You know Old MacDonald, his farm and all the animals? It bears little relationship to reality. Most of the meat and animal products we eat come from livestock raised in horrific conditions. I’m not the first to use the image of an assembly line to describe intensive farms, with cows going in one end and steaks coming out the other, or chickens working to produce eggs in unsustainable conditions like lots of little machines. This kind of farming is “agro-industry,” not “agriculture.”
Few of us have access to products made from animals farmed in high-welfare conditions, and it is often hard to know for sure where our meat came from. One option would be to become vegetarian, as are a growing number of people in Italy and the rest of the world. This would resolve the problem at an individual level, but I still think it is necessary to take a stand against certain types of farming. Regardless of you personally becoming vegetarian, these farming methods would continue to exist and are therefore collective problems.
Animals are sentient beings and we owe them a life without maltreatment, pain and fear, leaving them as free as possible to express their natural behavior. This is “animal welfare” and it concerns the existence of animals, but is also inextricably linked to all aspects of food, from health to environmental sustainability, from social justice to food security. At the very least, we should understand its importance and meaning.
As far back as 1999, the Treaty of Amsterdam defined animals as sentient beings and not mere agricultural products. With the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 the European Union confirmed animal welfare as fundamental, on a level with the protection of human health. But despite this important move, far too often minimum welfare conditions are still not guaranteed. Millions of animals live their lives in enclosed spaces, all their functions sacrificed to the logic of production, with little or no possibility of movement or freedom. Often they must undergo lengthy journeys in nightmarish conditions.
The issuing of regulations on animal welfare in EU member states is a positive sign, but unfortunately their application leaves a lot to be desired. At the end of January, the European Union started infringement procedures against 13 countries, including Italy, for not following the directive which from the beginning of 2012 bans the use of conventional battery cages for hens. The decision to ban to use of these cages, which deny the chickens any form of expression of their natural behavior, was made in 1999. EU member states have had 13 years to conform to the directive, yet in Italy an estimated 28 million hens are still confined to battery cages.
From the perspective of the farmers, whether small or large scale, adopting systems that make animal welfare a priority is an added value. The creation of positive farming conditions means better health and less stress for the animals. That means less disease, and less use of drugs that could have repercussions on human health and the environment when excreted. Fewer drugs also means lower production costs and improved product quality in absolute terms, from both a sensory and a nutritional point of view. However, the efforts made by farmers must be supported by policies that protect against unfair competition from other countries, whose cheap products do not conform to the same animal welfare standards.
Consumer awareness is growing, but not fast enough. Increasing consumption of animal products makes maintaining an acceptable level of animal welfare unsustainable. This harms all the progress being made at the level of information and education about conscious consumption. In rich countries, we eat far too much animal protein, which affects our health, causing higher rates of obesity, heart disease and cancer. We should eat much less meat, giving farmers a chance to focus on higher quality (including through respect for animal welfare) and also giving poorer countries a chance to improve the diets of their own populations. In fact, FAO figures show that in African and other developing countries, average animal protein consumption is between 12 and 17 percent of the recommended amount.
It is very hard not to be complicit in such a problematic system. If suitable policies do not exist, we must inform ourselves better about what we are buying, and use our choices to protect more conscientious producers. This is what is happening in some Northern European countries, including Germany, which took advantage of the directive on battery chickens to go further and ban the use of enriched cages (only slightly larger than the previous cages). German consumers demanded it, and they won. In many countries, like Italy, eggs are stamped with a code indicating the farming method used, which can help consumers be more aware of what they are buying.
To return to regulations, in 2013 it will be the pig farmers’ turn, as the ban on the use of sow stalls comes into force. It will be another important testing ground. Dialog, information and education about animal welfare are very powerful tools and awareness raising must begin with children, in schools, in families and most of all at the table. Let’s eat less meat (and if you’re vegetarian you’re already doing the best you can) and let’s eat better quality meat and learn how to identify it. It seems paradoxical, but as well as doing good for us and the environment, it will also help the animals.
By Carlo Petrini, President of Slow Food International, originally published in La Repubblica on March 14, 2012.
Translated by Carla Ranicki.
Photo: Kunal Chandra