John Webster is Professor Emeritus of Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol (UK), where on arrival in 1977, he established a unit for the study of animal welfare and behaviour – now the largest such group in the world. John has been a member of several animal welfare related bodies, including being a founding member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council.
John is a Patron of Compassion in World Farming and was one of the first of the group of Visionaries who signed our Vision for Fair Food and Farming statement that ‘seeks to achieve global adoption of food and farming policies which respect and protect the interests of people, animals and the planet’.
This is part one in my two part interview with Professor Webster, where he provides his thoughts on progress in farm animal welfare and the meaning of the science of animal welfare.
Philip: In your new book, Animal Husbandry Regained: The Place of Farm Animals in Sustainable Agriculture, you draw from more than 30 years of involvement in the science and promotion of animal welfare. How do you rate the progress that has been made to date in farm animal welfare? Which specific achievement would you highlight?
John: Fifty years ago, before the arrival of Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines, the great British animal-loving public gave little thought to the welfare of farm animals. This was something that went on behind closed doors and we didn’t want to know. Today many of us are very concerned indeed. Moreover we put our concern into practice.
The most conspicuous example of this has been the effective disappearance of the battery cage for laying hens driven almost entirely by public pressure on the retailers rather than through the slow march of Euro-legislation. Charities such as CIWF have been major drivers of this change. The image of a battered hen in a battery cage has been far more effective than a hundred scientific papers. The down side of this approach is that images do not necessarily equate with reality.
While the life of the laying hen has undoubtedly improved over the last thirty years that of the dairy cow has equally certainly got worse. For most people the public image of the dairy cow is that of an animal grazing peacefully in a green field. This is seriously out of touch with reality. This is why we need welfare scientists whose responsibility must be not just to study animal welfare but also to communicate their understanding: the aim being to ensure that public perception of what constitutes good welfare should be as close as possible to what the animals would actually want for themselves.
Philip: What do you understand the science of animal welfare to mean?
John: In my opinion the simplest and best definition of good welfare is “Fit and Happy”. Our responsibility to any animal in our care is to promote a sense of physical and emotional well-being: the former through provision of good feeding, good health and physical comfort, the latter through absence of fear and stress, and reasonable freedom of expression, best expressed as freedom of choice.
Animal welfare science is a multidisciplinary affair, requiring understanding of physiology (e.g. pain), motivation and behaviour (e.g. fear) and the causes of ill-health, especially the man-made “production diseases” (e.g. lameness).
A prime fundamental aim of welfare science is to better understand the nature of sentience in farm animals (mammals, birds and fish). I believe that sentience is best defined as “feelings that matter”. We study motivation as a measure of how much they matter. We have learnt that sentient animals do not just live in the present. After responding to any challenge they review their response. If they learn that they can cope they will adapt and feel better in the future. If they learn that they cannot cope, or are prevented from coping by the restrictions of their environment, they will suffer. Applied farm animal welfare science seeks to develop husbandry practices that significantly reduce the threats to physical and emotional welfare: the aim being to achieve a good quality of life and, at the end, a gentle death.
Philip: What is the place of farm animal welfare in relation to the ecosystem and biosphere?
John: Farm animal welfare is important to me but not all-important. It is just one aspect of my overall struggle to act according to the principle of respect for all life. I interpret this in practical terms as “Planet Husbandry”. Thus while I concede the obvious fact that the rich consume far too much meat and dairy products, I reject, on ecological grounds, the argument that everybody should stop eating these things altogether.
Farm animals have been essential to traditional, sustainable agriculture: pigs and poultry scavenged the food we discarded or dropped, cattle and sheep grazed food we couldn’t eat on land we didn’t own. The commercial production of too much meat for the rich and the overgrazing of pastures by the poor have undeniably contributed to environmental degradation. Nevertheless good animal husbandry can make a real contribution to the sustainability of the living environment.
Permanent pastures or, even better, silvo-pastoral systems made up of grasses, trees and shrubs, can make a significant contribution not only to food production but also to carbon sequestration, water management and wildlife conservation. The sale of food from grazing animals enjoying good welfare while contributing to the management of these environments can make a significant contribution to their upkeep but we cannot expect it to cover the full cost. This unreasonable short-term thinking has led, at one extreme, to intensive feedlots for beef cattle; at the other to desertification of the African savannah.
We as a society must accept that we have a financial obligation to support the long-term survival of the living environment, and that cannot simply be met by raising the price of beef. This is a theme that runs throughout my new book.
Philip: Thank you!
John’s latest book, Animal Husbandry Regained: The Place of Farm Animals in Sustainable Agriculture, is published by Earthscan from Routledge and costs £29.99 in paperback and £85.00 in hardback. The publishers are offering Compassion supporters a special 20% discount for online direct orders. Please use the DC361 at the checkout here.