Is Naturalness Possible In Farmed Animal Production?
A 2018 report from the Rural Investment Support for Europe called for a Safe Operating Space in animal production that includes adjusting the production and consumption of farmed animals. Adjusting production includes reducing farming density and considering geographical redistribution that creates more mixed regions and farms while reducing negative environmental impacts and improving animal welfare. Researchers have started to work on potential alternatives – they are not new, but many strategies were pushed away by factory farming.
For Prof. Don Broom and colleagues, animal production systems can be sustainable only if they “occur in environments that supply the needs of the animals resulting in good welfare, allow coexistence with a wide diversity of organisms native to the area, minimize carbon footprint and provide a fair lifestyle for the people working there.” Under this definition, silvopastoral systems can provide well for animals, the environment, and humans.
Silvopastoral systems are becoming more popular, particularly in regions (e.g. Latin America) where there is no room for factory farming, whether due to environmental or economic concerns. The system integrates the concept of naturalness into animal production, and the farm landscape is built with a diverse group of edible plants, shrubs, and trees that provide shadow and protection from danger or predators. Animals are raised in a free-range environment, where they have opportunities to perform normal behaviors and positive social interactions while protected from the weather. In addition, this system also provides opportunities for wild animals to thrive. This is due to a reduced or zero use of pesticides, that promotes biodiversity in birds, insects, and mammals in this system.
In a recent conference in Chile, Latin American scientists presented the most recent findings regarding animal welfare in this type of production system. Cows in silvopastoral systems in Mexico with high tree coverage had better body condition, fewer skin lesions, and were less timid in comparison to cows in non-silvopastoral systems. In another study, silvopastoral systems had a bigger biodiversity of birds, bats, and rodents in comparison to standard grassland farms. Finally, in Colombia, this system was not only providing a better welfare for animals but also for humans.
A study from the University of British Columbia showed that, though laypeople think the mental and emotional states of animals are important, they care even more about where they’re living: a more natural environment. The study explored whether the belief held by scientists – that animal welfare is based mainly in the sum of positive experiences and the absence of pain – was also shared by layperson participants. Participants were presented with four vignettes that described the mental state that chimpanzees were experiencing (feels good vs. feels bad) and objective components of animal’s life (natural living and physically healthy vs. unnatural life and physically unhealthy).
They found that the participants felt that the objective components of the chimpanzee’s life were more important than her/his emotions. So, as the authors stated: “a chimpanzee living a natural life with negative emotions was rated as having better welfare than a chimpanzee living an unnatural life with positive emotions.” Even more interesting was that a chimpanzee with positive emotions living a natural life was considered happier than those living an unnatural life.
While it would be better for the planet that humans switch to a plant-based diet, there is still a large part of the population consuming animal products who will continue to do so, and this scenario is very unlikely to change soon. As part of animal advocacy campaigns, it would be good to keep in mind what the University of British Columbia scientists stated: “Having good welfare means more than feeling great all the time, it entails living a life we endorse, encourage or recommend to others.” In this way, silvopastoral systems show potential to provide for this type of life, even more than pasture or free-range systems, and particularly for regions where the system is already established.