Animal welfare: an important challenge for sustainability

Summary

Animal well-being is becoming increasingly important for consumers and stakeholders, as well as for agrofood companies, which need to make a closer link between environmental protection and business profitability.

26Mai.
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In April 2014, France changed the legislative status of animals: rather than “personal property,” they have officially become “living, sentient beings.” This decision was the result of a petition initiated two years ago by Trente Million d’Amis (Thirty Million Friends), a French animal protection association. It reflects the growing awareness of people in general as regards an important sustainability issue: animal welfare. A topic that is crucial for agrofood companies that make and sell products derived from animal products.

Animal welfare and sustainable development

The Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary defines animal welfare as

the avoidance of abuse and exploitation of animals by humans by maintaining appropriate standards of accommodation, feeding and general care, the prevention and treatment of disease and the assurance of freedom from harassment, and unnecessary discomfort and pain.” It can be understood as a synonym of “animal well-being.”

This principle leads some people to become vegetarian because they do not want animals to be killed for food, others to become vegan because they refuse any sort of animal exploitation and a vast majority to keep consuming animal products while paying closer attention to the way animals are treated. There is in fact growing concern among consumers and the stakeholders of agrofood companies about animal well-being and health. Ken McCarthy, a Texan farmer who runs a sustainable agriculture farm, explained during the Ecosystem workshops on sustainable agriculture (read our article here ) that animal welfare was, in fact, becoming one of the public’s main preoccupations when it came to sustainability.

Aside from the fact that there is a moral and legal obligation to refrain from treating animals with cruelty, why is animal welfare a sustainability issue? There are several answers to that question. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In 2006, the European Union issued a renewed Sustainable Development Strategy, which recognised that “win-win opportunities need to be exploited in order to reconcile environmental protection and smart economic growth,” to quote the Eurogroup for Animals. Animal protection represents such an opportunity, since animal welfare is an important way to “promote public good health and improve protection against health threats” – one of the key objectives of the Sustainable Development Strategy. Reinforcing the protection of livestock in particular makes it possible to reduce health risks related to viruses or illegal trade, improving food quality, limiting chemical-related threats linked to the massive use of antibiotics, etc. Caring for the animals is also closely linked to another SDS objective: “to improve management and avoid the overexploitation of natural resources, recognising the value of ecosystem services.” Providing better feed helps reduce greenhouse gases emissions and increase cows’ milk productivity, for instance (read our articles about the “cows of the future” and about “Acteurs pour un lait durable” for more information).

 

Coming up with a definition

In spite of all this attention, animal welfare still lacks a crucial element to become a strong pillar of sustainable development: a common, international definition of animal welfare and how to ensure it. It is generally up to national governments and, as a consequence, multinational companies to set their own definition, goals and means. There is nonetheless a basic list of positive conditions that should be provided to the animal, on which many policies are built: the “Five Freedoms,” defined by John Webster, Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry and founder member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council:

–          Freedom from thirst and hunger – through ready access to fresh water and a diet that maintains full health and vigour;

–          Freedom from discomfort – by providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area;

–          Freedom from pain, injury, and disease – through prevention, or rapid diagnosis and treatment;

–          Freedom to express most normal behaviour – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and company of the animal’s own kind;

–          Freedom from fear and distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Danone, as the global leader of dairy fresh products, is working on animal welfare objectives and policies. The stakes are important: the Group sources its milk from more than 7,000 direct farms, and collects 7.3 billion litres of milk worldwide (e.g. 1% of the world’s milk production). This concerns 1.5 million cows.

Animal welfare is a business issue for Danone, in order to meet the consumers’ and stakeholders’ expectations, ensure a top quality finished product, and help increase the farmers’ profitability and competitiveness. Animal welfare is in line with its responsibility to deliver high quality, safe and sustainable products, and is a pillar of the Group’s vision on sustainable agriculture, which aims to support competitive agriculture that creates social value, respects natural ecosystems and generates better nutritional balance, in a continuous progress approach.

In 2012, Danone Dairy thus launched an Animal Welfare Programme, based on the Five Freedoms, which applies to all countries where the Group operates, and to all the farms directly supplying Danone. The programme was drawn up through a close, long-term   collaboration with Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), the world’s leading farm animal welfare organisation.  It is based on three approaches:

–          raising farmers’ awareness about animal welfare and providing them with guidelines to encourage best practices, thanks to a practical guide;

–          encouraging progress and rewarding best practices (through labels and awards);

–          as of 2015, once the evaluation part is over, achieving higher welfare while maintaining a high level of profitability for the farmers, through the definition of specific action plans for each farm

To assess both the situation and the progress made in this area, animal welfare has also become one of the mandatory criteria of the FaRMs tool, which assesses farmers’ practices and challenges, and has so far been deployed in 16 countries where the Group operates. It will gradually be extended to others. Danone has also made a commitment to animal welfare research by participating in external studies and research groups, such as the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative.

With these initiatives, Danone defends and develops its commitment to animal welfare, and acknowledges the link between animal care and sound sustainable development.

Photo © Shutterstock /  gillmar