It’s been relatively quiet on the animal welfare front lately, at least as it pertains to livestock production.
That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t mean the issue has gone away. In fact, two economists with Oklahoma State University believe animal welfare has moved from the fringes to the forefront of discussions over the future of animal agriculture.
Further, they warn in a recent paper that the agricultural industry’s mantra that their profits are tied to having happy animals doesn’t hold up to economic analysis.
Now keep in mind that this work is intended to point out why economists should get involved in the animal welfare debate. They aren’t taking sides, only pointing out where the rhetoric fails under economic analysis.
“The underlying logic is that farm animals that receive better care will be more productive, and as a result will be more profitable,” write Jayson L. Lusk, professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair and F. Bailey Norwood, associate professor in the department of agricultural economics.
Research has shown hens that have more space and a more natural environment may well produce more eggs in a year.
However, the producer’s economic reality is maximizing the number of eggs produced by the barn, not from individual hens.
Invariably, it makes better economic sense to forgo a degree of individual productivity in favour of having more hens in the barn producing eggs.
“In a competitive environment, producers who wish to stay in business face incentives to adopt production systems and practices that maximize profit, and profit-maximizing outcomes are not the same as animal welfare-maximizing outcomes.
“Thus, the real question of interest is not whether profitability must be sacrificed to achieve higher levels of animal welfare, but rather how much?” they say.
If the objective of animal welfare proponents is reducing the degree of harm, it leads to some interesting dilemmas. The assumption is that less intensive or more animal welfare-friendly practices compromise some degree of productivity. But in the extreme view, any animal kept in captivity is suffering to a degree.
So is it more ethical for a meat eater to support animal agriculture that makes fewer animals suffer more, or more animals suffer to a lesser degree?
And whose feelings are we measuring here? Do consumers who support welfare-friendly practices do so because it makes the animals feel better, or because it gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling?
This is an important consideration when it comes to determining whether society should turn to market-based incentives that offer premium prices to producers voluntarily adopting more humane practices or resort to regulatory measures.
For example, in the months leading up to the referendum on Proposition 2 in California, which bans the use of battery cages, consumer demand for cage-free and organic eggs rose relative to demand for conventional eggs as consumers became generally more aware of egg-production practices.
“The results… suggest that the debate surrounding Prop 2 partially alleviated the need for the proposition in the first place, as it caused consumers to voluntarily shift to those higher-priced options that provide hens more space,” the paper says.
Now that the proposition has passed, forcing all producers to move away from battery cages, it’s probable that the premiums previously enjoyed by producers serving the niche market will disappear.
“Thus, animal-advocacy groups (perhaps inadvertently) brought economic harm to those producers already providing the practices the activists sought to promote.”
And last but not least, is the subconscious economy, the difference between what people say they want and what they actually do.
“Data suggest that most consumers, when informed about modern production practices such as battery cages or gestation crates, express a willingness to pay for the more “humane” alternatives that exceeds the costs of providing them. However, most consumers are not informed and will never become so.”
“The market share of cage-free and organic meat and egg products is far lower than what would seem to be suggested by people’s behaviour in voting booths on animal welfare policies,” the paper says.
This is a huge dilemma for animal agriculture, which has invested resources into “educating” consumers in the hopes they will accept modern agricultural practices if only they understood them better.
Keeping consumers in the dark plays into the hands of activists whose exposés of isolated incidents taint the whole industry. But making sure non-farmers understand how their meat and eggs are produced may require industry to change the very practices it is defending.