NZ should tackle uncomfortable truths, ‘nuanced’ animal welfare solutions

While in a crate, sows cannot express normal behaviour, they cannot build a nest, express...
While in a crate, sows cannot express normal behaviour, they cannot build a nest, express maternal behaviours or even turn around. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
As you read this the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) are working on finalising the Code of Welfare for pigs to present to various associate ministers and ministers, including Agriculture Associate Minister for animal welfare, Meka Whaitiri.

What does that mean for your average BBQ-loving New Zealander? More than you think.

Aotearoa is often described as "world-leading in animal welfare", but are we really? Or are we being welfare-washed? Did you know that up to 60% of New Zealand pig farmers use steel farrowing crates? That’s a barred metal crate that confines a sow so much that she cannot even turn around from the time just before she gives birth until up to five weeks after giving birth.

So, if you’re buying ham, is it really from a pig that has had a world-leading animal welfare experience? What about if you import your ham? We import roughly 60% of pig products we use and we’ve been told these come from countries with "lower standards of welfare".

Checking out the data doesn’t really seem to support this claim. As of April 2022, about 90% of the total imported volume comes from seven countries. Six of these, as European Union countries, have similar or better standards than our own. Sweden has already banned farrowing crates, and Germany and Denmark are in the process of moving away from them.

If we take out fifth-placed United States’ 7% contribution, then that means roughly 83% of imported pork products come from countries with a similar or better standard as New Zealand.

The EU have stricter standards on tail docking and enrichment of pig environments but still allow castration without pain relief, which doesn’t occur here.

It’s hard to compare directly, but overall we are "like-minded" and in a similar place — at least on paper, because enforcement of the law is another story.

So are we welfare-washed? Are you confused? It’s understandable if you are — there are many disparate voices. It’s often an emotional topic with not much alignment coming from the entrenched corners. So who should you listen to?

New Zealand Pork is the industry board that works to support New Zealand’s commercial pig farmers. They and many pig farmers say they "share serious concerns with qualified experts that the scientific approach to the code is careless; this includes what looks like cherrypicking of science publications to support predetermined positions" and they believe "sows are not unhappy in farrowing pens".

"They are warm, comfortable, have abundant food and their piglets around them."

They say Code proposals "would make pig farming uneconomic in New Zealand, push the price of local pork out of the reach of many Kiwis and ultimately destroy the industry".

A common narrative from the sector is that "farrowing crates are used internationally to balance the welfare of the sow with protecting piglets". But let’s be very clear here: there’s no — zero, none, de nada, zilch — balance here for the sow. While in a crate, sows cannot express normal behaviour, they cannot build a nest, express maternal behaviours or even turn around. The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) established under the Animal Welfare Act to provide independent advice to the responsible minister has been signalling since 2005 that crates don’t meet the principles of the Animal Welfare Act, yet there is lobbying from within the pork industry to allow ongoing use.

Spending their first few weeks in a barren crate with a mother who cannot turn around is not exactly a great start for piglets. Research has shown that piglets weaned from crates tend to put on less weight and have more problematic behaviours when moved to grower sheds.

Having been to court and lost once when the 2020 Judicial Review found the regulation that allows ongoing use of farrowing crates "unlawful and invalid", NAWAC, the minister and MPI ought to be very shy of making a similar error. For their part, animal welfare lawyers behind the review said, "The solution will need to come from pig experts, not those whose profit depends on litter size".

As a veterinary scientist of 25 years focused on animal welfare, I gave my two cents at the time hoping to inject some nuance: "The debate around farrowing crates has put huge stress on the farmers, which flows on to their families and communities, and the animals themselves".

We can be both pro-farming and pro-animal welfare, and not just for pigs. There’s a lot of noise about the Code but it’s actually only one of a number of challenges that animal agriculture is facing. It seems there’s little strategic planning for resolution, so these challenges are not going to get any easier to solve.

New Zealand’s vision for how we engage with and use animals now and in the future is not clear, or perhaps it’s just controversial. Either way, this contributes to misunderstandings and conflict in animal welfare policy development, such as the Code. You may have seen this playing out in the debates around the great egg shortage. The process is often a frustrated one that leaves parties dissatisfied — farmers, industry organisations, activists and advocates.

There have been enough exposes on winter grazing, bobby calves, farrowing crates, live exports and shade and shelter to know that the use of animals in New Zealand and its management through the animal welfare system creates a lot of tension.

New Zealand’s animal welfare system is managed in government by those who care about sector economics as well as welfare. Does this create a conflict in priorities, even if acceptable animal welfare does not have to mean poor economic performance? The concept of regulatory capture has gained traction recently, with criticisms being levelled at those involved.

On the other hand, some think activists and those who are anti-farming are controlling direction, progress and advisory boards.

Others are concerned that public servants involved in the policy development don’t believe in animal sentience, or dismiss its importance.

Trade-offs between animal welfare and money, the environment or ease of management are common and, arguably to some degree, necessary. De-prioritisation of animal welfare was identified as a challenge to adopting better practice by the cross-sector Winter Grazing Taskforce. This is a risk to our reputation as leaders in how we care for our animals.

The current issues within the animal welfare system can be described as a "wicked problem" there is no-one simple solution to and it has many inter-linked dependencies. It’s resolution therefore requires a strategic approach with broad consultation and deep engagement with a variety of experts including advocates, farmers and veterinarians.

Any new system that is developed or changes that are implemented must include fair and just timelines and processes. Focus needs to be on finding ways to support farmers to meet the necessary outcomes — not on defensively finding ways around our animal welfare legislation.

It is critically important for animal welfare, ongoing social licence for animal use and engagement and for export-market security, that our animal welfare system is robust, transparent and honest, and protects our animals, our people and our precious environment.

Perhaps only one thing is clear; the solution is avoiding monocultures, be they plants or animals. Intensive monocultures are unhealthy for the planet and animals. Plant monocultures require tillage, and the various "-cides" (pesti-; herbi-; fungi-). Animal monocultures often require antimicrobials and other pharmaceuticals, and in this country have resulted in razing the ground of trees, adding centre pivots and having our cattle standing in 30degC heat. We use imported fodder and nitrogen to bolster up a system carrying too many animals. Precision fermentation needs massive, energy-intensive steel vats and then energy-intensive distribution. Too many of us are too far from our food source.

The problem is wicked to unpick — it needs more than additional compliance officers as suggested by some. It requires a rethink on the future of farming and how we get there.

It requires systems-thinking and farming that is light, local and biodiverse. That system won’t welfare-wash you.


 Dr Beattie is managing director of Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Aotearoa (VAWA). She was previously chief veterinary officer at the NZ Veterinary Association.