50 Sheds of Grey – Mega Farms and Animal Welfare Are Not Black and White Issues

Further to yesterday’s blog post here, I was asked for my views on this article in the Telegraph by companion animal vet Pete Wedderburn. Given my propensity to use 17 words when three will do (I blame PhD training…) it was easier to blog about it than reply via Twitter.

TelegraphTo be fair to Dr Wedderburn, his article does note the importance of economies of scale and potential for targeted veterinary care on large operations; and it’s absolutely true that we, as consumers, demand affordable food. The average Briton spends only 8.2% of their income on food. Given how much we should value the nutritional advantages provided by meat, milk and eggs for growth, development and health, I have no issue with the suggestion that we should pay more (if needed) for higher welfare animal products.

Yet that’s where the argument gets difficult, and in the case of the Telegraph article, moves away from logic, science and economics towards anthropomorphism, emotion and the supposition that we can assess animal welfare based on human experience. If there was an emotive language quotient for the article, it went up significantly in the anti-mega-farm section.

Unpalatable (pun intended) a truth as it may be, we do not apply to the same standards to animals that we intend to eat (cows, pig, chickens) as to companion animals (it’s somewhat amusing that the Telegraph article was published within the “Pets” section), or indeed to animals that we consider to be pests (rats, mice, insects etc). Do many of us worry about the living conditions of house spiders or wasps, aside how we can kill them when they become a menace? No. Activist groups claim that this is speciesism, but I’d contend that it’s simply a factor of being human. We cannot have our bacon and eat it – if we apply the same standards to pets and farm animals (eliminating the “double standard” cited in the article) then perhaps by extension, just as we wouldn’t tuck into a steak from our pet labrador, we should cease to eat farm animals.

The ultimate irony is that, if asked, none of us would be happy to be killed and eaten. Slaughter is an inevitable truth of meat production, regardless of the conditions in which the animal is reared – if we cannot reconcile ourselves to the fact that we, as humans, would not be happy with that outcome, can we really assume that we can speak for animals’ preferences in any other circumstance?

“Animal welfare is a significant one [issue]: intensively kept farm animals never experience the open air, and never see blue skies” Being outside in the sunshine is undeniably lovely. However, we’re in the midst of the ill-named British “summer”. The rain is driving down and the Hereford cattle in the field I drove past five minutes ago were sheltering under a tree, ironically, voluntarily choosing to be in far closer quarters than cattle housed in a shed. We need to move away from the pervasive but false image of perpetual blue skies and sunshine. Would I personally wish to exist within the human equivalent of a battery cage? Of course not. Yet neither would I wish to be outside in pouring rain and cold wind. It’s all about balance. Do I know what a cow, chicken or pig prefers? No. We need further research to elucidate animal preferences and, *if* required, to amend our farming systems.

Animal health is another concern: with thousands of animals living so closely together, the risk of rapid spread of contagious disease must be higher.” At face value – true. However, as with so many rhetorical statements, this bears further examination. The risk is higher. Not the incidence, nor the mortality or impact on the animals, the risk. We can have a significant increase in risk that still makes little difference to the likelihood of an event happening. Take, for example, the announcement that processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer by 18%. Immediate media reaction? “Bacon will totally kill you!” Actual change in relative risk for the average person? An increase from 5 people out of every 100 contracting colon cancer, to 6 people out of every 100. Using blanket statements about increased risk, without backing them with any science or relative risk metrics (i.e. the likelihood of an incident actually occurring) is meaningless, yet an effective fear-mongering tool. If any farm (regardless of size) has excellent health plans in place, employs effective veterinary supervision and treatment and has appropriate biosecurity and isolation for sick animals, there is no reason to suggest that disease X will spread unchecked. Why did the UK government mandate for poultry to be housed when the risk of avian influenza was high? Because it’s spread by contact with wild birds and poultry, in precisely the supposedly healthy conditions proposed by the Telegraph article.

The supposition that “…if something does go wrong, it can go wrong on a massive scale, affecting thousands of animals at one time” is again correct – with one significant caveat. Relative risk again comes into play – why would a ventilation system be more likely to fail on a large operation than a small operation? A risk may exist, but again, it’s the relative risk (ignored by the Telegraph article) that is more important. To use a human example, if the power supply fails to a large hospital, we would assume that they would have more back-up systems in place than in a small cottage hospital. Why should Dr Wedderburn assume that large farms do not have operating procedures and practices in place to deal with disaster situations? In the USA last year, 35,000 cattle died during a two-day snowstorm, the majority not housed, but in open fields. Being able to control the environment and feed supply is a major advantage of housed systems – assuming the worst case scenario is business as usual is misleading at best.

Animal welfare is a useful tool with which to bash specific farming operations, because it carries a certain intangibility. What does good animal welfare really mean? How is it assessed? Are healthy animals automatically “happy” or in a good welfare state? Perhaps it’s time to revisit and challenge the rhetoric. Given that high-producing livestock should, by definition, be healthy, does that mean that we can use milk or meat yield as an indicator of welfare? Not necessarily. If we have to reduce the use of critically-important antibiotics, will animal welfare suffer? Not if we use other husbandry measures to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place (see figure below). Is a cow who is genetically programmed to produce 40 kg of milk per day automatically more stressed than one who is only programmed to produce 20 kg of milk? Few people would suggest that a woman capable of producing copious quantities of breast milk is more stressed than one producing a small amount, yet we try to apply this logic to livestock.

Langford CIA decreaseEmotion is a far more effective tool to lead conversations about controversial issues than science – perhaps its time to take the bull by the horns and get in touch with our touchy-feely side to communicate as the activists do. Ultimately we need to reassure consumers that, as with all issues, there’s no ideal or one-size-fits-all farming system, just a million shades (sheds!) of grey.

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How Many Vegans Does it Take to Change a Dairy Industry? It Depends How We Look at the Numbers

Jerseys in parlourThe Advertising Standards Authority in the UK have just ruled that it’s permissible for vegan campaigners to use emotive terminology to describe dairy production, on the grounds that the claims made do represent dairy farming methods.  Thus, phrases such as “mothers, still bloody from birth, searched and called frantically for their babies” are sanctioned as legitimate, despite the anthropomorphic language and lack of sound scientific evidence for loss- or grief-type emotions in dairy cows.

Excellent animal welfare should be the cornerstone of every livestock production system, including the non-tangible and therefore difficult to measure emotional side of animal welfare, yet using these types of emotive phrases does not really appear to be advancing the vegan cause. As quoted in the Times article, 540,000 people in Britain enjoy a vegan diet at present, up from 150,000 in 2006.

That’s a considerable number, approximately equal to the population of Manchester (City, not Greater Manchester) or the number of people in the UK who are aged 90+, yet as a percentage of the total British population, less than one percent (0.82% to be exact) choose a vegan diet. Is the proportion increasing? Yes. The equivalent percentage in 2006 was 0.25%, yet even at today’s figures, 99.18% of the British population are non-vegans. Are there any other situations where we would consider than less than 1% of the population to have a significant influence? Possibly not.

Bad news bias factory farm

Given that it takes five pieces of positive information to negate the impact of one piece of negative information, it’s more crucial than ever to get simple, factual, attractive messages out to the general public about dairy farming. Rather than campaigning against emotive activist claims, we need to reach out to the 99.18% of people who have not removed animal products from their diet and reassure them that they’re making appropriate food choices for themselves and their children.

Let’s Raise a Glass to the Dairy Cow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday is Cow Appreciation Day and Elanco Animal Health have kindly asked me to write a few words for their 360º blog in praise of the magnificent foster mother of the human race. Here’s a short extract to whet your appetite:

…My 3-year-old daughter often tells me: “Mummy, milk is important to help me grow” and, although we are incredibly lucky to live in a world with myriad food choices, it’s important to bear in mind that not all foods positioned near to dairy products in the supermarket have the same nutritional benefits.

In conversations with fellow parents, I have often heard the suggestion that young children should be transitioned away from dairy milk towards soy or other beverages, in the belief that any drink sold as “milk” is nutritionally-equivalent. The European Court of Justice recently ruled that plant-based beverages such as soy, almond or rice juice can no longer be labelled as “milk”, therefore this may reduce parental confusion, yet it seems that replacing dairy products with plant-based foods has already had significant effects…

The full text (with many other great commentaries) is available here. Enjoy!

How Now, Old Cow? Do “Slaughter-Free” Dairy Farms Come at an Unsustainable Cost?

As consumers, we’re more like sheep than we’d like to admit – that is, if sheep were tempted to buy food based on “free from” marketing. Gluten-free, fat-free, lactose-free, dairy-free and GMO-free labels are already firmly stamped on many of the foods we buy in shops and restaurants, and are associated with an invisible yet potent, virtuous halo. After all, if a slice of cake is gluten-free, it must be positively healthy.

The latest marketing wheeze appears to be “slaughter-free” dairy production – a 30 cow herd in Rutland, described as a bovine spiritual utopia, where calves are not weaned but run with cows as “grazing partners”; male calves (renamed as ”oxen”) are used for draught power rather than reared as beef; and once cows retire from milking, they are literally put out to pasture rather than being culled.

There’s no doubt that this ticks an entire list of ethical boxes – who doesn’t want to imagine that cows live a happy life browsing the buttercups once they’re too old to produce milk? Yet, given the critical need to produce food sustainably (in terms of economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability), it also leads to a number of questions.

While there may well be a niche market of consumers who are prepared to pay £4.50 per litre for slaughter-free milk; in an era when we primarily choose foods based on price, is this endeavour going to achieve long-term economic sustainability?

Food purchases for EU consumers

The environmental impact of dairy production increases with the proportion of non-producing (dry cows, growing heifers or “retired” cows) in the population – keeping retired cows out on pasture would be expected to add a huge quantity of greenhouse gases to the carbon footprint per litre of milk produced. Carbon footprint and resource use per litre is also negatively correlated with milk production – the low yields associated with this type of hand-milking operation would further add to its environmental impact. How do we, as consumers, balance the relative values of animal welfare and planetary health?

FAO LCA 2

In a system where no cattle are slaughtered, but where cows need to have a calf on a regular basis to produce milk, the herd size will increase exponentially over time. In two, five or ten years time, how will the owners reconcile philosophical arguments against slaughter with the difficulty of supplying enough feed to fulfil the requirements of an ever-expanding herd using a fixed quantity of pasture?

Finally, and most importantly, animal welfare should be the cornerstone of any dairy farm. Euthanasia is upsetting, yet is the only option when animals are too sick or injured to survive. As consumers, we need to take responsibility for the fact that slaughter of both healthy animals (for meat) and sick animals (for humane reasons) is an unavoidable, if unpalatable truth. Just as the recent ban on cattle slaughter for beef in India is going to have negative impacts on food security, economic sustainability and environmental impacts, it’s time that we faced up to the reality of food production and stop thinking that we can have our slaughter-free dairy and eat it!