Public behaviors relating to farm animal welfare (Agriculture vs the public – Part 6)

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.

Public behaviors relating to farm animal welfare

An individual’s attitudes toward, perceptions, and expectations of animal welfare influence their purchasing behavior; consumers who place high importance on animal welfare are more likely to purchase free-range/less intensively raised products, or those marketed as “animal welfare friendly” under quality assurance schemes, while those who are indifferent to animal welfare tend to be driven by price or quality attributes (Verbeke, 2009).

Individual purchasing preferences have collectively driven the development of animal welfare marketing and the growth of the industry, which has influenced the animal agriculture industry through supply and demand dynamics; as the demand for welfare-friendly products grows, so does the prevalence of such production systems.

However, there are other behaviors that can also influence the operations of the animal agriculture industry; signing a petition, voting, donating to a charity, attending a rally, and writing letters are examples of public behaviors (Coleman et al., 2005). Public behaviors also have a collective nature to drive change and are often presented as calls-to-action by activist organizations. More often than not, public participation in such behaviors is limited to when they receive a call to action, and it is activist organizations who drive long-term campaign activities.

When the public perceives that their expectations of animal welfare are not being met, they are more likely to engage in public behaviors in an attempt to exercise social control.

Following a television exposé on the cruel treatment of Australian cattle exported to Indonesia, activist organizations called upon the public to lobby for the end of the live export trade. Within two weeks of the program airing, Tiplady, Walsh, and Phillips (2013) surveyed members of the public (n=157) to investigate the public’s response to the program. Less than 10% of those surveyed had contacted politicians or written to newspapers, and it was concluded that while the program affected the public emotionally, it did not translate into significant behavioral change (Tiplady et al., 2013).

These findings are inconsistent with a review of public behaviors at that time. A petition launched following the program reached more than 250,000 signatures within 3 days (“GetUp Achievements,” 2015). Members of both State and Federal Parliament received tens of thousands of emails on the issue, with the majority demanding the trade be banned. This was reported to be the most correspondence members of parliament (MPs) had ever received on any issue (“Live Export: 365 days,” 2015). Nine days after the initial airing of the program, the Australian Federal Government suspended the trade to Indonesia.

While the exposé may not have enacted significant long term behavioral changes in individual members of the public, the public behavior performed did translate into significant changes for the livestock export industry.

A recent survey in the United States (national representation, n=2,005) found that 53% of respondents strongly agreed with the statement: “I would support a law in my state to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals,” with 41% responding that they moderately agreed (Center for Food Integrity, 2014).

Public behaviors often are expressed in opposition to animal production, not in support, but this does not mean public behaviors should be discouraged. Wilkins (2005) says that the public should be encouraged to engage in food citizenship, which is defined as “the practice of engaging in food-related behaviors that support, rather than threaten, the development of a democratic, socially and economically just, and environmentally sustainable food system.” (p. 269).

Citizen-Consumer Duality

It has become apparent that the public has a certain ambivalence towards modern livestock production. While increased food safety, low food prices, convenience, and efficiency are welcomed by the public, exploitation of nature and loss of tradition are simultaneously rejected (Boogaard et al., 2011b). In turn, the purchasing behaviors exhibited by the public do not often reflect their attitude toward animal welfare and their associated public behaviors.

Citizens may exhibit public behaviors, for example, signing a petition to support a ban on caged eggs or attending a rally to call for the removal of sow stalls from pork production, but in turn as a consumer, continue to purchase eggs produced in cages and pork produced using sow stalls. This discordance is referred to as the duality between consumer and citizen (Vanhonacker et al., 2008).

Experts may consider lay people’s perceptions of and behaviors toward livestock farming to be hypocritical, but their “reality” is just as real as those of experts (Boogaard et al., 2011a) and have the potential to influence the operating conditions of the animal agriculture industry.

There have already been increases in the regulatory framework under which the sector operates and the placement of constraints on the use of new or established practices and technologies (Parbery & Wilkinson 2012), with potential for this trend to continue.

The concept of animal welfare has different meaning to different people. Some people are highly concerned with animal welfare while others are indifferent. Those who are concerned with animal welfare are more likely to participate in public behaviors that can alter the operating conditions of the animal agriculture industry, but these behaviors are not necessarily reflected in their consumer purchasing behaviors.

It remains that the public, some of whom have limited knowledge about farm animal welfare and some of whom have little desire to gain such knowledge, are a highly diverse stakeholder group with perceptions shaped by their knowledge, experiences, values, and convictions (Boogaard et al., 2011a).