Genuine sustainability must take account of environmental, social and economic dimensions, including farm animal welfare, soil health, and the market for quality food.  Metrics can therefore be extremely useful when delivering change across this relatively complex array of disciplines.

Farm animal welfare metrics have become a well-recognised tool for measuring and analysing welfare improvements, but unfortunately metrics are still applied inconsistently across the food chain.

When we talk about farm animal welfare metrics we’re largely focussed on outcomes – measuring disease levels, or displays of natural behaviour among farm animals, but measures may include inputs, by which we mean aspects of the farm system itself – the use of cages, depth of straw bedding. We might also use inputs as an outcome proxy for example, a cage-free system for laying hens might be used as a proxy for dustbathing or foraging – important behaviours for which a practical measure is yet to be established

Farm systems and other inputs have an impact on a producer’s ability to achieve good welfare, while outcome measures provide a robust basis for analysing success and identifying where improvements are necessary. When considering outcomes, it is also important to think about how they will be implemented. The key is to identify measures that are practical, relevant across multiple production systems, and which demonstrate optimum benefit.

As an example, an intact tail (undocked and unwounded) on a pig at the point of slaughter provides an extremely good indication of good whole-life welfare.  When pigs are bored and frustrated they look for something to do and tail biting becomes common.  Tail docking is used to help control pig behaviour in a farm system that isn’t designed to allow pigs to behave naturally.  Helpfully, through research, we already know how to achieve intact tails (primarily through farm system change and improved husbandry practices), so government could implement a law that requires this.  However, around half of Britain’s pig farms are too intensive, so tails are usually docked on these farms to avoid tail biting and we can’t stop this overnight. Change must be managed properly, so that pig welfare in an intensive system does not reduce further during the transition. In this instance a new law with a five-year delay on implementation may be appropriate, but because this requires a fundamental shift in pig management, the government should provide advice and financial support to assist the transition to more extensive systems.

Some outcome measures are being recorded in most supply chains (and in the case of chicken, quite a lot), but a wide variety of scoring methods are used, which makes comparison difficult. In addition, traceability to farm level is often absent. Our experience also suggests that industry and retailers have quite a limited understanding of welfare outcomes and so tend to collect lots of data which they then fail to process, interpret, or use to drive improvements.

In our view, the time has come for a systematic stocktake of existing and potential farm animal welfare metrics, which should then lead to government intervention to create national standardisation where possible. The Secretary of State for Environment, Michael Gove, recently indicated that this is what he plans to do. Gove said, “there’s still no single, scaled, measure of how a farmer or food producer performs against a sensible basket of indicators, taking into account such things as soil health, control of pollution, contribution to food quality as well as animal welfare. […] We could establish a measure of farm and food quality which would be world-leading”.

The Food Ethics Council is working with other stakeholders to help unlock the power of farm animal welfare metrics. Good farm animal welfare is ethically important in its own right, but importantly good welfare also complements and underpins sound environmental progress. It is extremely difficult to achieve environmental improvements in the most intensive farm systems.  Farm animal welfare metrics can also be used to improve on-farm efficiency, and therefore profit, and to provide a solid foundation for higher welfare claims by brands or on labels.