Are British farm animal welfare standards up to scratch?

20 Oct 2009

The simple answer to the question of whether farm animal welfare standards are up to scratch is no. Not because the legislation is not in place or because the Government has not paid enough attention to the issue. It cannot just fall on legislation alone. Every person in the UK is affected by farm animals so that means approximately 60 million stakeholders in this issue and they all need to play a part in raising standards.

We have legislation in place to set minimum welfare standards from the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 and also European legislation in place. The Treaty of Amsterdam contains a legally binding Protocol recognising that animals are sentient beings and requires full regard to be paid to their welfare when policies relating to agriculture are formulated or implemented. Yet big campaigns by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on chickens, eggs and pigs reminds us that farm animal welfare is still a big concern. We are not achieving the high standards mainly because of intensive factory farming relying on economies of scale with high stocking density to produce the highest output at the lowest cost. The higher welfare farming methods have lower densities but at a higher price.

The problem is demand and the ever increasing consumption of meat makes intensive farming a way of meeting this demand. The National Farmers Union support animal welfare and most British farmers want to provide high standards for their animals but they also have to produce meat at an affordable price to run a business, particularly in the face of competition from abroad. Ideally intensive farming should not be the best way of making a profit, it should be in quality of what is produced. That means the higher price, not necessarily financial, needs to be paid if we are going to have welfare standards which are up to scratch.

Both the Government and public need to make choices which will assist this. Legislation can only go a certain distance, market forces can take it all the way. However, for this to work the Government needs to ensure that British meat will have been reared to a high standard and that there is a thriving domestic agricultural market which will help UK farmers prosper. They also need to make sure there is informative labelling of products for the public to make their choices. For the public it is about choosing meat that they know has been reared under these high standards. They may also have to decide whether to eat less meat or to spend more money on meat. The RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming advocates consumer education and a recent 17.7% increase in organic poultry sales, despite a recession, reveals that these educated consumers are happy to pay the price for higher welfare standards.

Some will argue that better animal welfare is not worth higher prices. However, cheap food is not cheap and until we are prepared to pay the correct price, problems will worsen and welfare standards will decrease. Furthermore, buying less meat should not depend on your income bracket but on every stakeholders determination to solve a problem which isn't just limited to the welfare issue. With over 900 million farm animals reared every year for consumption in the UK, there is a huge impact in relation to sustainability and climate change. Ensuring we have high welfare standards goes hand in hand with ensuring sustainability and combating climate change because it comes down to numbers.

A move from intensive to extensive animal production would produce healthier animals and would help to get welfare standards up to scratch. Additionally, it would reduce environmental pollution, lead to a fall in the greenhouse gas emissions generated by food production and reduce the amount of cereals and soya that are grown to feed factory farmed animals.

Politicians and the public must realize the importance of welfare standards. None of us can be removed from the farming process supplying our food and we should all be concerned about the animals' quality of life and about the safety of food. It is our duty to the animals and it forms part of the vision for our future.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB