Marginal or Radical—What’s the Best Way to End Farm Animal Cruelty?

Contrasting systems: The sows in Midland Pig Producers farrowing crates (at left) have access to slightly more space, when (and if) staff open side bars for them. Such small alterations to the intensive confinement system, however, pale in comparison to the life pigs lead on the pasture-based farm as seen in next picture. Photo by Caters News Agency Ltd..by Peter Melchett

All over the world, conditions for the overwhelming majority of farm animals are getting worse. Intensive and industrial pig, poultry, and beef/dairy cattle production factories are getting larger, and their tentacles are spreading into countries like Brazil, Thailand and China, which previously knew mainly traditional livestock systems. Economies of labor are being added to economies of scale and economies of care, to produce ever-cheaper meat and dairy products. Against this depressing background of a seemingly unstoppable tide of farm animal cruelty, it is not surprising that many organizations look for any change for the better, however incremental, because small changes will affect the conditions in which billions of animals are kept and killed. Is this right, or does this approach to achieving change risk making matters worse, by entrenching atrocious systems and delaying the fundamental changes that are really required?

There are two key dangers with incremental change. First, that all those involved—for example, campaigners and farmers—become so bound up in the small changes, and any success in implementing them, that they lose sight of the real goal. Second, the implementation of small steps forward may stop or delay real change. For example, in recent years in Europe we have seen steps to expand hens’ cages or slightly enlarge farrowing crates for sows, often as the result of long drawn out and, at times, bitter campaigns and arguments. Once the industry has made that incremental change, they feel that they have done all that is needed. If the campaign victory has been achieved through appeals to the public and resulting support, the public will feel they have helped achieve what is needed. Yet in the cases I have mentioned for farm animals, they have not. Particularly for pigs and poultry, industrial systems have moved so far from anything that can meet the animals’ reasonable requirements for a decent or healthy life that most incremental changes are, in reality, insignificant in terms of real animal welfare benefits. Where incremental change is not always insignificant is in the negative impact it can have on others trying to achieve much more radical change.

In the United States, similar battles have taken place. Last year an alliance was announced between the industry body representing the majority of egg producers and an animal welfare group. The agreement between these unlikely allies was to work together to introduce federal legislation to create a moratorium on new construction of battery cages. This seemed a reasonable step forward; ending all caged egg production would have been an enormous welfare advancement. But sadly for the hens, what was actually agreed upon was to work toward taking hens out of standard battery cages and incarcerate them in slightly larger “enriched” cages, with a staggering 15-year time period to phase out standard cages. The industry saw this agreement as a way to avoid the need to go from caged to cage-free egg production, and the reality is that this proposed 15-year period will end up with painfully small changes in the actual welfare of hens.

The life pigs lead on the pasture-based farm. Photo by Peter Melchett.I farm organically on about 900 acres of largely arable land in Norfolk, in the East of England. After we went organic on our farm in 2000, we started keeping pigs. I learned a huge amount, in particular that sows are social animals who like living, nesting and rearing young together. If families of four or five sows are brought up together, and if they have a reasonable amount of space and a good healthy diet, including food from grass and soil they can root in, they will not fight or injure each other. Pigs kept this way are naturally healthy and vital: they hardly ever succumb to disease, require no antibiotics or other drugs, and if they go to slaughter together, and are handled quietly and sensitively, can be killed humanely to produce very good quality, healthy food. Under these conditions, the pigs can happily live in a manner similar to how wild boar themselves live. No mutilations or other measures are needed to stop pigs attacking each other. For pigs to live like this, you need a breed which has lost less of the resilient wild boar characteristics, and has not lost the ability to mother and care for young. We are talking about a very different approach from any indoor or intensive system.

These systems also require radical changes from us, and what we eat. For a chicken to live a decent life, I think the bird needs to live in a much smaller group than any yet envisaged. Chickens need to live in circumstances where they have daily access to the outdoors with good levels of cover, ideally of high grasses or similar crops, shrubs and trees, which mimic the habitats where the chicken’s ancestors—jungle fowl—live in the forests of the Himalayas. We can only keep animals like chickens and pigs in decent conditions if we eat far fewer of them, and if they cost us more.

As I have noted, farm animal welfare organizations are rightly concerned about the global spread of the U.S. industrial livestock model in pigs and poultry, and also in dairy and beef production, particularly in the southern hemisphere and Eastern Europe. Here, the systems which have the best potential for meeting the needs of farm animals are being wiped out by the mega-factories. I do not believe that there is any coherent argument which can suggest that most minor changes in these industrial systems will help move global societies to make radical changes in what we eat, how much we pay for meat and dairy products, and how we keep farm animals decently.

Minimal changes—for example, in the size of an isolated, metal, noisy, and industrial sow farrowing crate—do all the things which prevent us making the changes we need to make. The breed of sow will not change. The sow and her piglets need never see daylight, or feel sun on their backs. The piglets may have to be mutilated to prevent them attacking each other, and will usually be routinely treated with a range of drugs to keep them alive and putting on weight. The pigs will live on slatted floors over the pits where their urine and manure falls. The bare concrete pens will lead to boredom and aberrant behaviors. Economies of scale will apply, and economics will drive units to get ever larger. There is now clear scientific evidence that larger livestock units give rise to higher risk of disease, not only to the animals incarcerated in them but also to the people working with those animals and to local communities.

I believe that animal welfare organizations should not condone or encourage the development of practices like “enriched” cages or larger sow farrowing crates, which will enable larger and larger livestock factories to be built, because of the animal welfare threat that increased levels of disease pose to the animals—let alone the threat to human beings. These approaches provide at best only marginal improvements in the welfare of the animals themselves, which still cannot engage in any worthwhile natural behaviors, and remain in stressful and unhealthy environments. Also, once industrial farmers have invested in the slightly larger “enriched” cages or larger farrowing crates or other such marginal changes, it becomes particularly hard to expect any further significant change.

These marginal changes can also deceive the public into thinking the problem is solved, increasing the market for cruel meat, dairy products, and eggs. While the changes may cause marginal additional capital costs to new factories, they will rarely add significantly to the key costs of feed and labor—costs which would start to reduce the price gap with genuinely welfare-friendly systems. Indeed, to encourage the marginal change, some will argue that they may reduce costs, improve efficiency, or reduce premature deaths—thus further securing the future of the industrial system. Explicit or even implicit animal welfare endorsement of slightly improved, but fundamentally cruel and wrong systems can even encourage further investment and expansion, and ultimately threaten the market for truly welfare-friendly farming.

Of course, all this is definitely not to argue against all marginal changes. Some really will help move an industry along the road to radical change by highlighting shortcomings, increasing costs, and making new investment in cruel systems less likely. For example, restrictions on routine antibiotic and other drug use in industrial livestock systems highlight the fact that such systems rely on drugs to keep farm animals alive and growing. Restrictions on drug use means operators have to change management to try to avoid disease, at greater cost than routinely dosing animals with drugs. Uncertainty about future availability of antibiotics and other drugs makes large industrial livestock factories, with their proven vulnerability to disease, a riskier investment.

There are some changes we can fight for which may appear marginal, but which in reality speed the demise of cruel systems and help the growth of high welfare farming. But in the end, we need radical changes that will start to reduce the cruelty that most livestock farming has embraced over the last 60 years, and reverse the devastating impact that industrial livestock farming has had on the environment and human health.

Peter Melchett has been Policy Director of the Soil Association, the UK’s main organic food and farming organization, working on campaigns, standards and policy, since 2001.  He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle and arable seed crops. He is a member of the BBC’s Rural Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Government’s Rural Climate Change Forum and Organic Action Plan Group, and the Department of Education’s School Lunches Review Panel.