Redefining Animal Welfare

It is at this point that the conceptualization of animal welfare shifts from a purely instrumentalist notion,  here welfare is equated for all intents and purposes with productive efficiency, to a re animalized notion based upon the physical health needs of the individual (including hunger, acute metabolic disease, discomfort, chronic pain, and exhaustion), its mental well being, and its natural behavior. The Brambell Committee, set up by the British government in 1965, partly in response to Harrison's book and the debate it engendered, advocated the establishment of an independent farm animal welfare advisory body in Britain (set up in 1967) and the development of a set of broad farm animal welfare principles. Farm animals, they argued, should have the freedom to stand up, lie down, turn around, and undertake natural activities, such as grooming and stretch their limbs. These were later recast by the newly established Farm Animal Welfare Council in Great Britain (founded in 1979) as the Five Freedoms: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

The Five Freedoms, which have since become widely adopted internationally, represent a set of ideal (some might say unrealistic) states of welfare among farm animals. Critically, they combine resource based aspects of welfare (e.g., room to move) with the more innovative and complex concept of natural behavior (such as contact with other members of the same species). An animal benefiting from such freedoms may be said to be enjoying good welfare. Much current farm animal welfare legislation takes them on board. In Great Britain, the Agricultural (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1968 made it an offence for those engaged in animal farming to cause or allow unnecessary pain or unnecessary distress, whether by commission or omission. The Act did not lay down any statutory requirements of minimum welfare provision, nor did it seek formal definition of unnecessary pain or distress, preferring to avoid the costs and implications of compliance monitoring as well as giving farmers a degree of interpretive freedom. It was, nonetheless, accompanied, in 1971, by a series of Codes of Recommendation which farmers were recommended to follow. That Act has since been superseded both by subsequent British legislation and by European Union legislation. Offering a broad ethical framework, the Animal Welfare Protocol of the European Union's 1997 Amsterdam Treaty specifically acknowledges the sentience of animals, charging member states with the respect and protection of the welfare of animals. Today, within the UK, the member states of the European Union and many other countries, there is a significant array of farm animal welfare legislation, setting specific physical requirements such as minimum cage sizes for battery hens or stall sizes for calves, outlawing certain practices such as tethering and tail docking (in certain countries), insisting on management practices such as regular access to fresh air and evoking a general duty of care toward farm animals whether on the farm, at the market place, or in the slaughterhouse. According to many animal welfare organizations, there nevertheless remains significant gaps in the general reach of farm animal welfare legislation, and in levels of compliance, made all the more visible as a result of the numerous disease outbreaks in animal farming over the last decade.

Despite this growth in regulation and legislation, or indeed because of it, the definition and monitoring of farm animal welfare remains a complex and contested issue. Three complementary approaches might be identified, each of which occupies a fairly distinctive ethical and ontological ground. The first takes as its focus the animal's state and is often associated with the work of people like the veterinary scientist Donald Broom for whom welfare is defined as the physical and mental state of an animal as it seeks to cope up with its environment and meet its needs. Failure to cope, or merely difficulty in coping, can generate stress, injury, illness, and suffering, thereby amounting to negative welfare. Crucially for Broom and others, these can all be measured and assessed scientifically, placing animal welfare assessment firmly in the camp of the natural sciences. This, for Broom, makes the assessment of welfare independent of moral considerations. Ethical judgments only become relevant when considering what actions are to be undertaken where welfare is deemed insufficient.

The second approach, sometimes referred to as the 'feelings' approach, is associated with the work of Marion Dawkins, Ian Duncan, and others and takes the sentience of farm animals as its starting point. It argues that, as sentient beings, their welfare is defined by subjective feelings, from pleasure to suffering, and that these feelings guide actions. Good welfare is allied with positive feelings, poor welfare, or suffering, with negative emotional conditions, themselves caused by an animal's inability either to achieve a desired state or to escape from an undesired one. Dawkins herself has led the way in identifying animal motivation through animal preference testing, while Temple Grandin in the United States had championed innovative approaches to improving welfare founded upon an innate understanding of the feelings of farm animals. Here the ethical position is slightly different. Although the 'feelings' approach is similarly embedded in experimental science, its acknowledgment of animal sentience, and hence preference (and even, for some ethologists, emotion), raises the ethical stakes considerably.

A third approach takes a slightly different perspective in that it seeks to reemphasize the naturality of farm animals, their animalhood, and autonomy. Welfare is associated with the extent to which they perform, not as beasts of burden and farm animals, but as cows, sheep, pigs, and so on, exhibiting 'natural' behavior and having access, as far as is practically feasible within the context of contemporary agriculture, to 'natural' environments. As writers such as Appleby and Fraser have demonstrated, there are clear contradictions between certain forms of normal behavior and the requirements of animal confinement. Yet, animals that are designed to walk should be able to walk. Animals that forage in the wild should be allowed to forage in domesticated contexts. The belief that farm animals have had their naturality bred out of them has been described as one of the great misconceptions of animal welfarism. The animal rights philosopher Bernard Rollin advocates a consensual and communautarianist ethic toward animals which translates, in welfare terms, to allowing them to function and live according to their distinctive animalian natures or 'telos'. Although many people have reservations about both the concept of natural behavior (particularly its ready embrace of ontological division between 'nature' and 'culture') and its pursuit in a farming context, the 'naturalness' of farm animal lives is increasingly emerging both as a criteria of welfare assessment and as a selling point within quality food chains.

One consequence of these evolving interrogations as to what animal welfare is and how to measure it has been the gradual move away from the more immediate, post Brambell concern of relieving evident animal suffering toward the active improvement of farm animals' quality of life. This has entailed, in theory at least, a shift toward more animal centered methods of welfare assessment and improvement. Of course, most codes of practice and evaluation procedures still concentrate either on resource provision (following on from the Five Freedoms) or on the interdiction of certain practices in certain countries (such as tail docking, beak trimming, and castration without anesthetic). As such, they remain at least partly anchored in the physiological and productivist tradition. The growing call for animal based measures, from welfare scientists and animal welfare organizations, offers a different standpoint by assessing the animals themselves, their behavior, any injuries they may have sustained, their responses, and their general quality of life. To date, governments, certification bodies, farming lobbies, and other organizations have generally shied away from the extensive use of animal based assessments on the grounds that they are more costly, more time consuming, and less practical than production and resource based assessments. Moreover, the scientific basis for certain assessments is not always considered as robust as for resource measures. For some commentators, this reluctance also testifies to an unacknowledged acceptance that such as sessments would reveal generally lower levels of animal welfare than mere compliance to resource provision requirements would suggest. A recent attempt by the European Union to introduce animal based assessment protocols relating to the foot pad health and mortality levels of the EU's annual production of around 4 billion meat chickens as part of the proposed Broiler Directive was hotly disputed and eventually withdrawn prior to the directive's approval in 2007. Nevertheless, the recent European Union Action Plan on Animal Welfare seeks to shift the regulatory emphasis increasingly toward animal based outcomes, and there are, at the present time, a number of experimental animal based assessment protocols currently being developed and tested. Whether they will ultimately replace resource based measures is a moot point. Though one obvious reason for their development is that with growing regulatory harmonization, not only within regional regimes like the European Union but also at the global level, as demonstrated by the World Trade Organization's increasing attention to the trade implications of differential animal welfare rules, it becomes increasingly difficult to set fixed resource based standards across widely varying geographical and environmental contexts. Time spent on outdoor pastures, for example, may be a welfare benefit in areas of temperate climate but become a distinct disadvantage in areas of extreme heat or cold.