The Techno-Ethics Of Welfare Quality Meat
In the past 100 years, agricultural practices – and the explicit and implicit ethics around them – have changed dramatically, to be almost unrecognizable from their former selves. The shift in animal farming has be especially dramatic, so much so that it has also resulted in widespread public concern, leading to both public pressure campaign and industry-led initiatives to try to address the issues.
Of course “ethical food” markets are almost as varied as there are different ethical positions: they develop in specific forms depending on the social context, and they give rise to different kinds of consumer engagement. What’s more, even in places where markets have developed for products that arguably improve environmental sustainability, animal welfare, or social justice, these achievements are often contested and challenged. According to the authors of this paper, ethical markets are fragile, because of “the constant work required by the involved actors in the supply chain to sustain the ‘ethical’ qualification of the foods that characterize them.” Looking at Europe, the authors are “especially devoted to exploring the potential” of ethical markets to “broaden the range of actors getting involved in animal welfare issues and who might offer new and different perspectives on these issues from the traditional stakeholders.”
To this end, the authors look specifically to the Welfare Quality protocols, an initiative meant to “harmonize” / standardize animal welfare across various European nations, and to increase transparency across animal food markets in Europe. They argue that, since the beginning, Welfare Quality has been meant to serve as a “techno-ethical device” that “proposes a holistic definition of animal welfare based on scientific principles but also broad enough to address the concerns of the European public for the quality of life of farm animals.” They look closely at how the protocols have been applied to UK free range chicken farmers, and find that the demand for “animal-friendly” foods is one that not only needs to be created, but sustained. In the UK and the Netherlands, animal welfare is largely seen as a “food quality attribute,” and a network of supermarkets, poultry companies and NGOs are instrumental in the market; the reliance on consumer demand, however, has created a situation where advancements are fragile, and where “free range farmers’ knowledge and skills need to be constantly updated to implement animal welfare innovations.”
The above is just one of the ways that promoting “ethical food” markets is a complicated dance among different actors, and this is just one example of it in one part of the world (Europe) with one mechanism (Welfare Quality protocols). For their part, the authors note that the market for free range chickens in the UK has promoted a wide discussion in animal welfare science, and among the lay public about what constitutes a good life for chickens, and how to achieve it. While the Welfare Quality protocols are ostensibly about more measurable changes, shifting the public conversation is of great importance, and according to this paper, may even be a central feature of such initiatives.