ALRTA PARTICIPATES IN 5th ANIMAL WELFARE STRATEGY FORUM
This week our Vice President Graeme Hoare and I attended the 5th Animal Welfare Strategy Forum in Attwood, Victoria. The Forum brought together peak industry bodies, welfare advocates, industry research and development corporations and research providers such as universities to discuss:
- Current research, development and extension (RD&E) being conducted in Australia relating to primary industry animal welfare;
- Factors affecting farm animal welfare policy; and
- Emerging animal welfare issues and Australia’s capability to conduct new research.
One of the main topics of discussion at the Forum was about the role of science in informing consumer values.
While some forum participants stated that prevailing consumer values and objective science are totally separate from one another and should never mix, my personal view is that today’s consumer values are in fact firmly rooted in science, and that new science will have a huge role to play in informing consumer opinions in future.
Does Science Influence Consumer Values?
Two hundred years ago, the prevailing view of our relationship with animals was based in religion. People were created by god and given dominion over the Earth, including all of its plants and animals. There was no such thing as animal welfare because it was believed that animals were put here to do with as we pleased. And you weren’t even allowed to question it.
But when Charles Darwin published his scientific work on the theory of natural selection in 1859 the thinking of some people slowly, but irreversibly, began to change. Accepting ‘evolution’ as a scientific fact breaks down the barrier between humans and animals. It requires that you also accept that we are animals too that somewhere along the line share a common ancestry with our livestock.
This new way of thinking has led to some consumers developing a deep level of empathy for the way that livestock are treated in our production systems. It makes it easy to imagine how you would feel if you were treated the same way.
And new science is continuing to influence modern consumer values. The human / animal divide becomes has become even more blurred since genetics demonstrated that chimpanzees and humans share more than 98% of our DNA.
So it seems pretty clear to me that science underpins the consumer values we see today, and that it will continue to play a key role well into the future.
Risks, Opportunities and Challenges
Science is our best defence when overzealous welfare advocates overstep the mark. Emotional accusations need to be met with hard and objective data. For example, science has determined it is actually good practice to limit access to feed and water prior to livestock transport and has clearly identified maximum periods that are acceptable for different animal species.
Perhaps even more importantly, economic analysis has shown that the main benefit in improving animal welfare outcomes is in avoiding downside risk.
When things go wrong, we have seen Governments very quickly either impose onerous new regulations or just close down an industry entirely. If this risk is factored into a cost-benefit analysis, animal welfare research quickly becomes the best bang-for-your-buck research there is. So we can expect to see plenty more of it.
While there is a big future for RD&E in animal welfare, there are still some important questions that need to be answered. For instance, there is no agreed method for assessing animal welfare outcomes (some use biology, physiology, behavioural science or examining animal preferences) and promoting the uptake of new research remains a challenge.
To address this challenge, Forum participants agreed that we need to re-think the ‘supply chain’ and take more of a ‘value chain’ approach. Animal producers are much more likely to take up improved welfare practices when it improves their bottom line. This makes it vitally important to link better welfare with outcomes such as improved meat quality and to sell the message to consumers.
Industry Driven Research
For all of these reasons, industry needs to play a key role in driving new research that demonstrably improves animal welfare outcomes while at the same time adds value to our production systems.
Over the past year the ALRTA has been extremely active in improving the approach to animal welfare issues in the road transport sector. For example we have:
- Established a National Animal Welfare Committee;
- Published a national guide for the safe design of loading ramps and forcing yards;
- Merged our TruckCare accreditation system with TruckSafe; and
- Developed a 24hr national hotline service to deal with on-road incidents involving livestock.
This year we are focusing our attention on resolving the problems with effluent management.
This is an issue that could definitely benefit from further research or the extension of research that has already been done. As all operators know, better effluent control requires a good understanding of the relationship between pre-trip preparation practices and the amount and type of effluent likely to be produced in transit.
At the end of the day, we are all being judged by the end of chain consumer and they are increasingly demanding that industry delivers a safe, quality and ethically produced product – whether they are willing to pay more for it or not.
Delivering this outcome requires a holistic approach to production, transport, processing and distribution. Passing the buck along the chain just isn’t acceptable anymore.
The only way we will ever resolve difficult issues such as effluent management is by working together.
This is where participation in the Animal Welfare Strategy Forum is invaluable for the ALRTA. If anything, we need more opportunities to speak openly about animal welfare issues and how industry can collaborate to safeguard the future of our industry.