It was almost ten years ago when I put pen to paper and wrote ‘conflict’ and ‘compromise’ – two words that had become very meaningful to me. I was just beginning to write my Ph.D. research proposal and had to summarize the problem I wanted to work on. These two words came immediately to my mind. In the years prior, I worked as an animal welfare advocate first focusing on the welfare of wild animals, later the welfare of farm animals. I was engaged in every level of work, from inspection to the creation of reports, from campaigning to lobbying, I was there. I wrote legislative proposals, took part in expert meetings, and gave interviews and talks. But whatever I did to ensure a good life for farm animals, I always had to face the need to challenge conflicting human-animal interests. My job was to come up with solutions on how to initiate change and increase the welfare of animals, but most of the time decision-makers kept the focus on human interests so much so that animal interests were compromised leaving concerned individuals (like me) with the knowledge that we could have done better.
You could say ‘well, that is life…nothing is perfect’, but my Ph.D. research gave me enough evidence to suggest otherwise. In the past years, I have been working to understand whether the European Union (EU), which is highly committed to the cause of farm animal welfare and is widely recognized for its efforts, was able to ensure the welfare of farm animals. To better understand the outcome of EU farm animal welfare reform efforts, I collected data from a case study, namely the perceptions of intensive and alternative pig farmers in Hungary. At the time of starting this project, most EU and advocacy efforts tried to ensure the welfare of farm animals by regulating (some) animal industries, by enforcing the regulations, and by raising the awareness of consumers on farming and welfare. The underlying assumption of these practices was that: a) farmers are directly responsible for farm animals and are more than able to ensure better conditions, but they either have a different conception of farm animal welfare or are not aware of the complex needs of animals and are only interested to ensure the profitability of their enterprise, b) the enforcement of existing farm animal welfare regulations are able to ensure a good life for farm animals, and c) that aware consumers will purchase animal products consistently and according to their ethical perspectives.
My research has been able to refine some of the above-outlined theories. First, I have found that while farmers are directly responsible for the day-to-day care of their animals, most of them are severely constrained financially or by the technologies they have invested in, which makes it very hard for them to make meaningful changes to the welfare of animals. They are acutely aware of problems caused by large-scale, intensive, indoor farming systems and while they need to ensure a profit, most of them have traditional values and would prefer to keep their animals in more natural conditions. Second, EU minimum animal welfare standards were only able to ensure improved conditions for a limited subset of issues, while it ignored other important matters. But regulations were still very much needed, yet problems induced by varying degrees of enforcement in different Member States, or the fear of over-regulation were also widely apparent. Finally, while most EU citizens were found to be highly concerned for farm animal welfare when shopping for food, other factors came into play.
To make sense of this data and understand what needs to be done to ensure the welfare of farm animals in the EU and beyond, it is very important to clearly state that change is possible. Ideals are important driving forces of reform efforts, one example being the European child labour reform, which was able to tackle the problem of industries relying on the cheapest source of labour that was available: the work of children. It took many years, but eventually reformers successfully addressed all the obstacles that kept children working for minimum wages, those induced by contradictory socio-economic interests and regulatory standards. In the process of reform, a workable economic system had to be devised to ensure that children would be freed from mines and factories. This example applies very well to what needs to be done in agriculture.
Under the umbrella of the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork, and the End the Cage Age initiatives, the EU is currently in the process of reviewing its policies on agriculture, including standards on the welfare of farm animals. By the end of 2023, the EU plans to propose a detailed set of regulations that may be able to facilitate a major transition in farming practices away from large-scale intensive production methods and find incentives to ensure the phasing out confinement or cage-based systems. These historic commitments provide an outstanding opportunity to improve farming methods and welfare standards, however, the success of this endeavour may depend on whether the EU will pursue a predominantly legislative reform or will it also engage with important constraints of change, especially economic and technological challenges on the farm level, and limitations to marketing and sale at the level of the consumer.
Data from my study indicates that to ensure meaningful change to the welfare of farm animals, it is essential for the ongoing EU agriculture reform effort to provide a workable alternative production and trade model that can be used in the current free trade context. Indeed, most farmers I have interacted with claim that given the right measures, a sustainable, small- to medium-scale farming enterprise, that is diverse (i.e. produces more than one product), extensive, or semi-intensive, and provides animals with indoor and outdoor access is a workable farming model. To compensate for higher costs of production in such a system, farmers also see the need to stop selling their animals to companies and start engaging directly in the processing and sale of their products. This model is already apparent, but only for the smallest alternative producers, who have not invested in current forms of large-scale intensive agricultural practices. The most pressing question then is to identify incentives that could facilitate these changes for willing farmers currently working with intensive farming operations.
I believe that a successful transition away from the use of intensive farming systems is possible and if done with care, reflective of conflicting human-animal interests and compromised arrangements, it may offer numerous environmental, human, and animal welfare benefits. This is an exceptional opportunity for the EU, European farmers, and citizens to work together for a goal of common interest.
Mariann Molnár is an animal welfare researcher and consulting expert, who holds a BSc hon. in zoology from the University of Reading, an M.Sc., and a Ph.D. in environmental sciences and policy from the Central European University. She is a mother of an exceptional 14 year old young man, with an extended family of a faithful dog, two noisy budgies, some beautiful fish, and numerous pet ants. Mariann was a member of the Cross Current Environmental Sciences group.
Photo: Intensive pig farming in Hungary by Mariann Molnár
For more details of Mariann’s work see:
Molnár, M.; Fraser, D. Protecting farm animal welfare during intensification: Farmer perceptions of economic and regulatory pressures. Animal Welfare. 2020, 29, 133-141. https://doi.org/10.7120/096272126.96.36.199
Molnár, M.; Fraser, D. Animal welfare during a period of intensification: The views of confinement and alternative pig producers. Animal Welfare. 2021, 30, 121-129. https://doi.org/10.7120/096272188.8.131.52