The public’s concern with animal production (Agriculture vs the Public – Part 3)

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 with the public about agriculture.

You can find the whole thesis here.

The public’s concern with animal production

The animal agriculture industry has experienced a significant rate of change during the past 200 years. In addition to new production systems and technologies since 1900, the agricultural workforce has decreased by 95% (Dimitri, 2005). As the urban population has increased, ties to the agricultural industry have decreased. Not only is the majority of the public physically removed from agricultural production by distance, they are generationally removed also.

Throughout this transition, the public has not remained engaged and informed about the evolution of the industry; today an overwhelming majority of the public has very little understanding of, and experience with, agricultural production. As such, misunderstanding and misconceptions about production are common throughout the community.

Animal activists with an agenda to end animal production seek to inform the public as to how cruel animal agriculture is, as well as how harmful to the environment. In both the retail and food service industry, companies have taken public stands against the use of particular production systems or technologies to gain a marketing edge.

There are multiple voices, with different agendas, telling the public how and what to think about animal agriculture. There are many factors that influence an individual’s perception of animal welfare, leading to a diverse range of perceptions existing within the wider public. At one end of the spectrum, there are traditional perceptions of animal agriculture; the agrarian ideal that reveres a harmonious relationship between farming families and their livestock; and the pastoralist ideal that reveres diligent animal care (Fraser, 2001a).

As animal production has become more modern and technical, the public’s perception has moved toward the other end of the spectrum; they have become critical and confused due to oversimplified, emotive, and contradicting arguments from different interest groups (Fraser 2001a).

Generally, in Western society, the public tends to evaluate the current state of animal welfare as problematic and not satisfactory (Coleman, 2007; Maria, 2006; Vanhonacker, Verbeke, Van Poucke & Tuyttens, 2008). In the 2007 Eurobarometer survey, 77% of Europeans (n= 29,152) stated that they believe there is a need for further improvements (to animal welfare) to be made in their country (Eurobarometer, 2007). Coleman, Hay, and Toukhasti (2005), reported that 60% of respondents in Australia (n=1,061) agreed with the statement that “Welfare of animals is a major concern,” and 71% agreed that “Farm animal welfare is an important consideration.” Almost 50% of participants in a recent USA survey (n=2,005) stated that they were concerned about the humane treatment of farm animals (Center for Food Integrity, 2014).

When asked to rate their level of agreement with the statement “US meat is derived from humanely treated animals,” only 24% strongly agreed, while 76% of participants responded in the low to moderate agreement categories. Fraser (2001b) describes the public’s “New Perception” of animal agriculture as “1) detrimental to animal welfare, 2) controlled by corporate interests, 3) motivated by profit rather than by traditional animal care values, 4) causing increased world hunger, 5) producing unhealthy food, and 6) harming the environment” (p. 634).

Approaches to understanding and mitigating the public’s concern with animal agriculture

Concept of animal welfare

Before anyone can attempt to understand and mitigate the public’s concern with the welfare component of animal agriculture, an understanding of the concept of animal welfare is needed, especially as interpretations of the concept of animal welfare differ among various stakeholder groups (Fisher 2009; Hewson 2003; Vanhonacker et al., 2008).

Those involved with animal production from an economic and commercial standpoint tend to view and measure animal welfare using objective, scientific, quantifiable, physiological and behavioral parameters (Bracke, De Greef & Hopster, 2005).

Others, who are involved in animal production from a non-scientific and/ or non-expert perspective, tend to interpret the concept from a more subjective perspective (Lassen, Sandoe & Forkman, 2006; Verbeke, 2009), often including psychological parameters as measurement forms. Seamer (1998) defined animal welfare as “a state of animal well-being which flourishes when physiological and psychological requirements are met continuously and adverse factors are controlled or absent” (p.203).

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) developed the following definition of animal welfare:

“Animal welfare means how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives. An animal is in a good state of welfare if as indicated by scientific evidence it is healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, able to express innate behavior, and if it is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, and distress. Good animal welfare requires disease prevention and veterinary treatment, appropriate shelter, management, nutrition, humane handling and humane slaughter/killing. Animal welfare refers to the state of the animal; the treatment that an animal receives is covered by other terms such as animal care, animal husbandry, and humane treatment. (International Office of Epizootics, 2015, article 7.7.1).”

The concept of animal welfare is at times confused with the closely related concepts of animal health, animal cruelty, and animal rights. Animal health is defined as “the branch of medicine that concerns itself with the study, prevention, and treatment of animals, especially domesticated ones.” (Macquarie Dictionary, 2003, as cited in Potard, 2015).

Animal cruelty refers to “the behavior of human beings towards the animal, rather than the state or feelings of the animal itself.” (Potard, 2015, p. 6). Cruelty is defined as “to inflict suffering; (to be) indifferent to, or taking pleasure in, the pain or distress of another” (Macquarie Dictionary, 2003, as cited in Potard, 2015).

The concept of animal rights refers to the “moral or legal entitlements attributed to animals, usually because of the complexity of their cognitive, emotional, and social lives or their capacity to experience physical or emotional pain or pleasure.” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013).

The relationship between animal welfare, health, and cruelty are clear; the presence of good health and an absence of cruelty contribute to positive animal welfare. The role of animal rights is the most debated, as an individual’s moral and ethical perspective on the use of animals and whether they ought to have “rights” influences their understanding and perspective of animal welfare.