Despite Australia’s very strong international reputation for high farm animal welfare standards, there is hardly a week goes by without some sort of media coverage of a claim about the suffering of livestock under Australian farming systems.
This past week it was the very weird PETA campaign, summarised here, telling consumers to avoid purchasing woollen products. Interestingly, the campaign relied on a picture of a so-called celebrity holding what appeared to be a plastic lamb that had been splashed with some very fake looking ‘blood’ – presumably because PETA was unable to find a sheep or lamb displaying similar real injuries. The aim of these activist campaigns – be it by Animal Australia, PETA or Animal Liberation is primarily to generate funding for the organisations, not to improve farm animal welfare.
In fact, all these groups aim to stop livestock farming in Australia – although what this would do in terms of animal welfare is questionable, given the nation would simply import animal products from elsewhere.
Part of the reason these campaigns seem to attract attention is the lack of connection between Australian consumers, and the livestock industries that provide their daily food. This lack of connection creates a knowledge vacuum, that activist groups are only too happy to fill. This leads at least some consumers to believe that by supporting the activist campaigns (usually with money) they are helping to improve the welfare of farm animals – which is not the case. Meanwhile, they happily purchase products on the basis of price, without any consideration of what their purchase decision means in terms of animal welfare. The market for processed pigmeat in Australia is a case in point – with few consumers understanding that much of the processed pigmeat on Australian retail shelves is actually imported from locations that do not impose the same welfare requirements on pig farms as Australia does – which as a consequence makes Australian products more expensive.
This problem is starting to be recognised in nations such as Germany. The problem in that nation is that the “community” is demanding higher animal welfare standards on German farms, while “consumers” (often the very same people) are making purchase decisions that favour products imported from Eastern European nations that do not have the same animal welfare standards as Germany does. This dilemma has recently been explained very clearly in a policy document released by the German Government entitled “Pathways to a socially accepted livestock husbandry in Germany”. You can read more here. In summary, the German Government has acknowledged that community pressure is forcing it to implement more stringent animal welfare and environmental guidelines, but
“The concrete implementation of the guidelines will lead to additional costs on a roughly estimated scale of 13 to 23 % (in total, around 3 to 5 billion Euro a year) for most livestock farms. The additional costs would lead—given a value-added share of agriculture in the consumer end price of around 25 % and the simple passing on of these costs—to an increase in consumer prices of around 3 to 6 %. This equals the declared willingness to pay of a large share of the population. However, because of a lack of both concepts and international market integration, this willingness to pay is not currently realised. Without accompanying policy measures, a cost increase of this kind would lead to the relocation of some production to countries with lower animal welfare standards due to the competitive pressure in the meat and milk industry, which is characterised by cost leadership. This would then thwart animal welfare goals”. (German Department of Agriculture, March 2015)
The German Government has very clearly recognised that, in a free trade environment, the market alone will not result in improvements to farm animal welfare in Germany. Encouraged by activists, consumers make a lot of noise about animal welfare, but then express the exact opposite sentiment when given the choice at the supermarket checkout. Unfortunately, some governments in Australia are yet to understand this, and the implications that flow from it. The most obvious case in point is the ACT Government, which has banned ‘factory farming’ in the ACT, knowing full well that this is a purely political gesture, that will not in any way change farming practices or consumer behaviour, and ACT consumers will continue to happily purchase food from so-called factory farms in other states.
Finding ways to address this contrast between consumer sentiment and consumer behaviour is a growing challenge in Australia. The Australian Government has little involvement in farm animal welfare (apart from livestock exports), which leaves various state governments with this responsibility. The result, not surprisingly, is a mish-mash of different policies and standards, and a great deal of confusion for farmers and consumers about what terms like ‘free-range’ actually mean, and why they are different in different states.
The Australian Farm Institute has recently completed a major research project examining these issues, and considering better ways to manage this issue in Australia. The research findings will be released at a forthcoming seminar, entitled ‘Designing balanced and effective farm-animal welfare policies’ Learn more here.
This article was originally published on the Australian Farm Institute website. Click here to view the original article.