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IGNORANCE, they say, is no defence when it comes to the law, but what kind of excuse is it in relation to animal welfare? Not much, according to the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) which, in a recent report on education and communication in relation to animal welfare,* argues that ‘the responsibility of animal keepers, citizens and consumers is to have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the effect of their actions on farm animal welfare. Responsibility ranges from a stockman's need for knowledge of physiology and behaviour to a consumer's decision to purchase eggs laid by hens kept in a particular husbandry system.’
That said, there is much that could be done to make the necessary knowledge more available to people so they can meet their responsibilities, and the report focuses on ways in which the transfer of information might be improved. The main message of the report is that animal welfare can be improved by enabling consumers to make informed decisions according to welfare provenance when buying meat, milk, eggs and other animal products, and that this can be achieved by education of all citizens throughout childhood and by providing better information at the point of sale. However, it also emphasises the importance of good stockmanship, and discusses ways in which the growing body of knowledge about animal welfare can be transferred to and shared among farmers.
Discussing education – both formal and informal – the FAWC notes that this can have a major impact in changing people's knowledge and behaviour, but describes education about farm animal welfare as patchy at best. It believes that people need to be educated about animal welfare ‘from childhood through to adulthood’ and recommends, among other things, that appropriate provision should be made for this in national curricula, as well as in teacher training.
Discussing communication more generally, it notes that many consumers are motivated by animal welfare but are confused by the information that is provided and therefore frustrated in their choice. It recognises the role of farm assurance schemes in bringing about improvements in animal welfare, but calls for more consistency and clarity in the information provided, as well as independent governance of the claims that are made. It also makes specific recommendations about how information about farm animal welfare should be communicated.
The FAWC notes that there is a gap between the generation of knowledge about animal welfare and its application by farmers and others and makes a number of recommendations for putting this right. It argues that vets have an important role to play in the dissemination of knowledge and practical advice on farms and are well positioned to be ‘translators of science’ for their farm animal clients. However, it also suggests that this role has yet to be exploited fully and that, despite some useful initiatives, ‘overall, the role, responsibilities and training of veterinarians in farm animal welfare advice and knowledge application are not always clear’. It recommends that the current and potential future role of veterinarians in promoting the uptake of strategic and forward-looking welfare advice to farmers should be reviewed by the veterinary professional bodies in association with the Government and livestock industries, and that this review should consider the responsibility and training of veterinarians in providing animal welfare advice. It further recommends that any review of the mechanisms and value of external scrutiny of the veterinary profession should include consideration of animal welfare expertise alongside any assessment of clinical competence.
Some of these ideas are currently being examined by the Veterinary Development Council, but others, such as a recommendation that understanding and overcoming barriers to the transfer of knowledge should be a major priority for government and industry, may need to be considered afresh. A consistent theme of the report is that animal welfare is important to people as well as to animals and that this needs to be fully recognised. It makes the point that current Government policy on sustainability places little emphasis on animal welfare compared with other societal concerns such as concern for the environment and about food security, and recommends that government policy for livestock production should include welfare concerns in future definitions of sustainability. This, too, is an important recommendation, which needs to be taken forward.