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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, articulates the idea that it is wrong to exclude any member of the human species from the circle of moral concern. This enlightened vision was a tremendous advance over earlier, more restricted views about who matters morally; yet it still excludes a far larger number of beings who can both enjoy life and suffer: nonhuman animals. They, or at least those capable of feeling pain, which at a minimum includes all vertebrates, are also entitled to concern. Pain is pain, irrespective of the species of the being that experiences it.
Concern for the welfare of animals is not a new idea. In the fourth century BC, the Chinese Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi said that compassion should permeate relations not only between humans but also between all sentient beings. Buddhist teachings consider caring for all sentient beings a central ethical precept. The Indian emperor Ashoka, who ruled in the third century BC, issued edicts against the unnecessary killing and mutilation of animals, including hunting for sport. He also established animal hospitals and promoted, but did not require, a vegetarian diet. In seventeenth-century Japan, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the so-called Dog Shogun, enacted various rules protecting animals, especially dogs. The Hebrew Bible requires that the Sabbath be a day of rest for oxen, as well as for humans, and other texts command Jews to relieve the suffering of animals, even if they belong to an enemy. The Koran, too, encourages Muslims to treat animals with kindness; the Prophet Muhammad is said to have cut off the sleeve of his shirt rather than disturb a cat who was sleeping on it.
The modern animal welfare movement started in the West. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, first in the United Kingdom and later in other European states and North America, governments passed laws to protect animals from at least some forms of cruelty, such as whippings and beatings, and from being deprived of food and water. Western states went on to extend legal protection to animals in industries, such as those used in experiments, and, later, to those raised on farms and slaughtered for human consumption. The European Union today has a number of protections for agricultural animals, including the banning of sow stalls for pregnant pigs, intensive confinement of young calves, and barren cages for egg-laying hens. Meanwhile, national governments and the global community have increasingly voiced concern for farm animals, no matter where they may be raised.
But despite these advancements in domestic policy, including various but limited animal protection laws, a regulatory framework for animal welfare has largely been absent on the international level. Although there have long been international agreements to protect certain species from hunting -- for example, the 1946 agreement that established the International Whaling Commission -- no comparable agreements exist to govern the treatment of animals raised to be eaten by humans or to produce eggs or milk.
In the past decade, however, the welfare of farm animals has become an issue of international concern. In part, the shift has been caused by the growth in international trade in animals and animal products, and in part, by Westerners' reactions to what they perceive as cruel practices both in their own countries and outside their borders. Between 1980 and 2006, total meat exports increased more than threefold, dairy exports more than doubled, and exports of eggs nearly doubled. This growing trade in animal products has heightened awareness of welfare concerns, as has the export of animals themselves. Last June, for example, an Australian television program aired undercover video showing the slaughter of domestic cattle who had been exported to Indonesia. Workers were shown knocking the animals to the ground and strapping them down -- fully conscious, in panic, eyes bulging -- to await the slaughterer's knife. Such gruesome scenes were simply unacceptable to the Australian public; shortly after the program aired, Canberra suspended the export of Australian cattle to Indonesia until the Indonesian government permitted inspections to ensure that slaughterhouse conditions would be made more humane.
A new movement is emerging. With an increasing number of animals being raised for international markets, and with a growing ability for people to watch previously unseen footage of animal handling, policymakers, businesspeople, nongovernmental organizations, and ordinary citizens are showing greater interest in how animals are treated, wherever they may be. It is no longer sufficient for governments to be concerned for the welfare of animals within their own borders: animal welfare is quickly becoming an issue of international concern.
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
Today, economic growth and development around the world are leading to a rise in the demand for animal products. According to the World Bank, increased global demand caused total meat production in the developing world to almost triple between 1980 and 2002 -- from 45 million to 134 million tons -- with the greatest escalation taking place in countries experiencing rapid economic growth, led by China. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in developing countries since the early 1960s, milk consumption has almost doubled, meat consumption has more than tripled, and egg consumption has increased by a factor of five. (Yet even despite the increased consumption in the developing world, the average person in an industrialized country still consumes far more animal products each year: 181 pounds of meat, 459 pounds of dairy, and 29 pounds of eggs, as compared with 68 pounds of meat, 110 pounds of dairy, and 18 pounds of eggs for each person in the developing world.)
The world's farm animal population has grown to meet this rising demand. In 2009 alone, more than 60 billion land animals -- nearly nine times as many as the human population -- were slaughtered for food. (This number included approximately 52 billion chickens, 1.34 billion pigs, 656 million turkeys, 521 million sheep, 403 million goats, and 298 million cattle.) In addition, around 1.18 trillion eggs were produced for food that year.
These huge numbers raise concerns about pollution, the soaring demand for grain and soybeans to feed these animals, and the significant contribution that farm animal production has on global warming. At the same time, the conditions under which the animals live pose problems for their welfare. The vast majority of the world's animal products are supplied by intensive confinement systems, which deny animals the opportunity to live in a way suited to the normal behavior of their species. As the world's appetite for meat, eggs, and milk has grown, the intensive confinement model of animal production, initially developed in the years after World War II in Europe and North America, has continued to supplant more traditional farming practices. Today, industrial systems -- those that purchase at least 90 percent of their animal feed from other enterprises and house a single species in intensive conditions -- produce around two-thirds of the world's poultry, meat, and eggs, and more than half the pork. And these industrial methods place severe limits on animals, in terms of both space and their ability to engage in natural behavior.
Given the sheer numbers of chickens that are raised for meat and eggs each year, the poultry industry is arguably the most egregious violator of animal welfare. Egg-laying hens, for example, are typically kept in barren, wire-mesh enclosures known as battery cages. These cages are so small that even if there were just one hen in each cage, she would be unable to fully stretch and flap her wings -- and there are often at least four, if not more, hens per cage. Under such crowded conditions, the birds are unable to establish their usual social hierarchy. Subordinate hens have no way of isolating themselves from their more dominant cagemates and, as a result, are likely to have their feathers and bodies pecked by the dominant birds, resulting in injury and sometimes even death. But instead of providing the birds with more space or genetically selecting for traits to minimize feather-pecking behavior, many egg producers simply sear off portions of the birds' beaks, often with a hot blade and rarely, if ever, with anesthesia. In The State of the Animals 2001, a group of leading animal scientists called the procedure a "stop-gap measure masking basic inadequacies in environment or management."
The European Union banned the use of barren battery cages beginning in January 2012. European producers must now raise hens in cage-free environments or, at a minimum, use enriched cages that include nesting boxes and scratching posts, which allow hens to satisfy at least some of their primary behavioral instincts. Although these cages are an improvement, they still keep hens in intensive confinement without the means to behave in the ways that their instincts dictate.
The overwhelming majority of chickens reared for meat are also raised in restrictive conditions, often in large sheds that can hold more than 20,000 birds, packed so densely that each chicken has only as much space as the equivalent of a single sheet of letter-sized paper. In addition to the limitations imposed on their welfare by such confinement practices, the widespread use of selective breeding has an adverse impact on the well-being of tens of billions of animals each year. Simply put, chickens are forced to grow much fatter and much faster than is natural or healthy: in 1925, chickens reached 2.5 pounds in about 16 weeks; today, most commercially raised birds grow to 5.5 pounds in less than seven weeks. Such unnatural and rapid growth rates leave many chickens debilitated, suffering from bone deformities, gait abnormalities, ruptured tendons, and metabolic diseases -- despite their being slaughtered when they are, in effect, still juveniles. Reaching slaughter weight at approximately 42 days of age, many birds cannot walk properly and suffer from other ailments because their immature bones cannot support their abnormally heavy bodies.
Of the mammals eaten by humans, pigs are raised in the greatest number -- and may be the most intelligent of all animals commonly eaten. Commercial farming methods have relegated these animals to confinement in large sheds on bare concrete or slatted flooring without any mental stimulation or basic comforts, causing frustration, boredom, and physical distress. Female pigs, when they are about to give birth, build a nest from straw or leaves and twigs in order to create a comfortable and safe place where they can nurse their litter. But in many of today's industrial production facilities, pregnant pigs are still often caged in sow stalls so narrow that they cannot turn around or even walk more than a step forward or backward, without any straw or bedding material. Right before they give birth, they are often moved into farrowing crates, which are metal enclosures scarcely larger than their own bodies and constructed to physically separate mother from piglets. It is in these barren and restrictive crates, which leave the pigs virtually immobilized, that they give birth and nurse their young -- although only for a fraction of the time they would in the wild, as their piglets are prematurely weaned and soon taken away for "fattening." The sows are then once again impregnated. Although sow stalls for gestating pigs have already been banned throughout the European Union and are slowly being phased out in some U.S. states, they are still widely used elsewhere, and restrictive farrowing crates remain the common agricultural model.
These methods, developed over the past 60 years in order to reduce the need for skilled labor, produce a standard product irrespective of season or weather. And in the pursuit of efficiency and economies of scale, they have now spread from Western countries to many developing nations, particularly those in Asia and Latin America. The result has been an unmitigated disaster for animals: more animals in more places are confined in restrictive conditions utterly unlike their natural environments and are pushed beyond their physiological limits to produce ever-greater numbers of eggs, gallons of milk, and pounds of flesh. It is a tragic turn of events that just as these methods are being modified or even phased out in the countries where they were first invented, they are being introduced in their old, unmodified forms in other countries around the world. The exportation of industrialized animal-production models has inflicted misery on animals on an unprecedented scale -- not to mention causing higher grain prices for the poor, greater greenhouse gas emissions, and a serious threat to human health, as seen by the rise of various zoonotic diseases and the pollution of land, air, and water.
BATTLE OF THE COWSHED
The replication in developing nations of the worst forms of intensive animal farming is grim news. But there is hope: people in the industrialized world are beginning to show concern about the treatment of animals beyond the borders of their countries. At the same time, some developing countries already have animal welfare legislation, although enforcement varies greatly, and others, including China, are discussing it. Meanwhile, international regulation is making some progress, as are corporate policies in favor of better farm animal welfare. The question now is whether these gains can be consolidated into a centralized and uniformly-agreed-on set of rules.
The European Union has been a leader in passing legislation intended to improve the welfare of farm animals across national borders. To a large extent, this effort has been driven by public attitudes: in March 2007, the European Commission released a survey called "Attitudes of EU Citizens Towards Animal Welfare," which found that more than 34 percent of those polled felt that animal welfare was of the highest possible importance and gave it a score of ten out of ten points, whereas only two percent deemed animal welfare unimportant. (Overall, those surveyed gave animal welfare an average rating of 7.8 points.) And the European public is not merely content with existing regulations. Although the majority of the EU's most significant animal welfare rules (for example, bans on sow stalls, barren battery cages, and individual confinement stalls for calves raised for veal) were enacted in the late 1990s and early years of this century, a resounding majority (77 percent) of those responding to the 2007 European Commission poll wanted further improvements to protect farm animals.
There is broad public interest in animal welfare in the United States, too. For example, 64 percent of those responding to a 2008 Gallup survey favored "strict laws" governing the treatment of farm animals. A 2007 survey sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that 95 percent of those polled said that it was important to them how farm animals were cared for, with 76 percent of respondents saying that the well-being of these animals was more important than low meat prices. And when these questions have been put to an actual vote, the results have validated such sentiments: in California, for example, a 2008 referendum to ban the standard battery cage and sow and veal stalls passed with a 63 percent majority. Yet the United States lacks any federally mandated protections for animal welfare, in no small part due to effective and entrenched agricultural lobbies.
In China, where food production is not stringently regulated and animals are often raised in dire conditions, public attitudes also favor protections for animals raised for food. A 2005 poll conducted there by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that 90 percent of respondents believed that they had a moral duty to minimize animal suffering, and 77 percent favored legislation to do so.
And there are signs that attitudes among China's commercial and political power brokers are beginning to shift. In 2007, the director of the Beijing Chaoyang Anhua Animal Product Safety Research Institute and the president of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce signed a memorandum of understanding on humane slaughter with the World Society for the Protection of Animals. The agreement calls for efforts, including training, to ensure the humane transport, handling, stunning, and slaughter of farm animals in China. As of August 2009, more than 2,300 people from nearly 950 companies from different parts of China had received training on animal welfare. Given the size and scale of China's animal agricultural industry, these numbers may seem insignificant; what is important is that business leaders, scientists, and other stakeholders in the country have made such a commitment and are making available educational modules on the treatment of farm animals.
Also in 2007, a team of Chinese legal experts submitted a draft proposal of an animal protection law to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. The proposed law would be China's first piece of national legislation on animal welfare and would afford basic protections to animals on farms, in laboratories, and in the entertainment industry, as well as to pets, service animals, and wild animals. Although the law has not yet passed, its basic principles, which acknowledge the need to protect animals and regulate the treatment of them, are a sign of changing attitudes. Chang Jiwen, one of the law's drafters and a researcher with the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Xinhua News Agency in 2009 that he is "convinced -- along with the enhancement of people's awareness of animal welfare -- laws and regulations in this respect will become more sophisticated and complete."
WELFARE GOES GLOBAL
Although national legislation plays a key role in improving the welfare of animals raised for food, it is not the only answer. Indeed, even in those countries with animal protection laws, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms are limited. In a growing number of cases, the consumer marketplace is driving new policies, and international organizations are helping raise consciousness and fill the gaps left by national laws.
The need to improve the welfare of farm animals has been accepted by a number of such multilateral bodies, including the World Organization for Animal Health (known by its initials in French, OIE). Created in 1924 to combat the global spread of animal diseases, the OIE, aware of the link between the treatment of animals and their well-being, has expanded its attention beyond animal health to include animal welfare. The acceptance on such an international level of the importance of animal welfare is a strong indication of the global community's interest in farm animal well-being. In 2008, more than 400 participants met in Cairo at the OIE's second Global Conference on Animal Welfare, where they put forth a resolution stating that ethics is as important as science in the development of animal welfare standards. For the OIE, a scientific authority on animal health and disease, to acknowledge the ethical significance of the mistreatment of animals indicates a momentous shift in opinion at the highest level.
Animal production practices not only influence the welfare and health of the animals themselves but also affect food security, the environment, and community sustainability. In recognition of this, the FAO has joined the global call for improved welfare, recognizing the myriad effects of how animals are raised for food. In 2008, the FAO convened a forum on animal welfare practices, which led to a report stating that as human and farm animal populations continue to rise, "the resulting escalation of animal production raises a number of ethical issues, including environmental sustainability and secure access to food, which must be considered alongside the growing concern about animal welfare." It went on to say, "Animal welfare is coming to be recognized as highly relevant to success in international development."
Soon after its 2008 meeting, the FAO launched the Gateway to Farm Animal Welfare, a Web portal that contains information on diverse aspects of animal agriculture, including animal welfare, in various countries and agricultural sectors. It serves as a single access point for scientific reports, case studies, training opportunities, expert directories, events, and more. The gateway aims to facilitate information sharing around the world, primarily for professionals and producers in less developed countries. On the portal, the FAO explains the importance of focusing on animal welfare: "In many regions, a secure supply of food for people depends on the health and productivity of animals, and these in turn depend on the care and nutrition that animals receive." But, as the FAO goes on to note, "animal welfare practices, despite their evident positive impacts, are insufficiently applied" both on traditional and on industrial farms.
The private sector is also highlighting farm animal welfare as a necessary component of sound business models. In 2006, the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank published "Creating Business Opportunity Through Improved Animal Welfare," which pointed out that consumers around the world are increasingly demanding that their food be produced humanely and safely, which in turn means that "animal welfare is also important for commercial reasons, both directly, by increasing a business's overall sustainability, and indirectly, by addressing society's expectations of how animals should be treated and how food should be produced."
Just last year, the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, a network of the national standards institutes from 163 countries, issued its "ISO 26000" guidelines, which serve as the internationally accepted standard on social responsibility for both the public and the private sectors. The new document marks the first time that the ISO has included references to animal welfare, requiring those observing the standard to respect "the welfare of animals, when affecting their lives and existence, including by providing decent conditions for keeping, breeding, producing, transporting and using animals."
Although such initiatives represent welcome progress, more work needs to be done. Given that farm animal production affects diverse communities, human and nonhuman alike, a collaborative strategy that unites the public and private sectors is necessary. Global Animal Partnership, an international charity dedicated to farm animal welfare, founded in 2008, embodies this multistakeholder approach. (One of the co-authors of this essay is executive director of the organization.) It brings together farmers and ranchers, animal welfare advocates, animal behavioral scientists, and food retailers to agree on common principles and to speak out with a unified voice for continuous improvement in animal agriculture. Recognizing the diversity of animal production methods, the charity's flagship initiative is an assessment program that contains different sets of progressively higher welfare requirements covering nearly every aspect of on-farm production. The 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards program, as opposed to binary certification schemes, encourages innovation and empowers producers to move up the so-called welfare ladder. Participating farmers and ranchers adhere to production standards and subject themselves to auditing and certification by independent third parties. In less than three years, more than 1,750 farms and ranches that together raise more than 140 million animals each year have sought this certification. The program's multitiered structure allows a wide variety of producers, from small farms to large-scale operations, to participate. Each tier in the program has its own set of comprehensive standards, covering basic provisions, such as food, water, and shelter, and enhancements that encourage foraging and other natural behaviors. These tiers lead to progressively higher welfare practices, including prohibitions against the transportation of live animals and against physical alterations, such as beak trimming or castration. The multitiered system gives producers incentives to improve their farming practices and modify their production systems in ways that lead to better animal welfare. Higher ratings serve as further information for consumers and, in many cases, allow certified producers to charge higher prices. Other stakeholders also benefit from the program: retailers are able to offer wider product selection to meet customer demands, consumers are given transparent and more accurate sources of information on how the animals were raised for the meat they purchase, and, of course, the animals raised in these systems enjoy better lives. Global Animal Partnership completed a pilot program last year with Whole Foods Market, North America's largest natural food retailer, and is now in discussions with restaurants, producers, and other grocers in a number of countries around the world.
Given the sheer magnitude of intensive confinement agriculture -- in terms of the number of individual animals involved and in terms of the impact on animal welfare, human health, and the planet's limited resources -- the sense of urgency cannot be overstated. Whether one spends his or her days in a corporate boardroom in India, a government office in Russia, a university classroom in Brazil, or a farm in Canada, all who are involved in the global food industry, as producers or consumers, have an obligation to find remedies to the problems caused by the growth in intensive confinement animal agriculture around the world. It is time for a global commitment to reduce animal suffering and to mitigate the many unintended and undesirable consequences of raising animals for food.