The Difficulty of Animal Welfare

The notion of farm animal welfare is directly linked, first, to the status of farm animals as chattels and commodities, belonging to and traded by farmers and others as a source of revenue and, second, to the fact that their lives, from birth and before, to death, are almost entirely controlled, adapted, and modified by human actors for the purposes of consuming them and the products derived from their bodies. The welfare of agricultural animals is therefore bounded by the economics of production, by the demands of human metabolism, and by the inevitable interruption of their lives. For however much we might seek, for ethical reasons, to improve their quality of life, that life will be constrained and violently ended by processes entirely out of their control. Farm animal welfare is, by definition, a moral and ethical compromise, yet one with which a great many people are entirely comfortable.

As a concern, farm animal welfare is immediately distinguishable from animal liberation. The latter, as championed by writers such as Singer and Regan, seeks to free animals from all human induced suffering, including husbandry and slaughter, on the grounds that to inflict such suffering is to engage in an oppressive (and unnecessary) anthropocentric specisism that exploits animals for human use and denies them any subjective existence or rights. Farm animal welfare, by contrast, largely accepts human consumption of animals and animal products, and the constraints this imposes on animal freedoms, but strives to minimize the suffering that this entails.

The inevitable anthropocentrism inherent in animal husbandry places farm animals themselves in an equivocal position. They are the archetypical hybrids lying between, on the one hand, the naturality of their evident categorization as nonhuman animals and, on the other, the artificiality of their domestication, their breeding, their genetic modification, and, ultimately, their lives and deaths. Like pets and companion animals, they are the acknowledged and vital animalian co constituents of human worlds, yet unlike pets and domestic animals, their existence is defined by the fact that they are there to be materially consumed. For this reason, certain radical environmentalist thinkers like Baird Callicott, for whom the individualism of welfarism conflicts with the bio collectivism of ecocentrism, have likened farm animals to pieces of furniture, entirely human constructions with little or no subjective legitimacy as occupants of the 'natural' world. Indeed, were they to be 'liberated' and humans to stop eating them, it is often claimed that large numbers of farm animal species might disappear altogether, incapable of surviving and reproducing without human agency in any newly naturalized environment.

Human concern for the welfare of farm animals is thus a complex, often incoherent and similarly hybrid, engagement that draws upon and juxtaposes an ethic of care for our dependent animalian confre`res with their physical exploitation as economic resources; a humanist utilitarianism that values humans above animals with a moral absolutism that nevertheless unequivocally rejects the deliberate torturing of animals; and an affective relationality that acknowledges their co constitutive vitality with a readiness to consume them.

As a normative concept, farm animal welfare suffers from three major inconveniences. First, farm animals cannot verbally communicate their discomfort or their suffering to human beings. Neither can they demand improved conditions. Second, farm animal welfare is less an absolute than a relative concept. Not only is there an inherent problem of definition (what 'is' farm animal welfare and how does it differ from, say, cruelty?) but also the determination and measurement as 'good' or 'bad' welfare is highly contingent upon a wide range of material, epistemological, cultural, ethical, esthetic, and other circumstances which imply both a moral and a scientific commitment of those engaged in doing so. Third, notions of animal welfare are frequently captured by anthropomorphic interpretations of animal suffering or animal happiness that may, despite their widespread popular appeal, have either little basis in scientific assessment or little relevance to the actual physical and/or mental state of the animals concerned. These three inconveniences translate into three practical issues: how to identify and recognize animal suffering; how to establish parameters and indicators of good and 'bad' welfare; and how to reconcile scientific objective and cultural subjective differences in approaches to welfare and its achievement.

Because farm animals are a source not only of food, clothing, and any number of other by products, but also of wealth, status, and tradable assets, their welfare has always been an important component of animal husbandry. As such, it is most clearly associated with animal productivity, and hence value. This functional and essentially mechanistic approach to welfare, whose principal indicators have thus been both physiological and input based, has been the indispensable accompaniment to modernism. Indeed, it has been designed as such through breeding and selection procedures that ensure that farm animals are fit solely for the productive purpose to which they have been ascribed. An efficient animal will convert feed to output at a desired rate, in desired volumes, and at a desired cost, according to their genetic potential and their state of health. Farm animal welfare thus becomes the fulcrum point between sustaining animal capacity on the one side and animal productivity on the other, establishing the minimal conditions to ensure, or to augment, productivity and economic viability.

The apogee of this mechanistic and functional approach to farm animals and their welfare has been the 'factory farming' techniques that became widespread in the second half of the last century and are still the norm for much farm animal production. Enshrining the Cartesian notion of animals as intricate machines and 'natural automata' devoid of any state of conscious mind, intensive livestock farming at a massive scale has perfected the de animalization and desubjectivization of cows, pigs, and poultry, to the point where, in many cases, their lives have become both individually irrelevant (as acceptable wastage rates increase) and so spatially and temporally compressed that their productivity limits are no longer seen in (whole) animal life terms but rather as a series of somatically interconnected material events. Broiler chickens, pigs, and beef cattle, for example, are designed to reach their slaughter weight in increasingly shorter times irrespective of the longer term (and thereby irrelevant for they have no 'longer term') health problems such accelerated growth might engender. Dairy cattle are commonly inseminated so as to produce calves, and thereby maintain lactation, at a rhythm of around one per year. As such, their 'natural' life span of over 20 years is reduced to around 5 years, much of which is spent in calf.

Without a doubt, it has been the development of factory farming techniques that has prompted and stimulated the growing scientific, political, and popular concern for farm animal welfare that has emerged over the last 50 or so years. The publication of Ruth Harrison's book Animal Machines in 1964 is often held to be a landmark in that growth. Harrison purposefully moved the focus away from the more traditional areas of legislative control over farm animal welfare, such as deliberate mistreatment and cruelty, to the more mundane but far more prevalent welfare issues associated with animal confinement and 'factory' farming methods. The essence of her book was to reject the notion, implicit in the rationale of factory farming, that farm animals are simply machines. On the contrary, they are conscious beings, capable of experiencing suffering and deprivation and to whom humankind owes an ethic of care.