Designing balanced and effective farm animal welfare policies for Australia

Farm animal welfare is becoming a flashpoint of misunderstanding between the agricultural sector and the general Australian community. At the heart of the misunderstanding is increasingly divided perceptions about what constitutes ‘farm animal welfare’. It seems, the general community is being encouraged to believe that what is depicted in children’s storybooks is the ‘natural’ state for farm animals, with the concept often based on personification of the animal, including attributions of human emotions and instincts. On the other hand, farmers working with animals take animal health very seriously and have developed a different definition of animal welfare based on observation and the need to maintain livestock productivity.

Recent policies and private retailers’ initiatives have contributed to this misunderstanding, as illustrated by the rapidly enacted but short-lived ban on the export of live cattle to Indonesia in 2010, or the unilateral promotion of specific practices like sow-stall pork and free-range eggs by major supermarket chains. While the adoption of these measures accords with community perceptions and consumer expectations, the extent to which these actions improve farm animal welfare is much harder to define.

The Australian Farm Institute (AFI) is undertaking a research project that involves a comprehensive review of animal welfare science, and the extent to which government policies and private-sector ‘standards’ have a basis in that science and therefore have the potential to improve farm animal welfare. This project aims to document constructive ways to improve the alignment between farm animal welfare policy and farm animal welfare science in Australia.

A review of existing literature will clarify how today’s scientists understand and measure animal welfare. The review will discuss the role of ethics and beliefs in the animal welfare debate while remaining focused on objective science. The research will examine why ‘animal welfare’ is still often associated with ‘animal cruelty’. The concepts of ‘five freedoms’ or a ‘life worth living’ underpinning most farm animal policies worldwide will be examined. The review will also discuss developments that are leading to greater linkages between animal welfare standards and trade laws, and how these developments may play out in the near future.

The desktop analysis will be complemented by interviews with managers from the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE), chairs and experts of animal welfare committees in Australia and overseas, as well as discussion with policy-makers and farm animal welfare program managers.

The study will examine the current Australian public policies addressing farm animal welfare. The Australian Constitution gives the states and territories responsibility for prevention of animal cruelty, with the Federal Government tackling issues impacting international relations and trade. However, the recent Australian Animal Welfare Strategy 2010–14, and related standards and guidelines, have been developed to improve consistency and clarity. This will be discussed as well as recent changes to the way the Federal Government coordinates animal welfare.

A series of meetings with policy-makers, retailers, farmers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will also allow for the documentation of programs addressing animal welfare. The study will compare the way each program defines animal welfare, including objectives, budget, relations with farm businesses, and capacity to improve ‘animal welfare’ as defined in the literature review.

Selected cases illustrate the different types of issues associated with animal welfare policies. In this context, retailer programs, government standards, quality assurance programs, NGO programs, and international organisations’ initiatives will be analysed.

Public debate around the issue of animal welfare tends to attract media attention, as it contains emotive imagery and opinions. In practical terms, assessing and improving farm animal welfare remains the responsibility of the farm sector. Before changing any practices, a large amount of important research and extension still needs to be done, and effective implementation comes at a cost in terms of time, knowledge and dollars. This, in combination with the complexity of animal welfare science explains why these policies need to be taken very seriously.

It is unfortunate that discussion of this issue often comes with overplayed emotions, controversies and strong opinions. The research aims to bring much needed objective analysis to the issue.

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Images:  Animal Health Australia, Australian Lot Feeders’ Association, Sarah Keogh, RSPCA