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.


9 thoughts on “50 Sheds of Grey – Mega Farms and Animal Welfare Are Not Black and White Issues

  1. Good blog – enjoyed reading it. A few comments:
    1) My only comparison between dogs and intensively reared pigs was their daily living conditions, not about the fact that they are slaughtered. I accept that our culture has a different approach to dogs and pigs, so comparisons cannot be made directly, but I do think that the five freedoms are the five freedoms, across all species. It’s silly to bring house spiders into it: a different level of consciousness completely.
    2) You talk about objectivity: tell me what you think about the fact that the EU directive on tail docking is regularly ignored? Do you think that living conditions for pigs in intensive units give them a life worth living? Have you ever been inside an intensive pig unit?
    3) Poultry had to be housed because the specific risk for avian flu was exposure to wild birds and they are outdoors: this is a very specific exception to the rule that life outdoors bring many behavioural benefits for livestock.
    4) Anthropomorphism is less of a “dirty word” than it used to be. Recent studies have shown that the consciousness of animals is far more similar to our own than we’d like to think. OK, they don’t have large forebrains that allow them to worry, to ponder and to plan, but the rest of their brain is surprisingly similar to our own. They share the same neurotransmitters, and the same parts of the brain are activated when they are in fear, in pain, bored, or stressed. So the new principle is “critical anthropomorphism” – I’d recommend you read this chapter of a recent book to learn more about this https://nuffieldbioethics.org/wp-content/uploads/Animals-Chapter-4-The-Capacity-of-Animals-to-Experience-Pain-Distress-and-Suffering.pdf
    5) You say animal welfare is intangible. I say the five freedoms are easy to objectively assess. Welfare is only intangible if you deliberately choose to try to fudge it.
    6) A local farmer where I live keeps 100 beef suckler cows. He knows them individually, and ensures that they live enjoyable lives, grazing outside (and having access to shelter in foul weather). He takes batches of 6 – 8 cows to the slaughterhouse himself. He has checked it out, he knows that it’s been designed along Temple Grandin lines, causing minimal stress to his beasts. This is how livestock farming should be: he enjoys his work, he knows it’s done as it should be, and the beef he produces sells at a premium price.
    Can a mega farm really give animals this same type of experience? My local farmer is an extreme contrast, but it emphasises the point that animals are individuals, and the more we cram them into high density population sheds, the less we see them as individuals, and the more we are likely to allow them to suffer.
    So my question is for our society: do we want to treat animals as numbers, or do we want to grant them the dignity of seeing them as individual sentient beings? The right answer is probably somewhere in the middle, and that does not mean mega farms, I’m afraid.


    • Many thanks for your thoughtful comments Pete.
      1) The five freedoms are great, but we know so much more about welfare now than when these were first developed in 1979 – although they provide a simple and easy benchmark, there’s definitely time for some revision. Aside from anything else, there’s room for considerable manoeuvre within the freedoms. To give an extreme example, should we prohibit castration of livestock (or indeed pets) to give males the opportunity to express natural mating behaviours? What about the use of cages to confine young (or even not so young) dogs while their owners are out of the house? The five freedoms apply and are applied to both small and large farms (whether housed or not) and are an integral part of farm assurance schemes. When we (as an industry) need to change practices for welfare reasons, we do (tail docking, gestation crates, etc), yet, as with everything else in food production, it must be science and evidence-based, not led by anthropomorphism, critical or otherwise.
      2) No, I do not condone any animal welfare legislation being ignored, either here or overseas. This is unacceptable and I hope it was clear from the original blog post that I believe animal welfare to be paramount. However, as noted above, this must be based on science. Yes, given my education (BSc in Agriculture and Animal Science, PhD in Ruminant Nutrition and Behaviour) and academic career (Cornell and Washington State Universities) I have naturally been on both intensive and extensive pig units. My major observation is that the health and welfare of pigs is entirely dependent on the management of the animals, regardless of the herd size or system. Some practices are unacceptable (tail docking etc) and again, I make no excuses for those. However, do I consider that a pig in a well-managed intensive unit has a “bad” life? No.
      3) I’d suggest contacting some of the many cattle and sheep vets who work with farm livestock on a daily basis. Biosecurity is paramount on almost all farms, just as it is in catteries, veterinary surgeries etc. Although the avian flu housing was an exception, it is not as uncommon as you might suggest, nor are bans on livestock movement in the event of disease or potential disease (e.g. foot and mouth, TB, etc).
      4) Many thanks for the critical anthropomorphism link, will take a look. For a more balanced view, it would have perhaps been more useful in your article if you had applied this to the pro-mega farm component too, rather than just the anti-mega farm section. When one argument is made on emotive grounds and the other on rather cold economics/efficiencies, despite the obvious emotive arguments about being able to maintain a comfortable temperature away from wind, rain and snow; having rations precisely targeted to meet every nutritional requirement, being protected from predators etc in a housed system, it does rather lead to accusations of bias.
      5) See above re: five freedoms.
      6) The suckler farm sounds great, though it’s 100 cows is actually a pretty large suckler herd for the UK! Certainly sounds idyllic and there’s absolutely a place for this system, as well as for more intensive systems. However, I’d really encourage you to speak to and visit some cattle producers – I’d be happy to put you in touch with some who have small, medium and large herds. Off the top of my head I can think of four who all have absolutely excellent health and welfare – one is organic (Sussex), two use grazing for as much of the year as they can (Cumbria and W Sussex), and the other has a very large housed operation (Somerset). While it’s easy to suggest that there’s an ideal system, in my experience there really isn’t.
      Finally, we still face a dichotomy, as I discussed. If we really care about individual sentient beings, how do we reconcile that with killing them for meat? I know I struggle with that question, as do many others. As a (non-agricultural|) person commented to me this morning, caring for an animal as if it’s a pet and then sending it to be eaten seems rather hypocritical.


      • Thanks for the detailed reply.
        A pint in a local pub is probably a better environment to really discuss this stuff – I suspect we agree more than we realise.
        I agree that there are many examples where we are not consistent in our attitudes to animals: for example, in Norway, it is illegal to spay or neuter pets because it’s seen as unethical, done for human interest only. Yet the incidence of mammary cancer in female dogs over there is far, far higher than in other countries because of the cancer-causing impact of female hormones.
        And never mind the indoor cages for dogs; why don’t we let them roam free through the streets, as I’m sure they’d love to do.
        There is necessary compromise everywhere, but this is largely for the greater good of society. It’s easy to forget that we create the society around us: it does not just “happen”. We need to decide what compromises we want to allow, having looked at the pros and cons.
        I know that, done well, megafarms can be a force for good, yet if I look at what I see wrong with agriculture on a global scale, I have to point a finger at industrial style livestock production. If I lived in the USA, I would be vegan for sure. Such abuses of animal welfare could not happen on such a big scale without megafarms.
        So maybe I am guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but there’s so much dirty bathwater that I find it easy to do so.
        I would love to hear about a specific example of an industrial scale pig farm where the pigs live lives worth living: please let me know.
        Yup – how does one justify killing a sentient being that wants to live? I agree that this causes cognitive dissonance that is only fully relieved by being vegan.
        My rationale in the last has been that only humans have the comprehension to be able to fully understand what’s happening around them. Cattle don’t know that their herd mates are going to the abattoir. As long as animals are not aware of their impending death, they have no fear.
        Re: suckler farm – I know I don’t have all the details right – it’s an approximate example.
        I would love to visit all sorts of farms – I used to be in mixed practice but that was over 25 years ago and I know things have changed hugely. In particular, I would like to visit a mega farm: I am heading to North America later this summer, and I will do my best to seek one out.
        Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this. This is our future and it deserves mature and detailed reflection.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Pete- Yes, I suspect you’re right – far more nuanced issues that either of us can fully express in blog posts or media articles – we could fill multiple volumes. Everything always easier to sort out with a pint in a good pub though!
      That’s really interesting re: spaying/neutering pets. Is confinement the only way that overbreeding is prevented in Norway? Ironically, we could argue that owning (thus controlling) pets is also merely in the human interest! At what point do we draw the line between animal and human interest? Makes me think of the dehorning calves argument too (though absolutely no doubt that anaesthetic should be used, that’s not in doubt) – possible to have very serious injuries to farm workers or other cattle from horns. Perhaps in future we’ll be able to genetically select accurately enough that polled cattle will be the norm in every breed.
      I was vegan when I was 15 but started eating meat etc again once I was 16. I do sometimes wonder whether I could go vegetarian or vegan again, especially as I love vegetables, but I do value the nutritional value and taste of animal products too much to give them up again. Not a 3-steaks-per-day person, but also the cognitive dissonance is stronger for some animals than others. Poultry = no problem, cattle/sheep/pigs = more tricky to ignore the issue, for me at least.
      My focus is on cattle, but, I’ll link you to a lady on Twitter who I know will (or certainly should!) have the right connections re: pigs. I worked in the USA for 8.5 years, so do let me know if you’d like any mega farm contacts over there. Can also point you to a dairy mega farm over here if you’re interested.


  2. Pardon me Pete and Jude for interjecting here but there is a definite flaw in your 6th point Pete. Your local farmer that takes 6-8 cows to be slaughtered (I’m assuming once a year) will provide enough food to feed only a few families. How many local farmers with 6-8 cows slaughtered annually will it take to feed a nation of hungry people?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tim – you misunderstood – he has 100 cows, producing 100 calves which he rears to slaughter – so that’s 100 per year (approximately). He takes them to slaughter in small batches of 6 – 8. The point is that yes, the meat would be more expensive, and no there would not be enough for current beef consumption, but there’s an argument that it would be better for all of us (health, environment, animal welfare) to eat less meat, and to value it more.


    • To be fair Pete, a 100 cow suckler unit will only produce 85 calves at best per year, even with excellent reproduction, given the impacts of fertility, mortality and the need to keep some heifers back to replace the existing cows. However, it’s worth noting that although the farmer may well send cattle to slaughter year-round, each of those grass-fed cattle take ~24 months (or longer) to rear to slaughter weight compared to 16-18 months (in the UK) if they’re finished in a feedyard. Those extra months, in combination with greater methane emissions on a forage-based diet will significantly increase the carbon footprint. More details here: http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/2/2/127 We face quite a challenge in weighing up the relative importances of welfare, carbon emissions, resource use, food supply etc.


  4. Pete,
    In arguing against larger farms, which by the way are often more efficient, better staffed and more focused on animal health and welfare than smaller units, you cite a 100 cow suckler herd you know well. The implication is that this is a small herd, while in fact it is above average size in England (granted Scottish suckler herds tend to be slightly larger, but most do not finish their cattle for slaughter). You might be interested to look at the stats for the year ending March 2016 here http://beefandlamb.ahdb.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Beef-Lamb-Stocktake-Report-2016-281116.pdf In truth, in terms of size your herd is the norm, not the exception. Also if your farmer is rearing 80-90 calves a year in an extensive system ~20-24 months to slaughter (s)he would be expected to have >250 cattle on the farm at any one time (depending on the calving pattern and time of year). This is certainly not a small herd. You seem to rather disprove your own argument!


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