8.4 What are the animal welfare issues associated with livestock production?

8.4.1 How can we define animal welfare?

Animal welfare and the ‘Five Freedoms’

A useful way of defining animal welfare is given by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council. It focuses on the need for animals to enjoy the following Five Freedoms:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst, by ready access to water and a diet to maintain health and vigour.
  • Freedom from discomfort, by providing an appropriate environment.
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease, by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour, by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and appropriate company of the animal’s own kind.
  • Freedom from fear and distress, by ensuring conditions and treatment, which avoid mental suffering.

8.4.2 What are the main issues that influence animal welfare?

What are the main issues affecting animal welfare in practice?

Within the framework of the Five Freedoms, animal welfare can be affected by the following issues:

  • Feed quality (nutrition, availability etc.).
  • Housing quality (warmth, security, space etc.).
  • Stockmanship and veterinary care (good, bad, or lack of).
  • Transport & slaughter conditions.
  • Access to natural behaviours (open space, mobility, foraging).
  • Breeds used for appropriate conditions.

And it is important to understand which aspects of welfare people emphasise and value.

Some stakeholders place more value on physical health (sometimes at the expense of natural living/behaviours), and others on natural living/behaviours, even where physical health may be compromised.

  • Is it possible to have them both, always, everywhere?
  • Are confined systems always bad for welfare? – the “do cows like fields?” question? (i.e. does it matter to a cow that it is ‘living naturally’ by being outside in a field if it is cold and wet?)

8.4.3 How can the context affect understandings of how to improve animal welfare?

How can the context affect understandings of how to improve animal welfare?

  • Intensification is sometimes thought to be synonymous with poor animal welfare. But the context is very important when comparing intensive and extensive systems.
  • What is the baseline? Which livestock contexts are we talking about?
    • Intensification has a different meaning in production systems where a dairy cow is already producing 10,000 litres of milk per year as compared with systems in low income countries where healthcare and diets may be very poor.
  • In other words when people talk about ‘intensification/productivity increases’ do they mean:
    • Better diets, better vet care for a cow living in poor conditions, or
    • Increased industrialisation to push the high producing cows beyond their metabolic limits?
  • Can we define ‘good welfare’ in different cultural contexts?
  • Can we establish animal welfare as a boundary condition?

8.4.4 Is there a relationship between environmental impact and animal welfare?

Is there a relationship between environmental impact and animal welfare?

Various metrics can be used to define environmental impact (for example GHG, land-use and water-use). Intensive and extensive livestock systems relate to these metrics in different ways.

With regard to GHG emissions:

  • Intensive systems are often more GHG ‘efficient’ per unit output/unit GHGs (e.g. broiler vs free range chickens).
  • Intensive systems also lend themselves to carbon-offsetting approaches such as anaerobic digestion.
  • The ‘efficiency’ of intensive systems may mean that the cost of meat is lower as compared with extensive systems; this can lead to increased demand, thereby outweighing the carbon savings achieved through greater efficiency (Jevons Paradox).

With regard to land-use:

  • Intensive systems’ land take is smaller, although reliance on prime arable land (to grow livestock feed) is greater.
  • Some extensive systems (e.g. cattle and sheep) can use pasture that is unsuitable for crop production, and if well managed may even have a role in sequestering carbon (GHG mitigation), although more research is needed on this potential.
  • That said the land-use impacts of meeting current trajectories in meat demand would likely be worse if all that extra demand was met from extensive systems.

With regard to water-use

  • Intensive systems generally have higher irrigation water requirements.