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What price animal welfare?

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HOW much are people prepared to pay to help improve the welfare of animals used to produce their food? This is not just an academic question, but one of practical concern given hopes that consumer choice can help drive up standards. Surveys in the UK and elsewhere in Europe have shown that people are keen to see improvements in farm animal welfare. However, foods produced to higher standards are more expensive and, very often, this desire is not reflected in what they buy. This can become more of a problem when things are tough economically. In a recent paper in the journal Animal Welfare, researchers at the University of Reading describe a method for estimating the value that people place on improvements to animal welfare, using a single outcomes-based animal welfare score.* This kind of evaluation is important because the policies aimed at protecting animal welfare often involve some form of cost-benefit analysis and, while it is relatively easy to determine the costs of measures, putting a price on the benefits is much harder. This can make meaningful comparisons difficult and lead to the benefits being under-recognised.

In their paper, the researchers, led by Richard Bennett, describe how they conducted a survey to assess people's attitudes to animal welfare and how much they spent on meat. They then offered them various choices to estimate the value they placed on improvements to the welfare of different farm species, measured using a continuous (0 to 100 point) scale. The survey reaffirmed that animal welfare is an important issue for consumers, with 96 per cent of respondents considering there is a moral obligation to safeguard the welfare of animals and more than 72 per cent being concerned about the way animals are treated. Meanwhile, the analysis of the results of the choice experiment, in which participants were reminded that spending more on meat might leave less to spend on other things, indicated that they would be prepared to pay more for meat from animals with improved welfare, to the tune of £5.24 a year for a one-point improvement on the 100-point welfare scale for beef cattle, £4.57 for pigs and £5.10 for meat chickens. The different values placed on different species is interesting, and perhaps worth investigating in itself. However, as Professor Bennett commented, ‘Our research shows that people are overwhelmingly concerned about the welfare of animals bred for meat, and would be willing to pay more each year for even a one-point increase on the happiness scale of the animals they eat.’

These findings are encouraging, albeit that the sums might seem relatively small given the extra costs of high-welfare products and that the challenge remains of translating such preferences into actual behaviour. One of the findings of the survey was that consumer preferences might not just be influenced by concerns about welfare, with a high proportion of respondents believing that meat from animals with high welfare standards was safer, healthier, more environmentally friendly and better nutritionally and in terms of taste. Harnessing consumer power to help raise standards will rely on people being properly informed and, as the authors suggest, a single scale based on welfare outcomes should help in this. They also hope that the approach described will be able to support future policy decisions by explicitly showing the value people attribute to the welfare of farm animals.

The relationship between economics and welfare was discussed in broader terms in a report from the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) towards the end of last year. A key problem remains the low profitability of livestock farming which, the FAWC pointed out, is something to be deplored. Highlighting the complexity of the relationship, it made the point that animal welfare cannot be left to market forces alone, arguing that farm animal welfare is a ‘public good’ and an area in which government intervention will always be necessary. Such intervention can take various forms, such as legislation, incentive payments and the provision of information, and, the FAWC argued, a combination of measures is needed (VR, December 17, 2011, vol 169, pp 644, 645).

More recently, in an opinion discussing ‘sustainable intensification’ the FAWC pointed out that animal welfare must not become a casualty of efforts to increase food production to help meet future food demands and that animal welfare should be included in any definition of sustainability. Some of these ideas may seem less than fashionable at a time when the Government is committed to reducing spending and cutting unnecessary red tape, and when there is concern to improve food production efficiency to help meet the challenges of the future. However, it becomes more important to press the case for animal welfare in such circumstances, and the arguments must continue to be brought to the fore.

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  • * Bennett. R., Kehlbacher, A. & Balcombe, K. (2012) A method for the economic valuation of animal welfare benefits using a single welfare score. Animal Welfare 21(S1) 125-130

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