Four reasons why animal welfare matters

From happy pigs to bouncy rabbits, the welfare of animals matters to Europeans. Indeed, as shown by various European Citizens’ Initiatives, the active engagement of millions of us has forced the issue of animal welfare onto policymakers’ radars. But with action on clear commitments from the EU proving elusive, is something more fundamental also at stake? Ben Snelson reports.

In recent years, animal welfare has risen to the top of political agendas. But given the latest news around stalled action, broken promises and court cases, the significance of this issue in the EU is more relevant than ever. The millions of Europeans who care deeply about this aren’t going away. Here are four reasons why we are not giving up on the welfare of our animals:

1. Animal welfare for the sake of animal welfare

Cultural and individual attitudes around the consumption of animal products vary greatly, but there is overwhelming agreement on how animals should live and die before ending up on anyone’s plate. The near-unanimous view across EU citizenry is clear: a lot better than they currently do. Multiple surveys over the years have clearly shown that Europeans don’t approve of how animals in our farming systems are forced to live.

In the EU, given that 300 million animals live – or rather just exist – within intensive farming systems and structures, most hidden away in vast factory barns and processed as mere commodities, it is unsurprising that we often lack a full picture of what this industry entails. But there is ample evidence (that policymakers have acknowledged) that animal welfare standards in the EU remain scientifically outdated, inadequate and cruel.

Animals are sentient beings, displaying social behaviours and requiring access to fundamental features of a healthy, happy life – from fresh air to sunlight and access to soil and sufficient space. But 300 million animals in the EU lack even these basic necessities, forced to live in dark, cramped spaces on concrete floors and often around other dead animals. To make such deprivation and extreme confinement worse, millions are exposed to further abusive practices, from de-beaking to de-horning, force feeding, repeated artificial insemination, physical separation, castration without painkillers and long, often fatal, journeys by road and sea.

2. Climate and biodiversity

In Europe, our consumption of meat is more than twice the global average. There is a well-documented relationship between sheer numbers of animals in intensive agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions – a central cause of our climate woes – with animal farming representing 70% of emissions from EU agriculture. 

Another crucial threat posed by this burgeoning sector is water pollution. High concentrations of nutrient waste are a direct consequence of this unsustainable farming practice. From Spain to Germany, Poland to the Baltics, the link between intensive animal agriculture and extensive aquatic ‘dead zones’ – aka ecosystem collapse – is irrefutable

Despite efforts of a powerful Big Meat lobby to prevent this information from occupying the mainstream discourse it belongs in, and well-funded campaigns of disinformation around meat and diets, the facts don’t lie, and should be clearly acknowledged and addressed through policy.

3. Human health

Widespread overconsumption of animal products is directly linked to higher incidence of non-communicable disease in Europe. In fact, poor diets are the leading cause of such illnesses. Moreover, the intensive rearing of animals represents a real and looming threat of zoonotic disease transmission.

On top of this, inadequately regulated use of antibiotics in farm animals is fuelling concerns of antimicrobial resistance among people. A study showed that in 2019, 1.2 million people died from bacteria resistant to antibiotics, while it has also been estimated that if we don’t radically reduce antibiotic use, by 2050 antimicrobial resistance will kill more people than cancer does today (in 2022, cancer claimed 10 million lives globally).

The widespread preventive use of antibiotics is linked to intensive farming systems in which high animal numbers, low welfare standards and extreme concentration lead to very poor animal health. 

One common sense response to such health risks is to ensure we have adequate animal welfare provisions in place, that they are strictly enforced, and that currently uncontrolled numbers of animals in this hyper-industrialised and mechanised farming system are reduced to safe levels.

That doesn’t mean no more animals, but it does require ‘less and better’ meat production and consumption. Animal agriculture is vital for healthy ecosystems, and its role – through integrated crop-livestock ecosystems like silvopasture – is a key feature of successful agroecology and fundamental to food system sustainability.

4. Democracy

As European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen herself said: “If it matters to Europeans, then it matters to Europe”. Well, Madame President, it does matter to Europeans. Over the last decade, this fact has been laid bare, perhaps most clearly through a specific EU tool: the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), a crucial instrument of democracy in the EU.

ECIs are initiatives launched directly by citizens – under the auspices of an EU Citizens’ Committee – to drive a specific issue up the EU policy agenda. When an ECI collects over a million signatures, this triggers a process whereby the European Commission is legally bound to discuss the content of the initiative

The increasingly mobilised animal welfare movement has been epitomised most notably regarding the issue of cage farming in the EU. Following investigations exposing the extent of animal suffering under intensive factory farming conditions, in 2020 civil society organisations submitted a ‘European Citizens Initiative’ titled ‘End the Cage Age’. Collecting 1.4 million signatures and leading to concrete commitments to act on banning cage farming, this was the most successful ECI ever. It should also be noted that out of the only 10 ECIs that surpassed the 1 million-signature threshold, five related directly to animal welfare.

The EU institutions heard this call loud and clear. And legally-binding commitments were made. But those promises have not been kept. Following a dirty lobbying campaign, much conducted behind closed doors, the promised proposal for the revision of the EU animal welfare legislation, which should also have included measures to put an end to the use of cages in animal farming in the EU, never saw the light of day (much like many animals locked in this system).

In a landmark development, last week an EU Citizens’ Committee took the European Commission to court over its lack of action on this ECI. The Commission’s inaction is at best tone-deaf, and at worst a slap in the face to millions of people who demanded change, and the hundreds of millions of animals whose voices we can’t hear. At this stage it runs the serious risk of being added to the EEB’s list of citizenwashing exercises

Europeans are not backing down on animal welfare. For the sake of these animals, our natural world, people’s health, and the very foundations of EU democracy, we expect the European Commission to heed the many calls to end the cage age, and deliver a brighter future for us all.