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Economics and welfare

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A RECENT report on economics and farm animal welfare from the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC)* is timely, and not just because it comes at a time when all talk is of austerity and the uncertain state of the economy is high in most people's minds. Animal welfare can lose out when times are hard, and every effort must be made to prevent this. However, the FAWC discusses the relationship between economics and farm animal welfare in much broader terms than this and there are a number of other things going on at the moment that make the report particularly relevant.

Not least among these are plans to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), as well as plans to update EU animal health law (VR, October 8, 2011, vol 169, p 374). The European Commission published proposals to reform the CAP two months ago, marking the start of at least 18 months of negotiations between the 27 EU member states and the European Parliament. Earlier this week, Defra published a consultation document on the proposed reforms, seeking views of those with an interest and likely to be affected in England. Despite the unilateral approach taken by the Prime Minister during last week's summit on the debt crisis in the Eurozone, Jim Paice, the UK agriculture minister, said on launching the CAP consultation that ‘We're absolutely committed to being active participants in the negotiations to get the best possible deal for the UK, both on protecting the environment and encouraging an innovative and competitive agriculture sector. That's why it's crucial the people on the ground whose lives and professions will be affected are able to tell us their views. CAP covers so many areas of life that it's important we take everything into consideration and bring it to the attention of the EU during the negotiation process.’

A key conclusion of the FAWC's report is that the quality of life of farm animals cannot be left to the free market and that the Government has a crucial role to play in maintaining a standard of farm animal welfare that is acceptable. It notes that stewardship schemes such as the Environmental Stewardship Scheme currently operating under Pillar II of the CAP could provide a template for a new approach to improving animal welfare and argues strongly that a ‘Welfare Stewardship Scheme’ should be introduced on similar lines. Animal welfare features in a stewardship scheme already operating under the CAP in Scotland, but not in England. The FAWC exists as an expert committee of Defra to provide advice on farm animal welfare issues and its recommendation should be taken into account as the negotiations progress in Brussels.

The committee's call for continued intervention to help safeguard and improve animal welfare is perhaps less than fashionable at a time when the Government is committed to reducing spending, eliminating unnecessary red tape and taking a more ‘hands off’ approach to animal health and other issues generally, and to this extent the FAWC might be seen as swimming against the tide. However, it argues persuasively that animal welfare is a ‘public good’ and that, in view of the many complex economic factors involved, it cannot be left to market forces alone. It notes that government intervention can take many forms, such as legislation, incentive payments and provision of information, arguing that a mix of measures is needed. It also makes the important point that a sustainable approach to food production should address not just food security and food production, but animal welfare, too.

Its report should be required reading for members of the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England, which has been set up by Defra to develop proposals for responsibility and cost sharing and to make direct recommendations to ministers (VR, May 7, 2011, vol 168, pp 468, 469–470). The board held its first meeting in November and is about to develop a new Animal Health and Welfare Strategy for England.

Although primarily concerned with the economics of animal welfare, many of the public good arguments in the FAWC's report, and much of the discussion concerning the relationship between animal health and animal welfare, also seem relevant to other changes taking place in the farm animal health sector at present, such as changes in the arrangements for disease surveillance and for the provision of government veterinary services. The economics of animal welfare are undeniably complex but, overall, the report serves to emphasise that economics, animal health, animal welfare and also human welfare are inextricably linked. At a time when the emphasis is on increased production efficiency and profitability it provides a useful reminder that improvements in animal welfare can actually contribute to this and that, in any event, it is not a subject that anyone can afford to ignore.

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Footnotes

  • * Economics and Farm Animal Welfare. Farm Animal Welfare Committee, December 2011. Available at www.defra.gov.uk/fawc

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