Much of the debate on farm animal welfare changes has centred on major infrastructure shifts such as facilities improvements and housing approaches.
But the greatest challenge — and also opportunity — facing animal agriculture may lie not in the physical environment but rather in the mindset of producers, says David Fraser, a professor of applied biology of the University of B.C.
Recognizing this and taking steps to ensure a professional, responsible mindset among everyone involved in handling and managing animals may just be the most impactful way to effect strong and sustainable welfare advancement, he said.
“Very different welfare outcomes occur in the same type of physical environment. Why is this?” Fraser said at the recent Livestock Care Conference. “Of course it’s because animal welfare depends on so much more than just the physical environment. It depends strongly on the quality of animal care that the animals receive. This in turn depends so much on the knowledge, skill and attentiveness of the producers and staff.”
Doctors, lawyers, farmers?
Farming and animal agriculture have unique roots; a diversity of scales and approaches; and unique characteristics quite distinct from other “professions.” But nonetheless a professional mindset is critical to maximizing success, particularly in the case of key areas of sustainability under increasing scrutiny in the public eye, including farm animal welfare, he said.
“Whether it’s food safety, environmental stewardship, or farm animal welfare, what we need is a system that rewards that high level of skill, knowledge, dedication and performance,” said Fraser. “I believe we need a continued shift in our thinking toward what I would call ‘professional animal production’ as the way forward on these issues.”
Animal agriculture needs to ‘walk the talk’ and make sure professional approaches are implemented in all facets of the industry, he said. The potential reward is a society that is less questioning and challenging of animal agriculture, and more trusting and comfortable with livestock and meat industries, he said.
Health care is arguably the most professionalized industry, and while agriculture is different it can benefit by gradually moving closer to a professional model, said Fraser. Three key elements of a profession include: a) the main outcome is some kind of service to clients or the public; b) participation requires competence, typically demonstrated to peers; and c) the ethical acceptability of the profession comes from adhering to the ethical norms of society, usually through some form of self-regulation.
Canada is making progress on this pathway in the area of farm animal care; through organizations such as the National Farm Animal Care Council and Alberta Farm Animal Care; and through standards and guidelines such as the Codes of Practice and Assessment Models, said Fraser.
“The traditional industry model of enforcement people coming in and correcting problems is what we want to avoid. Industry-driven progress; producers taking charge of responsibility; and advancement — these approaches make us much more like a true profession.”
Good animal producers can develop self-regulatory processes to demonstrate they are meeting the ethical expectations of society, he said. Enforcement agencies can work in collaboration with industry groups to address any issues or problems, because while each has a distinct and important role they share the same interests. Over time, the public will see the industry organizations as the main group to reach out to when asking for concerns to be looked into and addressed.
“I think this shift has already begun with many of the initiatives industry has undertaken, particularly in recent years,” said Fraser. “We are moving in the right direction. Changes are occurring that make a professional model much more feasible for the future.”