To improve farm animal welfare, forget the five freedoms.

Published 20150501

For many animal welfare organisations in Australia, the ‘five freedoms’ are commonly used as the basis for determining what is, and what is not an acceptable farm practice from an animal welfare perspective. However, advances in animal welfare science since these were first expressed have effectively rendered the ‘five freedoms’ redundant, and they are becoming a major impediment to efforts to improve the welfare of farm animals.

Farm animal welfare has been an increasingly contentious issue in Australia over recent years, with live exports, pig production systems, sheep mulesing and caged poultry production being the subject of campaigns by various animal rights and animal welfare organisations. The response by various governments to these campaigns has been haphazard, and has ranged from complete indifference to the implementation of outright bans on the specific practice – although in the case of outright bans (such as the ACT factory farming ban) they have been largely political gestures, given the absence of those farming systems in the ACT.

A major part of the reason Australian farm animal welfare policy has been so piecemeal and haphazard is that there has been no commonly-agreed underlying framework utilised by different interests to make judgement on whether a farming practice is or is not acceptable. This has been highlighted in recent research, published by the Australian Farm Institute.

Animal rights groups commonly seem to utilise a framework based on the rights of farmed animals being considered largely equivalent to the rights of humans, and therefore any form of exploitation of farm animals is considered unacceptable. 

Animal welfare groups take a more moderate approach, accepting that animals will continue to be used in farming, but seek that the welfare of these animals is appropriately considered in making judgments about farming practices that are acceptable.

The framework that is commonly used by these groups to make a judgement about what is or is not an acceptable livestock management practice is a set of principles that are commonly referred to as the ‘five freedoms’. These were first expressed as one of the outcomes of a review of farm animal welfare in the UK in 1965. The five freedoms are usually expressed as follows;

1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst 

2. Freedom from Discomfort 

3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease 

4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour 

5. Freedom from Fear and Distress 

While there is nothing in these principles that farmers would disagree with, and indeed most livestock farmers spend their entire working lives making sure these are the conditions under which their animals exist, the limitations of these principles becomes very clearly evident if they are used as the basis of determining whether or not a livestock farming practice is acceptable.

For example, the requirement to ensure that animals have freedom from hunger and thirst provides little guidance when it comes to making decisions about the amount of access animals should have to feed or water. Some animals will eat or drink excessively at different stages of their lifecycle, the consequences of which can be damaging to their subsequent health. The principles are also of little practical help, for example, in deciding the frequency of access livestock should have to water during transport.

A second limitation with these is that they provide no guidance about which of these has priority, in the event of contradictions. For example, indoor housing of pigs and poultry provides the best environment to ensure the animal is free from disease or discomfort associated with extreme weather, but it is often argued that housed animals are not free to express normal behaviour, which is contrary to the fourth freedom. Those promoting that all poultry and pig production should be ‘free-range’ as a consequence of the fourth freedom would be shocked at the levels of disease and mortality that can occur on even the best managed farms due to disease or weather-related events, and which is contrary to the third and fifth freedom.

A third limitation arises from the fourth ‘freedom’ – the requirement that animals be able to express normal behaviour. Numerous experiments have shown that the normal behaviour of an animal is affected by its environment and conditioned responses learned at different stages of its life, so the concept of ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ is extremely vague. In addition, normal behaviour in some species can include extreme aggression towards other animals and cannibalism, both of which undoubtedly cause fear and distress to the victim animals which is contradictory to the fifth freedom.

Advances in animal welfare science over the past forty years have resulted in a much better understanding of the impacts of farm management practices on the welfare of farm animals, and created the knowledge and tools to objectively assess these questions, rather than base them on value judgments and the projection of human attitudes and emotions on to animals. The science of animal welfare has advanced to the point that the OIE, the international agency with responsibility for animal disease and welfare, adopted a definition of animal welfare in 2007, which explicitly referred to the requirement to use scientific evidence in making decisions about animal welfare, and that assessments should be based on the state of the animal, not assumed from the nature of management or conditions under which the animal is raised. The definition adopted by the OIE was;

Animal welfare
‘means how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it
lives. An animal is in a good state of welfare if (as indicated by
scientific evidence
) it is healthy, comfortable, well nourished,
safe, able to express innate behaviour, and if it is not suffering
from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, and distress. Good
animal welfare requires disease prevention and veterinary
treatment, appropriate shelter, management, nutrition, humane
handling and humane slaughter/killing. Animal welfare refers to
the state of the animal
; the treatment that an animal receives is
covered by other terms such as animal care, animal husbandry,
and humane treatment.’

The significance of this definition, and the advances in animal welfare science made over recent decades, is that the impact of farm practices on the welfare of animals can now be assessed in an objective manner, and more importantly the objective information can be used to assess the impacts of changes in animal care or animal husbandry which aim to improve welfare, while at the same time often also improving animal productivity. It has also highlighted the need for consideration of all aspects of the welfare of an animal, rather than focusing on a single aspect – such as whether or not the animal is confined in a pen. 

Interestingly, virtually all the funding for research into the science of animal welfare in Australia is provided by the livestock industries, while those organisations which proclaim that their purpose is to improve the welfare of animals spend precious little of their funds in this area, instead using the bulk of their resources in public campaigns against the livestock industries. 

The five freedoms may have served some purpose in years past, when the scientific understanding of animal welfare was in its infancy. However, they are now long past their use-by date, and organisations professing a desire to improve the welfare of farm animals need to discard them and to join the livestock industries in objectively and scientifically finding ways to improve the welfare of farm animals.

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