Farmers May Care For Animals, But They Can’t Say So
Most of us know we need to eat less meat. The health of the environment and our bodies depends on it, as does the suffering of billions of animals. Moral concerns about the treatment of animals used for food are becoming more common. Governments from the E.U. and the U.K. to China and Canada are recognizing that the current food production systems are unsustainable. They are reconfiguring subsidies and other policy tools to affect both animal food production and consumption. Adding to the impetus to reduce our consumption of animal foods is the rise of tasty meat and dairy alternatives. All these factors are poised to drive transition in the agriculture sector.
As production of animal-derived foods declines, it is not clear what will happen to those who produce them. The economies of rural areas in both developed and developing countries often rely heavily on animal agriculture. Preserving these jobs does not justify continuing to subsidize and support an industry that creates so many problems. However, while the protein transition is essential, it will result in significant economic pain and dislocation. But how do industry workers themselves feel about their occupations? Do they have any misgivings about their work?
Researchers in this study sought to explore these questions using survey data gathered for other projects. They analyzed existing quantitative and qualitative data from France, Germany, and the Netherlands to gauge feelings about meat production among farmers and others working in the animal foods industry. In a fascinating twist, results show that French and German respondents working in the meat industry avoid meat products at a higher rate than those working outside the industry. Indeed, employment in the meat industry was actually a positive predictor of intent to buy cultured meat. Respondents outside the industry were more likely to cite issues about animals and the environment. Meat industry workers, on the other hand, more often cited concerns about the healthiness or safety of the products.
Focus groups with Dutch farmers who raise animals for a living uncovered several sources of discontent. They expressed worry over their precarious economic position and frustration at the lack of appreciation from consumers and the government. Increasing regulation was also a sore point. They spoke cynically about consumers who want increased animal welfare but weren’t willing to pay for it.
And while seldom overtly expressed, participants implied that moral concerns for the animals are on the rise. However, voicing these concerns is uncommon and seen as a form of betrayal, or “high treason” as one farmer put it.
For animal advocates, there is both good and bad news here. If, in fact, more farmers are becoming uncomfortable with the suffering they cause, we may have a great opportunity. We can offer support in the form of campaigns that help farmers transition and find alternative livelihoods that don’t involve animals. We can educate the public on why higher welfare animal products will cost more. If farmers come to believe that the public will pay for welfare improvements, or if governments see aiding this transition as economically beneficial, systemic change is more likely. And that will help all of us.