Don’t write off animal welfare advocates as vegans and ‘crazies,’ says expert

Most consumers now believe animals have rights and livestock producers have to respond to their views, says bioethicist

Bernie Rollin
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The growing emphasis on animal welfare and animal rights is part of a societal shift, and the livestock sector needs to embrace it.

That’s the view of a philosopher who is also a professor of biomedical sciences and animal sciences at Colorado State University and author of several books on animal rights.

“Too many people in agriculture, if you say the phrase ‘animal rights’ or even ‘animal welfare,’ what comes to their mind is a small group of crazies, malcontents, radicals, extremists, and vegans who do not appreciate that North America has the most inexpensive, safe, wholesome food supply in the world,” Bernie Rollin said at a recent Livestock Care Conference put on by Alberta Farm Animal Care.

But it’s much larger than that, said Rollin. As far back as 2004, polls found 70 per cent of the American public wanted farm animal welfare legislated. That number is now well north of 90 per cent, he said, and many have gone well beyond that.

“Seventy to 80 per cent of Americans believe animals have rights, and it’s higher in Britain. So when you dismiss people as extremists when they believe animals have rights, you’re making serious tactical errors.”

Being blind to those concerns will only hinder agriculture’s ability to manage the issue, he said.

Rapidly growing social concern for animal treatment is an example of the large number of social and ethical revolutions that have taken place over the past 60 years, including civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ rights, and children’s rights. As larger society has encompassed the needs of minorities, they have also included animals in this definition.

“We all live under a social consensus ethic,” he said. “If we didn’t have one, if everything was restricted to your personal ethic, we’d have chaos.

“Failing to accord with the social ethic in a pre-emptive way can cost you customers, and more importantly, freedom.”

Rollin urged his audience to think of social ethics as an ox cart going to Toronto.

“You as an industry are chained to that ox cart. You’ve got two choices. You can walk when the ox cart walks and rest when it rests. Or you can fight it, in which case you’ll get there broken, bleeding and wounded.”

Voluntarily managing issues is easier than waiting for the government to regulate.

“If you have the choice — self-regulate.”

The livestock sector also makes a tactical error when it talks about animal welfare in terms of “sound science.” Instead of asking if a particular practice is supported by science, ask whether it is something that should be done, said Rollin.

He also challenged the frequently cited view that high animal welfare standards are a given because productivity and taking care of livestock go hand in hand. That’s not always true, he said.

“Productivity is an economic notion — predicated by the entire operation — while welfare is predicated on individual animals,” he said, noting a caged laying hen operation can still be profitable even if it is overcrowded.

It disturbs consumers if they believe producers and scientists ignore issues such as fear, pain, and distress unless they impact the bottom line. Instead, Rollin prefers another definition of welfare, which focuses on moral obligations to the animal.

“Science does not determine the concept of welfare — your welfare determines the science,” he said, adding his definition of animal welfare is based on preventing suffering and allowing animals to express their nature.

And sometimes animal husbandry and animal science conflict.

“Animal husbandry talked about how you put the animal in the optimal environment for which they were suited biologically and socially, and then augmented their ability to thrive and survive with food, water, and medical attention,” he said. “Animal science gave us feeding bone meal to herbivores, which gave us mad cow disease.”

In Rollin’s view, the last supporters of animal husbandry are western ranchers.

“They still have the ethic of animal husbandry,” he said.

A rancher will stay up all night to care for a marginal calf — not because there’s an economic benefit, but because it’s what they owe the animals, he said.

“The great virtue of husbandry is that it was a fair contract. Both sides benefited. We did well only if the animals did well. There was a close unity between animal welfare and producer welfare. That’s the key point. We didn’t need animal ethics. We didn’t need any laws because self-interest is the most powerful contract.”

Like it or not, there is now a social contract between livestock producers and consumers.

“The industry should look to what people want and then try and meet it. It’s common sense.”

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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