The Economics of Animal Welfare
By Sylvain Charlebois Associate Dean –
College of Business and Economics
University of Guelph
Troy Media/ – Animal welfare and other ethical issues in agriculture are an ongoing concern for consumers. And in light of a recent incident on a dairy farm in B.C., they will likely be so for the long term.
A viral video exposing the abuse of cows by several employees of what seems to be Canada’s largest dairy farm, one of many that have surfaced in recent years, is not sitting well with anyone. Staged or not, these incidences are affecting both ends of the food continuum; both consumers and restaurant owners are now asking difficult questions of food retailers, and many of them are struggling to provide satisfactory answers.
For years, many in the food industry believed that the issue of animal welfare was a short-lived issue, connected primarily to an urban-driven anxiety juxtaposed with the principles of pet ownership. It was assumed that consumers’ desire for convenience and affordability would trump this concern. Consumers continue to express this desire, but the issue is clearly retaining traction in ongoing conversations about agriculture.
For years, the industrialization of agriculture has successfully produced a large supply of meat, eggs and dairy products for urban centres, but some argue that this supply comes at significant costs to ethical treatment of animals on farms. Chicken, hogs, cattle, foie gras, and now, the dairy industry have been, at one point or another, the centre of controversy over the last five years in Canada. Many animal rights advocates are using this momentum to promote the fact that agriculture, as we know it, may have lost its moral bearings.
Feeling the pressure, some jurisdictions adopted improved legislation in order to safeguard the health of animals on farms; however, the proper resources to support these laws were not forthcoming. The industry, on the other hand, is not waiting: for example, agribusiness giant Cargill will shift to group housing by the end of 2015, moving away from gestation crates that animal welfare groups have opposed, and more companies are starting to fund university research to better understand the societal and financial implications of tracing and tracking manifests displaying farm practices on food products. Some Canadian universities have even launched programs focusing on animal welfare.
The agricultural industry is also beginning to use a very powerful tool: Transparency. An increasing number of facilities are now installing closed-circuit cameras to monitor employees and animals around the clock, which is exactly what the B.C.-based dairy producer promised to do hours after the video surfaced. A commitment to transparency goes a long way in the age of instant information, especially when the intent is to reduce concerns about the practices of an industry that is remotely located from 98 per cent of the population.
With the price of animal protein currently reaching record levels in food stores, videos revealing irresponsible behaviour with livestock provide another reason for consumers to stop purchasing steak and chicken. Indeed, some consumers are opting to stop eating meat entirely in protest, resulting in the opening of Canada’s first meat-less butcher shop in Toronto.
But make no mistake; farmers are true stewards of the land, and displays of such cruel behaviour towards any farm animal are rare. While the root causes of these incidences are far more complicated than what is being suggested in media analysis, they are clearly unacceptable, and the industry will need to get its act together, quickly.
With trade deals looming between Korea and Europe, countries where the rights of farm animals are perceived differently, industry pundits need to demonstrate to the Canadian public that current farming practices are still worthy of their trust, and the trust of potential trading partners.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Associate Dean at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario.