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Approaches to promoting animal welfare

In proposing how to promote the welfare of farm animals, exponents of the Standard Critique generally offer two main options: either adoption of a vegetarian diet as a way of avoiding the products of intensive animal production entirely, or a return to the type of agriculture that preceded intensification. These prescriptions were made prominently in the 1970s and 1980s by many Standard Critique authors.

A quarter of a century later, it is difficult to retain much optimism that these proposals are adequate to solve the problems of farm animal welfare. In industrialized countries, the call for vegetarianism has not been highly effective: per capita meat consumption appears to have halted its former increase, but it has levelled off at a very high per capita rate (Annex Table 4). Moreover, any decrease caused by vegetarianism in industrialized countries has been more than offset by increased meat consumption in less industrialized countries as human prosperity has increased (Annex Table 4). As a result, net global meat consumption is showing large and steady increases. Moreover, while there has been growth in alternative production systems such as organic and free-range (Vaarst et al., 2004), much of the increase in global animal production is almost certainly a result of increases in medium- to large-scale confinement production. Hence, in most of the world, vegetarianism and a return to small-scale farming, however satisfying they may be as personal-choice options for individuals, are not working out as practical, social-policy solutions that promote animal welfare. Instead, we need social-policy solutions that will promote animal welfare in a world where vast amounts of animal products will continue to be eaten, and where much animal production will continue to follow intensive production models. The alternative hypothesis suggests several alternative approaches for addressing animal welfare concerns.

First, following the idea that traditional ethical values regarding animal care have not disappeared, but rather that severe economic constraints limit farmers' ability to act on these values, instead of condemning the values of producers, we need to find ways that animal care values can be encouraged and sustained. We might begin by identifying those producers who adhere to strong animal care values and enlisting them to help identify what actions would free them to raise animals in ways they consider appropriate.

Second, if the problem is not excessive profit-taking by greedy corporations but inadequate profits to support practices that promote animal welfare, then a large part of the solution will need to be economic. Specifically, producers will need to be protected from the market pressures that force them to cut back on space, bedding, ventilation, staff time, salary levels and other factors that play a key role in animal welfare. Examples of such remedies include: (1) product-differentiation programmes that provide premium prices for products produced according to specific standards; (2) government programmes to help producers adjust to animal welfare standards, perhaps modelled after monetary incentives to encourage conversion to organic methods; (3) purchasing agreements whereby corporate customers (chain restaurants, retail chains) agree to pay higher prices in return for guarantees of animal welfare standards; and (4) supply-management programmes that ensure that prices paid to producers reflect the cost of producing animal products in a manner that conforms to agreed animal welfare standards (Fraser, 2006). One challenge will be to harmonize such programmes across countries and to counter any tendency of international trade rules to force producers into pursuing lowest-cost methods.

Third, if the key issue is not so much confinement housing per se as the costcutting that evolved with it, then we need a different focus in advocating changes to production methods. The pressure for animal welfare reform should not focus simply on eliminating indoor systems, but on identifying and correcting the key management factors affecting animal welfare in all systems. This is a much more complex programme than simply calling for an end to confinement, but it would create opportunities for animal advocates and animal producers to pursue common goals. Some progress has been made in this regard. In the Canadian Province of Alberta, for example, a cooperative programme involving the animal protection movement and livestock producers has resulted in training, inspection, enforcement and research, which both sides support (AFAC).

Fourth, if the move towards large confinement units is ultimately a result of such powerful forces as market economics and the growth of global trade, then instead of trying to counteract these forces, a more effective strategy may be to pursue animal welfare programmes designed to function with vast numbers of animals in confinement systems. Examples of such programmes are the European Union directives setting minimum standards for confinement production methods throughout its member countries (Stevenson, 2004), the initiative by the World Organisation for Animal Health to create internationally harmonized standards in areas such as animal transport and slaughter (Bayvel, 2004) and programmes initiated by international corporations that require that certain standards be followed in their supply chains (Brown, 2004).

Fifth, as long-distance trade in animal products increases further through trade liberalization, we need to ensure that this trend does not lead to a new phase of near-zero profits and further constraints on producers' ability to act in ways that favour animal welfare.

Finally, we may need to change our vision of what constitutes a good animal producer. The ideal envisaged by the Standard Critique would be to turn intensive producers into small-scale farmers who use non-confinement production methods. Undoubtedly there are producers with a traditional agrarian mentality who would embrace such a vision, but many would not. However, the alternative hypothesis suggests a different ideal model for animal producers, one that emphasizes a high level of animal management skill, scientific knowledge, staff management ability, a professional ethic of animal care and an appreciation of the need to conform to standards. This model - emphasizing professionalism rather than agrarianism - would provide an alternative vision that many agricultural producers might find more appealing and more achievable.

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