A valid licence

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A valid licence Tuesday, April 20, 2010 Dr Hans Spoolder and Dr Paul Ingenbleek, of Wageningen University and Research Centres, share their thoughts on improving farm animal welfare in Europe At the presentation of the European Strategy 2020 on 3rd March, President Barroso emphasised the need for Europe to 'get on track and stay on track' in a sustainable way. Sustainability and growth are the key words in the accompanying strategic Communication from the Commission. Agriculture is just briefly mentioned, but it almost goes without saying that European farming will only be sustainable if it maintains its 'licence to produce'. This licence has been earned and needs to be treasured, but it will only be maintained if the agricultural sector can provide adequate answers to the concerns of our European citizens. One of the areas of concern is the way in which we treat our farm animals. Eurobarometer results of 2005 and 2007 tell us that our citizens worry about the quality of life of intensively farmed animals, and that the more they know about animal husbandry, the more concerned they are. To address these concerns, the European Commission presented an 'Action Plan for Animal Welfare' in 2006. Several things have happened since. To support the action plan, EU funded research on animal welfare has focused on two main issues: the development of welfare indicators, and the formulation of policy options. The results of these studies have the potential to change the way European citizens view animal husbandry, and offer opportunities for the farming community to respond to animal welfare concerns. Animal welfare indicators Current definitions on what animal welfare is are often too theoretical. A more operational definition is required, and has recently been developed by the Welfare Quality research project. With €14m of EU support, this was easily the largest animal welfare project ever funded by the Commission. The scientists involved, representing 44 institutes in 14 different European countries, agreed that for good animal welfare, it is essential that the animal enjoys: • Good feed and water; • Good housing; • Good health; and • The ability to perform its normal behaviours. These four 'Principles' themselves are not so revolutionary, but what really changed current thinking is the way Welfare Quality assesses compliance with these principles: not by looking at the circumstances in which animals are kept, but by checking the animals themselves. It prefers 'animal-based' measures over 'environment-based' measures. This means that to assess if a pig is properly fed, the assessor will check the body condition of the animal, and not the feeding regime. To check the quality of the handling of a dairy cow, the assessor will test if the animal is fearful of humans, instead of inspecting the training certificates of the handler. Of course, both proper training of handlers, as well as the right feeding regimes for animals, is important for good welfare. But they are no guarantee that welfare requirements are adequately met: Welfare Quality believes you have to ask the animal itself. This animal-based approach was developed to support welfare labelling schemes, but it raises opportunities that go far beyond that: it can ultimately improve current welfare legislation. It puts the emphasis on observing the animal, and the management and housing options (on which legislation is currently based) are left undefined. Although this approach may initially cause concern to farmers and legislators alike, both can benefit. Farmers will be in the driving seat again on how they achieve the best results on their farm, and legislators will have an effective tool to check whether policy aims are met. This EU funded research suggests that we should replace existing legislation and private standards by animal-based measures, or at the very least begin to include them in assessment schemes in order to further improve animal welfare. Formulating animal welfare policies A second area of activity resulting from the Community's Action Plan for Animal Welfare is the development of animal welfare policies. In 2008, the Commission initiated a new project, EconWelfare, to explore this further. The scientists involved investigate and compare animal welfare initiatives and developments in eight countries (Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy and Macedonia). Initial results clearly show that a 'one size fits all' solution to improve the welfare of farm animals across the EU is impossible. Animal welfare is embedded in a complex constellation of different legislative, economic and social factors. The project team proposes that different regions of Europe will benefit from different sets of policies, and uses the countries involved in the project as 'examples'. The UK (and to a smaller extent, the Netherlands and Germany) may be put at one side of the policy spectrum. They have a well developed structure of animal interest groups and, accordingly, a high level of consumer awareness. The upward pressure to further improve animal welfare comes from competition between retailers that aim to secure certain levels of animal welfare through assurance schemes. However, consumers start showing signs of fatigue and become increasingly aware of other social problems competing for attention. The way forward is probably to integrate animal welfare with other social concerns, and to address these issues jointly in market offerings that are developed in public private partnerships. In Italy and Spain, the structure of animal interest groups that raise awareness among citizens is substantially less developed. Some retailers have developed plans to improve animal welfare in their supply chains, but wait until animal interest groups put pressure on the system and increase consumer concerns before taking action. Improving the professionalism of NGOs to critically raise issues and collaboratively work towards solutions in public private partnerships may help to start a pattern of action and reaction that improves animal welfare in these countries. In candidate member states like Macedonia, and relatively new member states like Poland, upward pressure to improve welfare comes from pressure to meet the minimum EU legislative requirements. Policy measures may focus on smartly attaching animal welfare as a secondary objective to instruments for economic development like investment subsidies. In addition, it may help to spread the message that good welfare is commonly accompanied by good production and profitability. Upward pressure to improve animal welfare in Sweden relied in the past on national legislation. However, as they become increasingly integrated in the European market, Swedish farmers perceived the national legislation more and more as a burden that harms their competitiveness. Ironically, one way out of this deadlock may be to decrease legislation and capture animal welfare in assurance schemes that are marketed to retailers or consumers. Conclusion We believe that the way forward in Europe is dependent on an EU-wide agreed approach to assessment and communication about animal welfare, and on a divergent (regional) approach to promote it within the context of this common framework. Ultimately, this will offer opportunities to our livestock industry and our citizens in maintaining a licence to produce, and thus support Barroso's aim to make Europe a more sustainable society. Dr Hans Spoolder and Dr Paul Ingenbleek are senior scientists at their respective institutes and are involved in the European Commission funded projects EconWelfare (www.econwelfare.eu) and Welfare Quality (www.welfarequality.net). The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions from many project partners to the opinions presented above.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)196-197
JournalPublic Service Review : Science and Technology
Issue numberissue 6
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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