Measuring A “Good Life” For Farmed Animals
Good animal welfare means more than an absence of suffering. It also means that animals have positive experiences such as comfort and pleasure. This is known as positive welfare. It is an aspect of animal welfare that focuses on the positive attributes of an animal’s life. These attributes can be both physical and mental. And increasingly, animal welfare science is studying positive welfare.
While there is no universal definition of positive welfare, the literature suggests it has four components. These are positive emotions, positive affective engagement, good quality of life, and happiness. Neuroscience and behavioral science have shown that non-human animals can experience positive feelings. It seems likely that positive feelings can promote health. And social science research has revealed that the public believes that prevention of suffering is a baseline. True animal welfare exists in an environment where animals have opportunities for enjoyment.
But how do we know for sure that an animal is enjoying herself, or that she feels her life is “good?” We can’t ask the animal directly, and there is no reliable scientific consensus that defines specific animal-based measures as positive welfare indicators. Instead, many specialists assess the resources provided to farmed animals as an indication of their welfare. Resources that allow animals to engage in “motivated behaviors,” that is, natural behaviors such as foraging and maternal nurturing, can be ranked according to the positive physical and mental states they create.
To help farms quantify their efforts to create positive lives for their animals, researchers in this study fashioned “Good Life Frameworks” for beef cows, “broiler” chickens, and pigs. They used current scientific literature and expert opinion to construct these tools. Five categories of welfare opportunities were used to design a framework for each species. These categories were:
- Comfort: For example, providing a comfortable physical and thermal environment
- Pleasure: For example, offering play and nurturing opportunities
- Confidence: For example, creating positive social interactions and an enriched living environment
- Interest: For example, providing enhanced learning opportunities
- Healthy life: For example, promoting a natural body type
Using the U.K. legal standards for farmed animal welfare as a baseline, each framework has three tiers that offer increasingly improved opportunities for a good life. The tiers are designated Welfare + (one step above the U.K. standards), Welfare ++ (two steps above the standards), and Welfare +++ (three steps above the U.K. standards). As the standards for each tier increase, so do resource requirements. The resources should provide animals the chance for healthy, enriched lives where they have environmental choices. They should have some control over who they associate with, where they rest, and what they eat.
To assess how these frameworks could be used in the field, the researchers tested them on a sample of 32 farms across the U.K. Ten farms produced broiler chickens, 12 raised pigs and 10 raised cows for the beef industry. The frameworks were completed either by an independent assessor or as a self-assessment by the farmer. Based on feedback from these tests, the researchers further refined each tool. The authors hope that these frameworks will eventually result in a farm accreditation process.
Although the purpose of the study was to refine the “Good Life Framework” tool, the authors outline a few helpful takeaways from their trial run. For example, the 10 broiler chicken producers generally failed to exceed U.K. minimum standards for all resource needs except for four: providing a comfortable thermal environment, positive social interactions, dustbathing opportunities, and resting opportunities. The pig farms fared only slightly better, exceeding the U.K. minimum requirements on five out of 12 resource needs. Meanwhile, the cow farms generally surpassed the minimum standards for every resource need except for one, promoting a healthy body type. The authors note that the chicken producers were predominantly conventional indoor systems, while all 10 cow farms were classified as organic. The scores should be approached cautiously, as it is possible the self-assessments were biased.
For U.K. advocates, these frameworks offer a new opportunity to evaluate farms in terms of their animal welfare standards. The frameworks still need further validation, and this is perhaps where advocates can help to move things forward. These tools offer hope for improving the lives of millions of animals raised for food in the U.K. While it may not be our preferred solution, implementing these tools can reduce animal suffering while we continue to push for change. That makes it worth doing.