By Sarah Gonzalez, Director of Communications and Digital Media
Consumers increasingly are concerned about animal welfare, which influences production practices, policy and purchasing decisions, making it crucially important to increase funding for animal welfare research in the United States, concluded a new report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST).
“Large-scale, intensive systems predominate production animal agriculture in the United States,” CAST stated. “These systems continue to generate concerns and public debates about the treatment of farm animals, the conceptions of sustainability, the social responsibility of food production systems, and the safety and quality of food.”
This latest CAST Task Force Report, “Scientific, Ethical, and Economic Aspects of Farm Animal Welfare,” in comparison to the 1997 report, shows a growing emphasis on animal welfare regulations, the council noted, making consumer education and robust research integral to successful policy.
There have been many important theoretical and applied research gains in animal welfare science in the past few decades, the report noted. “Many of these, however, have come about because of a sustained commitment within the European Union to funding animal welfare research,” the report stated. “The United States has lagged behind its European and Canadian counterparts, and the number of researchers and the knowledge base relative to public concern are now imbalanced.”
For example, livestock and poultry industries have felt pressure to move toward alternative production practices in recent decades. The authors point out, “It is imperative to understand which systems and practices may optimize economic efficiencies in conjunction with ensuring positive animal welfare outcomes and public support of animal agriculture.”
Candace Croney, director of the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue’s College of Veterinary Medicine and a co-chair for the task force that prepared the report, emphasized the importance of consumer education, as consumers often lack any resources on animal welfare. When they can name a source, it is most often the Humane Society of the United States or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which both “filter science” in the interest of consumer advocacy, she said during an April 23 event unveiling the report. She cited research that found only 5 percent of consumers say they get their animal welfare information from a university or government source.
“Despite the fact that we’re investing so much in animal welfare, it is not making it into the public domain,” Croney said.
Consumers should have access to information from credible sources, including the scientific community, to “help them navigate the maze of choices” involved in selecting their food, the report noted, while farmers may want research examining the social and ethical aspects of food production so they can efficiently use their resources and meet consumer preferences. Meanwhile, policymakers are wrestling with how to develop policies “that meet consumer demands and also promote economic expansion for the agricultural industries.”
Croney also noted consumers will often vote for certain animal welfare practices, even if they are not willing to pay the premium for that product. “Some more extensive production systems that meet consumer expectations for providing animals with space and behavioral freedom may have negative effects on the environment and food affordability,” the report says. “For example, egg production costs are higher and environmental impacts are typically greater for cage-free systems than for cage systems for laying hens.”
The report suggested increased training and funding in the Cooperative Extension System (CES) to provide more animal welfare information. “Although information about animal welfare is slowly being disseminated through extension outreach, there is a need for the CES to provide more training in the basics of animal welfare for the animal agriculture industries so they can adequately address the questions and concerns of the public,” the report states.
In addition to research priorities incorporating animal behavioral needs into housing and environmental designs, Croney also cited advancements in genetics and biotechnology as methods to improve animal welfare in production systems, including selection for behavioral changes, robustness and social effects in farm animals.
When it comes to regulating animal welfare, the report noted neither the U.S. government nor the animal industries have established a “nationally recognized process” for developing voluntary standards and assessment of farm animal care across industries. “It can be argued that the lack of a unified transparent process…has precipitated the irregular patchwork of state-by-state regulations,” the report said.
In its conclusion, the CAST report noted: “Adequately addressing the challenges posed by increasing public concern about animal welfare requires new knowledge and approaches, greater inclusiveness, and improved communication between scientists, policymakers and the public.”
More information about CAST Task Force Reports is available here.