Animal Welfare – A Piece in the Puzzle of Sustainable Food Production

Welfare of livestock and poultry has become a highly-publicized political issue.  And, like so many political matters in nowadays, the welfare debate has split the public into two sides and created a huge business. Animal protectionists are lobby for legislation regulating animal welfare and ownership.  Opponents of those regulations argue that these regulations are unnecessary and that rather better enforcement of current regulations and better education of animal owners and the general public are needed instead of more stringent regulations.  Moreover, they claim that 1) the proposed changes will make animal agriculture uncompetitive globally, and thus animal food production will be outsourced to countries with less animal welfare concerns, and potentially threaten food security; or, 2) cost of food production will rise considerably and food will become unaffordable for the less-fortunate in this country.  Two main arguments have emerged: one based mostly on emotions, and the other on the basis of efficiency and economics.  Not surprisingly, the result is at times a rather dirty trench war, with neither side moving an inch.

Both sides seem to ignore the true complexity of the system of food production.  Often, a discussion about animal welfare revolves around very specific issues.  Regulation of a single welfare issue will only be a band-aid and never address the complex food production system thoroughly.  I argue that, until we clearly understand the deeper ins and outs of food production, we will never deliberate on animal welfare issues in a constructive manner, let alone find acceptable solutions.  We should aim to find simplicity beyond complexity, yet over-regulation of animal welfare aims for simplicity without recognizing the complexity of food production.

Animal welfare cannot be viewed as its own entity.  Rather, animal welfare must be seen in the overlying concept of sustainability. Therefore, it cannot be treated and ‘solved’ solely based on animal welfare concerns.   In my view, there are three hierarchical dimensions to sustainability.  The first, most basic dimension of sustainability ensures sufficient food production for the demand on an economical basis.  In other words, farmers have to generate a positive income that is similar to comparable jobs while fulfilling food demand.  Basically, the output has to outweigh the input; or, the income has to be greater than the expenses at a magnitude compatible with alternative, comparable professions.  With regard to animal welfare within the first dimension of sustainability, livestock must be cared for in a manner that maximizes output over input.  Animal welfare improves to a point when the income for the generated product over the cost of animal welfare is greatest.  This argument is often brought forward by opponents of overly-regulated animal welfare.  They argue that a less-productive animal or even a prematurely culled or lost animal is economically inefficient; and that consequently, livestock producers are committed to animal welfare on principles of the free market.  The first dimension – satisfying the demand in an economically sustainable manner – is the most basic piece of sustainable food production.

The second hierarchical dimension of sustainable food production emerges from the first dimension.  The second dimension accounts for limited or finite resources that are utilized to produce food, and can be framed as resource management.  Scarce resources that can be managed include air quality, fresh water quality and availability, soil quality and fertility, energy (fossil fuel), biodiversity, ecosystem-diversity, and minerals.  Food production must use these scarce resources efficiently in a way that food security can be assured virtually indefinitely.  Resource management also commands that the environment in general must be protected in a way that enables future generations to fulfill their food demand.  Most importantly for the current discussion is that accounting for the scarce resources affects animal welfare.  Based on the paradigm of resource management, animals have to be cared for in a way that utilizes the least amount of scarce resources.  Practically, animal products are sustainable when they 1) convert foods that are inedible for humans (e.g., fiber) into foods for human consumption; 2) produce value-added foods by converting lower-quality plant proteins into high-quality animal proteins or by serving as a source of available minerals and vitamins; or, 3) utilize waste products (e.g., kitchen wastes) or byproducts from industry (e.g., from bio-fuel production from plant products) to generate animal products.  These three strategies do not exclude feeding products for human consumption to livestock.  Indeed, livestock’s efficiency of converting fiber, lower-quality plant protein, waste products, or byproducts almost always increases greatly when human-consumable products are utilized as livestock feed.  The laws of resource management dictate that food demand must be fulfilled economically, while minimizing the use of scarce resources.  The output, measured in animal products generated, must outweigh the inputs and environmental impact.  Amount and quality of proteins produced, along with supply of additional, essential nutrients like energy, minerals, and vitamins must be the basis of these measures.

Dimensions and Complexity of Animal Welfare in Food Production (Agriculture)

The third and most complex dimension of sustainability embeds the second dimension of food production within society.  Society provides infrastructures (roads and transport, governmental support, industries upstream and downstream of agricultural production, etc.), and political assurances (monetary system, laws and regulation and enforcement, etc.), but also expresses consumer preferences for food production.  Farmers supply not only food for the society, but also offer leadership, jobs, public services, and education.  Communities that harbor animal agriculture display a more balanced class structure and have a greater participation in democratic processes (Honeyman, 1996. Journal of Animal Science (74), pp. 1410 – 1417).  The third dimension also introduces the emotions often used in political debates. Animal protectionists often demand absolute welfare standards for animal agriculture.  However, the laws of the first and second dimensions of sustainable food production are virtually always ignored.


The highest standards of animal welfare proposed by animal protectionists such as the Humane Society of the U. S. (HSUS) can and often do put great strains on food security and resource management.  For example, the HSUS-backed ‘certified humane’ standard for dairy production requires that cows obtain as much feed from grazing as possible.  I will give an overly-simplified example of what needs to be considered in making conscious recommendations for animal welfare.  The true issue is much more complex, but I hope this will exemplify my point.  Consider two management systems for a dairy farm.  One system grazes the cows on pasture; the other system keeps the cows confined in a barn.  Otherwise, both systems provide a similar level of animal welfare.   Both herds have the same milk production and the same input of scarce resources.  The only difference is that the grazing cows have greater energy expenditure, because they have to walk further to gather their feed.  This extra energy requires a little bit more feed, which consequently increases the input of scarce resources slightly.  The emerging questions are whether 1) the more-naturally system of grazing leads to improved animal welfare; and, 2) if welfare is improved, whether the improvement in welfare justifies greater use of scarce resources.  With regard to the first question: It is virtually impossible to accurately access animal welfare.  How do we know that the cows on pasture experience more welfare than the confined cows?  Does living ‘more closely to their natural habitat’ equate to greater animal welfare?  Often, we extrapolate what we as humans feel to animals, although the animals surely experience their environment differently than we do.  This anthropomorphism becomes evident in the ‘humane’ treatment of animals.  Why do we want to treat animals ‘humanely’, literally meaning ‘like humans’?  Is it actually ‘humane’ to treat animals humanely or should we strive for treatment specific for each animal species?  The German language has a term ‘artgerechte Tierhaltung’ that translates to mean species-justified husbandry, more freely-translated into species-appropriate or species specific husbandry.  I have yet to come across a similar, specific term in the English lingo or discussions around this idea.  In regard to the scenario with the two dairy farm systems: Some people will decide that a strain on scarce resources is acceptable for humanly perceived improvements in animal welfare.  This is a rather personal decision, and I cannot argue against people making very stringent animal welfare demands conscious of the negative impact on scarce resources, as long as they are aware of these strains.  However, animal welfare demands are rarely made with conscious and informed knowledge of the impact on limited natural resources or on overall sustainability of the system.

In conclusion, I firmly urge society to have a more fundamental discussion and consequent understanding about our food production system before debating animal welfare issues.  It is equally important for people to understand the current state of the food production system and how it relates to their personal ideals in these discussions.  A deeper appreciation of the ins and outs of the complex system will lead to a more moderate and more meaningful debate.  Based on this assessment, we will be able to make more conscious and more sustainable decisions regarding animal welfare.

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5 comments on “Animal Welfare – A Piece in the Puzzle of Sustainable Food Production

  1. weldon melton says:

    excellent comparison.

  2. Elinor Opitz says:

    Great article! Thank you for writing it.

  3. Aaron Schroht says:

    Nice article, way to incorporate the mother country!

  4. […] • Animal Welfare/plant health – The health and well being of a farmers crops and livestock ultimately determine how successful he/she becomes. When farm animals are not properly cared for they can become ill, depressed or injured and can even die. Poorly managed crops will also suffer from increased pressure from competition for natures available nutrients. In essence lack of care of results in fewer products and/or damaged, unmarketable goods. To dig into this aspect of sustainability check out Marcus Hollmann points out in this article. […]

  5. […] unmarketable goods. To dig into this aspect of sustainability check out Marcus Hollmann’s article on animal welfare in sustainable food […]

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