Farm ‘Sustainability’: Making Animal Welfare Count
Attention is increasingly being paid to the “sustainability” of the foods we eat, but discussions on this sometimes lack clarity on what sustainability actually means, how it can be measured, and whom it is sustainable for. While certain agricultural policies may make farms more “sustainable” environmentally, they may do nothing to make animals’ lives better. This study aimed to find out what data are available to assess the sustainability of farms in the EU, and what aspects of sustainability can be addressed by existing data. To do this, the researchers used the EU’s Farm Accountancy Data Network, or FADN.
The purpose of the EU FADN is to provide information on the economics and productivity of commercial farms, which are defined as farms large enough to serve as the main economic activity for the farmer to support the farmer’s family. Consequently, the three key strengths of the database are that it covers 90% of agricultural output in the EU; the indicators are consistent and comparable across countries; and the data can be used to spot and analyze trends over time.
To explore how the FADN can be improved, the authors looked at examples of research that relied on FADN data to one degree or another, which they classified into three categories: ‘core FADN’ – only the data legally required by the EU; ‘supplementary FADN’ – both core FADN data and supplementary data collected voluntarily by member states; and ‘hybrid FADN’ – FADN data in combination with other sources.
Research that relied exclusively on core FADN data could only extend to economic sustainability, i.e. long-term profitability. In one example, farms only recorded how much they spent on buying fertilizers, but not the amount of fertilizer they bought, so it was difficult to determine the impact of the fertilizers on the environment. In contrast, supplementary and hybrid FADN helped researchers get a more comprehensive view of farm sustainability, such as by using supplementary Irish data to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions per product for Irish farms.
Still, despite its advantages and potential, the FADN data lacked key information on the environmental and social impacts of farms, such as the types and quantities of pesticides used and – importantly for animal advocates – the welfare of animals used on farms. Indeed, there was extremely little data available on animal welfare on farms, even to the extent that some studies resorted to inadequate proxies, such as grazing hours per cow. Additionally, the FADN only covered commercial farms and so didn’t include part-time farms, which make up the majority of small-scale farms and can have significant impact on the environment around them.
Going forward, the authors suggest expanding the FADN and/or using supplementary information sources that can be cross-referenced with FADN (i.e. not anonymized and using consistent indicators). The exact nature of the expansion, however, would have to be determined according to the objectives of using the information, which should in turn be established through public and expert consultation.
This presents an opportunity to animal advocates to call for more measures of animal welfare for both commercial and small-scale farms. Those working in research and policy-making could take advantage of the reform timetable for the EU Common Agricultural Policy (which can influence the FADN), to push for change. To help with their case, advocates could point to policy change in other regions, and highlight the changing expectations for agriculture in society, as consumers are paying more attention to animal welfare and environmental sustainability. While more subjective material such as animal farming documentaries can be hugely impactful, having rigorous discussions on the morality and sustainability of eating animals demands robust data. At the academic and policy level, it seems that data availability is a crucial first step in changing agriculture.