so many fronts at once, accurately measuring change has become critical. We need to constantly analyse the effectiveness of the actions we take.

On-the-ground sustainability is best monitored using outcome measures – critical tools that allow people to measure the success of inputs (for example housing or husbandry) and provide information to support ongoing improvements.

At an international level indexes can help society and policymakers understand progress in a global context. Governments can use indexes to tell whether they are leaders or followers and adjust policy accordingly, and society can test its own assumptions and the claims made by the food industry against good hard facts.

The Food Sustainability Index (FSI) was developed in 2016 by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation and the Economist Intelligence Unit.  It’s a bold analysis, which aims to reflect the complexity of the sustainability web. To a large extent the FSI achieves this, much as there is room for improvement in key areas.

In the most recent Index, 34 countries were analysed, accounting for 85% of global GDP and two thirds of global population. Overall the UK came 10th (and 8th among the 10 European countries included), and on sustainable agriculture the UK was 20th, behind Ethiopia, Russia, Jordan, Argentina, and Columbia.

The FSI is particularly helpful because it provides such a comprehensive analysis of sustainability. It measures over sixty indicators, which cover public health, food waste, and social and environmental dimensions.

Importantly, the FSI team recognises that it’s extremely difficult to achieve environmental progress while continuing to keep farm animals in the most intensive farm systems. Unfortunately they are restrained by the fact that relatively few international indicators exist to measure farm animal welfare (FAW) progress.

The Index in its current form reflects this challenge, so unfortunately there’s just one measure that directly addresses farm animal welfare (although indicators such as the amount of land diverted to animal feed and levels of meat consumption offer some level of proxy for the way in which animals are farmed). We view this as problematic. For the FSI to become even more robust and relevant to key audiences, additional FAW indicators are urgently needed.

At the moment, the FSI measures the quality of national FAW legislation (and to some extent enforcement) using information transposed from the Animal Protection Index. Legislation is extremely important, but there are many other ways to measure national progress on farm animal welfare. Action at farm level, research at universities, and progress by food businesses and brands can tell us an awful lot about public attitudes.

It’s extremely difficult to achieve environmental progress while continuing to keep farm animals in the most intensive farm systems.

For this reason, the Food Ethics Council believes that the FSI team should invest time and energy in developing additional FAW measures so that progress in this area is as well represented as topics such as diet, land use, or the environmental impact of agriculture, each of which have four separate indicators.

We are also doing our bit to help. Food Ethics Council is working with the FSI team, and with key UK stakeholders from the Farm Animal Welfare Forum, to help identify and research potential metrics that may be available at a global level.

These include looking at national mechanisms for FAW enforcement – information which may be available for government agencies/animal health inspectorates. We’re working with FAI Farms and Farmwel to identify key outcome measures, which may include levels of lameness, mastitis, housing, and anti-microbial usage. We are also looking into levels of government funding for FAW research.

It may be possible to incorporate elements captured by the Business Benchmark for Farm Animal Welfare. This is a strong and ready-to-use index, similar to the API, but the challenge is that BBFAW highlights food company commitments to farm animal welfare, which don’t always fit easily within national boundaries.

The prevalence of farm animal welfare outcome measures within farm assurance schemes may also be a good indicator of national progress. For example, the existence and coverage of dedicated higher welfare assurance schemes, such as RSPCA Assured, and use and coverage in schemes that include some aspects of FAW (over and above baseline legislation).

We are hopeful that through our work we will be able to help the Food Sustainability Index team expand their farm animal welfare section so that it becomes truly reflective of national progress in this important area of sustainability. We also hope that other major indexes will begin to recognise the importance of integrating farm animal welfare metrics with environmental measures and other aspects of sustainability.

More details of our work on farm animal welfare metrics can be found here