Factors influencing perceptions of farm animal welfare (Agriculture vs the Public – Part 4)

Written by Steph Coombes, Central Station editor

In 2015 and 2016 I attended Kansas State University, studying a Master of Science in Agricultural Education and Communication. As a part of my degree, I was required to undertake a research thesis.  

It wasn’t difficult for me to choose a research topic. I’ve been a passionate “agvocate” (agricultural advocate) since 2012. Our industry has had a lot of “agvocates” – spurred on by the live export ban and subsequent continuous dialogue ever since about “social license”.

Here’s the thing though – while I love to advocate for agriculture, I see a lot of people doing it  poorly – to the point where it really frustrates me, and I think they are doing more harm than good for our industry.

The following is an excerpt from the literature review component of my Masters’ Thesis, “Discursive features of animal agriculture advocates”. I’m going to post it over a series of blogs, and I sincerely hope this research challenges the way you think about communicating about agriculture.

You can find the whole thesis here.

Find all 11 articles here.

Factors influencing perceptions of farm animal welfare

The concept of animal welfare, and its importance, varies considerably around the world. Development, economic status, political stability, education, and culture are but a few examples of why some countries have a high interest in animal welfare, and other countries place a higher interest on human rights and welfare (Preece, 1999).

Post-materialistic values have gradually become more prominent in prosperous, industrialized societies who do not face issues of hunger and economic instability. In such societies, people’s needs have shifted from survival to belonging, self-expression, autonomy, and a participant role in society (Inglehart, 2000).

However, an intergenerational divide of values still exists within such societies; Inglehart (2000) found that in older age groups (pre-war), materialists outnumbered post-materialists fourteen to one, whereas the proportion of materialists to post-materialists declined significantly among young (post-war) people, showing that the influence of a person’s early environment can influence their worldview and values throughout their life.

Post-materialistic values, such as animal welfare, often are prioritized even when they conflict with economic growth (Inglehart, 2000). This concept ties back to the idea of economic prosperity fostering post-materialistic values; improving economic growth is less urgent for those who are already prosperous. However, it is not just prosperous societies who value animal welfare; India has legal protection for animals that are not present in more prosperous societies, as well stating that “It shall be the duty of every citizen in India- (to) … have compassion for living creatures”. (Panjwani, 2004, p.147). A country’s lack of prosperity may inhibit its ability to practice good animal welfare (e.g. improve infrastructure and fund veterinary care), but it does not impede its ability to value it (Fraser, 2006).

In countries where animal welfare is treated as an important issue, much research has been produced to understand what influences perceptions of animal welfare (Boogaard, Bock, Oosting, Wiskerke, & van der Zijpp 2011a; Boogaard et al., 2011b; Boogaard, Oosting, & Bock, 2006; Deemer & Labao, 2011; Kanis, Groen, & De Greef, 2003; Lassen et al., 2006; Maria, 2006; Van Poucke, Vanhonacker, Nijs, Braeckman, Verbeke & Tuyttens, 2006; Vanhonacker et al., 2007; Verbeke, 2009).

From such studies, Te Velde, Aarts, and Van Woerkum (2002), identified five key influencing factors on the conceptualization of animal welfare;

  1. convictions (a firmly held belief opinion)
  2. values (one’s judgment of what is important)
  3. norms (translations of these values into standard rules of conduct)
  4. knowledge (information gained through experience, stories, and facts) and
  5. interests (economic, social and moral interests).

Other studies have focused on the influence of demographic and socio-demographic factors (Herzog, Betchart & Pittman, 1991; Nibert 1994; Taylor & Signal, 2005), while Kendall, Lobao, and Sharp (2006), suggested that attitudes toward and perceptions of animal welfare reflect unquestioned customary relationships between people and animals as opposed to being formed from critical thinking, and that both socio-structural (socio-demographic) and individual factors influence attitudes and perceptions.

Kendall et al. (2006) identified three sets of factors as key structural determinants for attitudes about animal welfare:

  1. place-based urban rural factors;
  2. other social structural factors;
  3. and individuals’ experiences with animals.

As people with a rural background or experience in agriculture have a more utilitarian relationship with animals than people in urban areas, it was hypothesized that urban-rural place based factors would influence attitudes towards animal welfare. Specifically, it was hypothesized that people from rural areas would have a lower concern about animal welfare due to the utilitarian nature of their relationship. The results of that study supported the hypothesis, as well as indicating that people who grew up in non-rural, nonfarm settings expressed greater concern for animal welfare.

An individuals’ perceptions of farming and animal welfare also is influenced by factors such as where they live, their relation to agriculture, their knowledge, and their previous experiences. Boogaard et al., found that people who had a connection to agriculture and those who had had some involvement in agriculture had a more positive image of modern agriculture and were more accepting of the trade-off between animals’ naturality (interaction with nature) and modernity (use of technology) (2011a). This idea was supported in a study by Van Poucke et al. (2006) who found people from rural areas were less critical of farm animal welfare relative to their urban counterparts, and Vanhonacker et al. (2007) also found that people with a higher degree of farming experience and people from rural areas held a low concern for animal welfare.

While studies have identified factors which influence perceptions of animal welfare, little work has been done to understand why these relationships occur. Furthermore, little explanation is provided as to what having a “low/er concern about animal welfare” actually means; does it mean that people have a low concern about the intrinsic value of animal welfare, or, do they have a low concern because they are knowledgeable about livestock production and are comfortable and confident with current practices, thus not needing to express “concern”? One would assume that those who have grown up in rural areas, and/or rely on animal utility for their income and livelihood would have a deep appreciation for the importance of animal welfare.

Research also has found that farmers and consumers have different perceptions of aspects of animal welfare due to the nature of their relationships and interactions with animals (Vanhonacker et al., 2008). In one study, farmers and consumers ranked most aspects of animal welfare with comparable importance, but encountered divergence upon the perception of present potential problems; consumers evaluated the ability to engage in natural behavior, access to sufficient space, pain, and stress more negatively than farmers. Overall, consumers were more concerned with the present state of animal welfare, whereas farmers evaluated the current state of animal welfare conditions as satisfactory. This is likely because farmers judge welfare by the health and performance of the animal, and if the animal is performing as required for economic utility, its welfare is considered sufficient (Vanhonacker et al., 2008), whereas consumers tend to include emotive and psychological aspects to their evaluation.

The social structural factors influencing attitudes towards animal welfare determined by Kendall et al. (2006) included: gender, race, socio-economic class, education, age, and family status. Numerous studies have consistently demonstrated that women generally have a higher regard for the welfare of animals relative to men (Kendall et al., 2006; Nibert 1994; Peek, Bell, & Dunham, 1996; Peek, Dunham, & Dietz, 1997; Pifer, Shimizi, & Pifer, 1994). The relationship between gender, race, socio-economic class, education, and attitude toward animal welfare, whereby those lower in the stratification hierarchy are expected to have a greater concern for animal welfare, has been referred to as the “underdog hypothesis” (Kendall et al., 2006). Kendall et al. (2006) found some support for the underdog hypothesis, with women, black people, and those with lower education levels showing a greater concern for animal welfare. Conflicting results have been found in studies looking at the effect of income and education. Age was hypothesized to be inversely related to concern for animal welfare, and it was suggested that as a person’s circumstances change throughout life, such as family status and responsibility, concern would be directed away from animal welfare to concerns directly related to their lives, which was supported by the data.

The third and final structural determinant distinguished by Kendall et al. (2006) was an individual’s experiences with animals. Non-hunters, vegetarians, and those concerned about environmental issues were found to be more concerned with animal welfare. Again, it is difficult to interpret exactly what having “more concern for animal welfare” means, as it is reasonable to presume that people who hunt and those who consume meat are just as concerned with animal welfare, but perhaps more comfortable and thus less concerned about current practices.

Deemer and Lobao (2011) found support for the religious and political bases of farm animal welfare attitudes in the United States. Higher dominion orientation (the belief of the superior status of humans over animals) was related to less concern for animal welfare, although it was found that religious beliefs could be a source of support for animal welfare. Boogaard et. al. (2011b) found that respondents who believed in equality in human-animal relations were less prepared to accept modern farm practices, which could be interpreted as having more concern for animal welfare, thus supporting Deemer and Lobao’s (2011) findings about dominion orientation.

Political orientation, as reflected by a desire for economic equality and a greater tolerance of out-groups (i.e. a more liberal orientation), also related to a higher concern for farm animal welfare (Deember & Lobao, 2011). Additionally, those with a greater concern for human welfare had a greater concern for animal welfare (Deember & Lobao, 2011). Further work in the Netherlands has shown that socially minded people (who value equality) had a stronger preference for more traditional and natural livestock farming and were less accepting of modern farming practices (Boogaard et al., 2011b), which could be connected to Deemer and Lobao’s (2011) study that found that more politically liberal people (who also value equality) had a greater concern for animal welfare.

Again, it is difficult to draw strong comparisons between the studies, but these results beg the question—are politically liberal citizens more concerned about animal welfare because of the modernity of today’s agricultural production or because of the intrinsic value of animal welfare?