My guest today is Clive Phillips, who is Professor of Animal Welfare in the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Queensland in Australia. Clive is Chair of Animal Welfare at the Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics.
Can the public be excused for not knowing about the circumstances of food animal production? We were first warned about the inhumanity of using animals as machines 50 years ago, but dietary habits change slowly. Then intensive animal production was in its infancy. Now most of us live in cities and animals are crowded into sheds far away, and the public rely mostly on the media rather than first-hand knowledge for information about farming.
Just as you and I probably do not know the details of how the car that we drive works, so the public are largely ignorant of the way in which animals are kept for meat and milk production. In a recent survey researchers at the Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics at the University of Queensland found, for example, that most of the public believe that meat chickens are reared in cages, whereas the normal intensive industry practice is to rear them in huge barns on the floor.
Recently most of the massive growth of the intensive livestock production has taken place in developing countries, which is another reason that consumers are largely ignorant of the cruelty that the animals suffer. Poultry exports from Brazil are increasing exponentially, as the rain forest is decimated to produce soya and maize for the birds. Between 2001 and 2011, Brazilian chicken meat exports increased from 1 to 3.5 million tonnes per year.
World trade agreements are facilitating the export of animal products around the world on a scale that was hardly imaginable just 10 years ago. Much of it is exported alive, to save the costs of refrigerated transport: in the first 11 years of this millennium the value of live animal exports increased from approximately 8 to 20 billion US$ (FAO Stat 2014). Livestock have to endure journeys that last for weeks in hot, cramped conditions, whilst their excreta emits overpowering odours so strong that they damage their lungs and make them sneeze, cough and cry.
Fifty years ago people could be excused for thinking that making cheap meat available to people that had none would be a good thing, especially when we were emerging from a half century of wars that threatened to starve us all. However, the widespread availability of cheap meat products has contributed to people struggling to contain their appetite.
Overconsumption of highly digestible meat is now leading to epidemic scale obesity and the related diseases of diabetes, gastrointestinal cancer and cardiovascular disease. The truth is that humans, although not designed to eat raw meat, depended for their survival over millions of years of evolution on selection and consumption of the most nutritious foods. Meat, cheese and milk are some of the most highly nutritious food available and when confronted with the opportunity to buy almost as much as we like, many people struggle to balance their nutrient intake with their needs.
Even though the public are often unaware, governments are well aware of the massive growth in intensive poultry and pig production, with rising consumption worldwide. They are also aware of the high levels of public concern for animal welfare, but vested interests in maintaining an economically viable agriculture in the face of cheap imports mitigate against strict regulatory control of animal welfare in intensive agriculture.
Hence the systems used continue to offer minimal space, as well as an environment devoid of the animal’s natural needs, the same food every day, and not even sunlight in which to stretch their limbs. The scale of production growth is such as to cause unprecedented pollution, human and animal health problems and a chronic waste of resources. As populations grow and people in Asia have higher incomes and an increasing taste for Western food, demand has massively increased.
In an attempt to further increase production, scientists have bred chickens and pigs that grow faster, cows that produce more milk and sheep that produce more lambs until the animals are little more than commodity-producing machines. This has led to major welfare issues for the animals: joint distortion from the rapid growth, painful mastitis in the cows’ udders, and parasitic fly larvae in the sheep’s wool that eat them alive.
If we did understand a little of the pain that they go through in their very short lives, and Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott’s book Farmageddon helps us to do that, we would surely do something about it. We could give them at least a bit more space, some natural light and a variety of foods. This might be as much for our own feelings of self-worth as for the animals’ benefit, helping us to feel better about the way we look after the animals.
Ghandi said that the greatness of a country could be seen from the way it looks after its animals. This is also true for every one of us. We too can be great in what we do for animals simply by what we choose to eat. We might even rekindle that respect for animals that our ancestors had, reserving meat consumption just for special occasions. But as long as governments ignore the cruelty and the public are unaware of what the animals have had to endure to produce the food that they eat, history will not judge us to have been a great civilisation.
Reference: FAOSTAT, 2014. Trade in live animals data., accessed 21 March 2014