To protect animal farming, progress must continue

Farrowing crates to protect piglets from getting squashed. PHOTO: NZ PORK
Farrowing crates to protect piglets from getting squashed. PHOTO: NZ PORK
Recent comment that those who want to see an end to the use of crates in the pork industry — including the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) — are coming from an animal rights position is both insulting and incorrect.

NAWAC is a statutory committee under the Animal Welfare Act 1999, which legislates how we engage with and use animals. All of this speaks to humane use and protecting welfare; it is therefore not an Animal Rights Act.

For clarity, animal welfare advocates accept animal use if the animals are humanely treated and animal harm is balanced with human benefit.

Animal rights activists believe animals should be free to live as they choose and should not be used in any way, such as for food, entertainment, research or even companionship.

Might it be more useful for the pork industry to consider what best serves farmers, their animals and therefore New Zealand’s economy?

There’s been much media on this and on other contentious practices like winter grazing and livestock exports.

In all conversations, there are three clear voices: the industry lobby ("nothing to see here — leave us alone"), the activists ("don’t exploit animals at all") and the advocates ("we support humane animal exploitation").

As a veterinary scientist, and having engaged on all these issues many times, it is clear to me the three positions will not meet.

Perhaps agreement is not so important as understanding why progress must continue to happen — to protect animal farming for as long as possible.

That is not an activist’s position. It is that of a scientist and a pragmatist, and it reflects that change is hard but must happen and obstructing progress is not a robust strategy.

Animal welfare, and our understanding of animals’ experiences, has made progress over decades — even centuries — and continues to evolve.

In 1964, Ruth Harrison published Animal Machines, which detailed the horrendous lives of veal calves, pigs and chickens in the UK.

This led to an independent government review and subsequently the 1965 Brambell Report, which included the genesis of the Five Freedoms that — though now superseded — are still referred to today.

In 1994, Cam Reid and New Zealand’s own David Mellor launched a new framework for assessing animal welfare (the Five Domains) that acknowledged that four physical domains (health, environment, nutrition and behaviour) and an animal’s mental state contribute to overall welfare.

The Five Domains is now internationally accepted as the leading model for assessing animal welfare; it considers welfare on a spectrum, with experiences ranging from negative to positive, rather than tying acceptable welfare outcomes to "freedom from" the worst of suffering.

In 2009, the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Committee introduced the concept of a good life. Animals having a good life experience have not only minimum standards met, but have the opportunity to experience positive welfare (e.g. expressing normal behaviours and preferences, having appropriate companionship, playing, exploring).

That animals are "sentient" was acknowledged in New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act in its 2015 amendment. Sentient animals have the capacity to experience both emotional and physical effects that can be positive, neutral or negative.

Understanding where we have got to in our thinking about animals, their welfare and sentience, it becomes blatantly obvious that farrowing crates and other practices do not meet the expectations of the Brambell Report, the Five Freedoms, nor do they contribute to a good life.

Farrowing crates are not supported by the public and they do not meet the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act.

In 2017, a Ministry for Primary Industries report on New Zealanders’ views of farmed animal welfare showed over 95% of respondents agreed "it is important that the welfare of farmed animals in New Zealand is protected."

In 2018, a petition to ban farrowing crates, signed by over 110,000 people, became the largest animal welfare petition ever presented to Parliament.

It pays to remember that there is always shrieking about such change, such as what William Wilberforce heard in 1883 when he lobbied successfully to ban the slave trade; neither the economies of the UK nor the US crumbled, and neither will New Zealand’s, despite the narrative that is consistently put forward by those trading in an analogous fashion.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing in the whole argument, aside from ongoing attempts to discredit esteemed veterinarians, scientists and experts in their fields, is until we change the animal welfare system, every step of progress is marred by such outrage, conflict and controversy. This "broken" way of doing business needs review; at present, it leaves those in charge of animals fighting ongoing uncertainty about the boundaries within which they must operate.

Chipping away case by case, regulation by regulation, is both time- and resource-consuming, and while wins can effect some change (e.g. farrowing crates), it is laborious and unfair to both those championing progress and to farmers who wait for the results with uncertainty, unable to invest in the future.

While banks, farm consultants, regulators and the wider supply chain have all played a part in getting us to where we are in 2022, it is industry organisations that set and control the scene.

It is they who can choose to provide leadership and direction that will serve producers and animals well into the future. Such leadership would protect animal agriculture — doubling down on maintaining the status quo will not.

We cannot and should not try to regulate out of our current system — that is a plaster, and first aid is not indicated for systems failure. It is time to call foul on the poor leadership of these industries and their disingenuous attempts at greenwashing — or rather, welfare-washing.

We need to initiate a big conversation and set a strategic pathway for change. Producers need to be supported through this.

Leaders — especially industry leaders — need to drive the change for the next 100 years and way beyond; and in doing so, protect future generations, our planet and our animals.

Time for a rethink and a reset, or yet another rehash?

Dr Helen Beattie is the Dunedin-based founder of Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Aotearoa (VAWA).




Southern Field Days 2024 - Featured Businesses