It wouldn’t be appropriate to say that the EU doesn’t have good intentions: The Farm to Fork strategy and the Green Deal do present a picture of an ambitious European Commission that has heard the call for more environmental, climate and animal welfare protection. But do the Commission, Parliament and Council really understand what’s at stake and what our course of action should be? Animal welfare and human wellbeing go hand-in-hand. COVID-19 has shaken up both citizens and political leaders, making them mindful of the intricate interconnections between biodiversity, animal welfare and human health.
And while nowadays it’s almost impossible to find anyone calling for less animal welfare, scrutinising the details of European Animal Welfare legislation in reality suggests a less ambitious approach than that presented by the EU institutions. The EU continues to ignore how seriously the demand for cheap meat impacts our climate and biodiversity. With a business-as-usual approach, two things are certain; we won’t tackle the climate crisis and this won’t be the last pandemic.
“Do the Commission, Parliament and Council really understand what’s at stake and what our course of action should be? Animal welfare and human wellbeing go hand-in-hand”
Let’s start by looking at farms. Last October again highlighted the gap between nice words and a hard budget; the public was kept busy debating names for vegan burgers, a majority in the European Parliament pushed for a CAP reform that would again distribute most EU funds on the basis of the number of hectares owned. This supports industrial farming and leaves smaller, eco-friendly farms outgunned.
EU taxpayers’ money will continue to fund industrial animal farming and the routine preventive use of antibiotics. Up to 87 percent of antimicrobials are used for farm animals, including highly potent, last-line antibiotics that cause microbial resistance in humans. Lastline antibiotics are meant to treat life-threatening infections in humans. Now they have become an instrument to widen profit margins in industrial animal farming - propping up a dangerous and distorted system. Getting closer to the fork, let’s take a look at what’s in supermarket aisles. EU consumers have voiced their support for animal products originating from eco-friendly farming - including a willingness to pay higher prices.
The biggest challenge, however, is to identify high-quality products. Here, among its next steps, the Farm to Fork Strategy rightly mentions food labels that, “allow consumers to choose healthy and sustainable diets.” What an excellent idea. However, the suggestion by Julia Klöckner, Germany’s Federal agriculture minister, for a non-mandatory approach will not do the job. Again, good intentions are not yet protecting animals.
The first step to protect the welfare of farm animals effectively - and the welfare of EU-citizens - is to step back from unsustainable subsidy policies and link public money inextricably to health-orientated systems for the rearing of animals. We should be promoting good animal welfare, cage-free husbandry and abolishing incentives for industrial animal farming, which, I believe, should be banned altogether.
Next, for the upcoming ban on the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics, the Commission should ensure it takes a good look at the fine print, making sure that last-line antibiotics are reserved for human use and making it clear that vets should not be allowed to prescribe and dispense antibiotics.
Improved husbandry would reduce the risk of disease. In such an approach, good health is integral to the system rather than being propped up by the routine use of antimicrobials. To install a health-oriented approach, the density of the farm animal population needs to be reduced, enabling animals to live and behave naturally.
“The live and long-distance transportation of animals should be banned, as the Council Regulation has not succeeded in protecting animals from undue suffering and injury. Let’s transport the meat and not live animals”
We need to end the early weaning of pigs, maintain good air quality and move away from genetic selection for high production. Moreover, the live and long-distance transport of animals should be banned, as the Council Regulation has not succeeded in protecting animals from undue suffering and injury. Let’s transport the meat and not live the animals. Slaughtering should happen an abattoir nearby.
To empower consumers, we need standardised, EU-wide, mandatory labelling on products, showing images of the conditions under which animals are kept. Such a label should also contain information on the use of pesticides, antibiotics and GMO feed. Taking a broader perspective, animal welfare should be a defining component in international trade. Free Trade Agreements should explicitly contain clauses on animal protection, ensuring that we don’t nullify high animal welfare standards in the European Union by importing lower ones from third countries.
The European Green Deal and the revision of existing animal welfare legislation is our chance; the momentum to improve animal protection in Europe is there. It would create a win-win situation for animals, the environment, farmers and consumers.