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Consumers say they want better animal welfare, but they won’t pay.

- Monday, April 20, 2015
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 vacume, 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.

Anne McClelland commented on 21-Apr-2015 04:02 PM
As a farmer with strong urban connections, I can comment on a few points which arise from this issue. Firstly, there is a wide and growing gap between instinct or sentiment and knowedge among well-meaning urban Australians when animal welfare issues arise. They know very little about what actually goes on on farms, or how they are managed, and make suggestions based on anthropomorphism. "How would you like to be shut up in a containment area, not allowed out, rain hail or shine, and fed only once s day?" Well, I wouldn't, but neither do I enjoy eating oats and barley, I have no woolly coat to insulate me, and though it may sound boastful, I need more intelletual stimulation than a sheep. Facebook a couple of weeks ago exposed a truly sad and troubling situation in which pigs on their way to slaughter in a European country were deprived of water in heatwave conditions. A single pig drank greedily as a passing cyclist supplied water from her bottle. It was horrible to see, and to imagine the other pigs dehydrating and suffering.
We need to be practical and realistic, while ignoring the schmaltz. The double standards of cunsumers - overtly concerned, but practically uncommitted in terms of the hip pocket - is a further indication of how easy it is to talk and how difficult, or unappaealing, to actually DO something.
Anonymous commented on 24-Apr-2015 09:30 AM
As someone who has been farming for 30 years, and who has also been involved in the agripolitical landscape, the notion of the disconnect between production and consumption knowledge and values in not new. It is pleasing to see it highlighted again. There are many ways to tackle any problem, however, fundamental I believe is to rectify this alarming gap in knowledge of how the food we consume is produced, where it comes from, and the resources required to produce it. We have lost this learning through our schools, as the curriculum struggles to meet many demands, it has lost this basic context. Across the national and state curriculums, there should be a mandated theme of understanding food and fibre production. This is not a stand alone subject of agriculture I am talking about, a subject which should form part of curriculum as now, it is a general theme, whereby science, geography, maths, etc would have content matter that covered this context. It is in my belief a fundamental pillar to our future food security. Why. Because it will ensure that within 20 years, we would have a voting population with an understanding of what is needed to produce their food, where it is produced, how it is produced. Why is that important. Because of our growing conundrum of how land, and water will be used in the future, both finite resources and pressure from population growth and industry, Because we need to highlight and celebrate the standards of production here vs some other countries we might choose to import from, Because how can we secure something for your children's future, if we don't know what we have or what we need. It is time that we all asked the question, why is this learning not part of mandated curriculum and worked to see it is. I for one do not want to see policy decision about food resources, and production made in an intellectual vacuum. We need food to live. We have so much we are complacent that this will always be the case. Our resources might bring a different scenario, our climate might challenge it, we need to understand and to bridge the disconnect. The animal welfare lobby operates in and uses this vacuum of understanding to its benefit.
Anonymous commented on 28-Apr-2015 08:13 PM
This article and the comments above show severe ignorance of the issues. Firstly to tackle the comments.

Both these farmers blame their own customers for not knowing how a farm works, extrapolating that with greater knowledge of animal agriculture, people will somehow become more comfortable with the cruelty aspect. Yet in practice, farmers have gone out of their way to keep their practices private and consumers in the dark. Lobby groups such as the National Farmers Federation and their State affiliates have managed to sway the SA government to introduce “ag-gag” laws, with harsh penalties for those who release footage of farms at work. Both the NSW and Federal Agriculture Ministers have referred to people who enter farms armed only with a camera as “terrorists”

Farmers know that their splendid isolation from their customer base is why they’re still in business. They know it’s not in their interest to have “city folk” see their chickens being confined, their lambs being mutilated, their pigs with festering sores and their dairy cows being denied their babies. It’s completely foolish and disingenuous for farmers to suggest that they want consumers to understand how farms work.

Many farmers have a natural siege mentality when it comes to change. Because their grandfather grew wheat and sheep, they seem to think it their duty to grow wheat and sheep. Livestock farming is particularly subject to inertia.

The reality is that it’s not up to farmers to decide what they grow, or to criticize their own customers for their choices; it’s up to farmers to supply what the consumer wants. If the trend is toward veganism, it’s not the farmer’s role to oppose that. It’s this inertia that has driven our local food consumption to a trade deficit; i.e. we now import more than we export. Why for example do we import quinoa, Arborio rice, polenta, nuts, pappadoms, dates etc, when we have ample opportunity to grow them here?

There are plenty of farmers who have identified demand and gone with it. This is why we now have the world’s best olive oil, and a wine industry up there with the best. Livestock farmers constantly complain about the low prices achieved for their animals, without knowing the basic drivers of supply, demand, quantity and price.

To the article, the author has produced a disjointed attempt to present a case, when he clearly doesn’t understand the issues. This is not about importing meat to fill a demand, it’s about diminishing the demand for animal products. Animal rights activists know the conditions animals are held in on farms; their motive is simply to present those images and the context to the public. They know that with curtains open and the truth revealed, consumers will shy away from the cruelty necessitated by the consumption of flesh and excretions.
Ben commented on 01-May-2015 12:13 PM
Firstly, I appreciate all of the above comments and the article itself. I would however like to point out that it's not an "all or nothing" ultimatum, and it's certainly not an "us vs them" kind of dispute.

For your reference; I'm a vegan for most intents and purposes, but occasionally I'll eat fish - I believe pescetarian is the term commonly accepted, but who wants to explain that to family/friends or the restaurant waiter? And you know what, if I visit a friends farm and see first-hand the outstanding welfare conditions of their animals, I may enjoy a piece of steak. My point is that ethical values and dietary preferences are nothing at all like religion - there's more than one God so to speak.

I'm much happier and better-off financially to purchase organically-fed, pesticide-free, ethically raised beef steak at $45/kg to eat once a week compared to stuffing my face 3 meals daily with the $10/kg ground flesh of a tortured animal in an unethical livestock system which is currently commercialised, legalised and identified as the “normal”. I support the portioning of meat-based meals rather than quitting all together and believe that all consumers and livestock animals would benefit from a rationed portioning of high-quality, ethically-sourced meat. Hence my opposition of the previously mentioned ultimatum.

Additionally, I’d like to make mention of the negative, mislabelled homophobic attitude I’m often confronted by when sharing a meal with work colleagues or indeed “friends”. You’re not required to justify your decision to order steak, because I’m not judging. Likewise, I don’t expect to engage in an hour debate of ethics, environmental concerns and dietary benefits in support of my own meal order. Again, it’s not “us vs them”.

Let us not no longer hide the shame of an economy sustaining industry, nor persecute it. Consumers have a right to fair, accurate information just as farmers do to the financial and societal support of its consumers.
Anonymous commented on 01-May-2015 02:45 PM
Thanks for the constructive comments Anne, Sarah and Ben.
I really invite you to have a look at the full research report released on Wednesday (accessible from the homepage of our website, you can also contact me directly if you want to discuss).
I cannot agree more on the need for more and better communication between the community and the farming sector regarding this issue.
Ben, I'm glad you are better and you have found a balance in sourcing your food in accordance to your expectations and knowledge. As you will see in my research work, I'm not discussing the morality of using animals for food, but the results of animal welfare science for the last 40/50 years. It is also important to have a discussion on 'ethic', not you and me, but in Australia. This is why I do recommend the creation of both a scientific and an ethic committee, advising a farm animal welfare council. I also have to agree that it's not 'us versus them' and long lasting improvements of farm animal welfare will need more knowledge, more communication and more partnerships.

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