Skip to main content

News Opinion

Is ‘more efficient’ food production a threat to animal welfare?

19 Feb 2013

Marian Dawkins

Ahead of the upcoming Biodiversity Institute Conference, Marian Stamp Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of Oxford, highlights the pioneering work of two women who spoke out about the negative effects on animals of greater efficiency in food production.

‘ Greater efficiency’ may for some people be an obvious goal for producing sustainable food for an increasing human population, but it sends shivers down the spine of the animal welfare community. Fifty years ago, Ruth Harrison published her landmark book Animal Machines and drew the public ‘s attention to what was being done in the name of more efficient food production: hens in battery cages, veal calves in crates, sows in stalls.

At about the same time, Rachel Carson, in her book Silent Spring was bringing another food-related issue to the attention of an unsuspecting public, in her case, the use of pesticides. On the face if it, pesticides are an obvious way of increasing the efficiency of food production: they remove the pests that destroy food crops. But Rachel Carson described their downside – the collateral damage they do to birds and other important members of the ecological community.

In their different but parallel ways (Rachel Carson wrote the foreword to Ruth Harrison’s book so that the links between them are both intellectual and personal) these two books drew attention to the dangers of ‘single issue’ thinking – seizing on a solution to one problem (pest damage, lack of hygiene) without taking into account the effects that the ‘solution’ might have in other areas. That is still a major problem in discussions of food production today. There is far too much OR-thinking (food production OR animal welfare OR care for the environment OR commercial success) and not enough AND-thinking – that is, solutions that specifically set out to achieve these many different goals and to resolve the potential conflicts between them. My experience of working with large scale poultry producers is that they would embrace such AND-solutions if they were shown what they were but all too often come up against single-issue research projects or single-issue campaigning organisations that leave them uncertain which way to go.  One of my major research projects (jointly with Stephen Roberts of Engineering Science) involves working with such companies to develop a camera/computer system that constantly monitors their chickens for signs of poor welfare such as lameness, integrates this with environmental and disease information and so we hope will help farmers to manage their flocks effectively and efficiently.

This raises the question of whether in practice it is possible to achieve greater efficiency in food production without compromising other priorities, particularly animal welfare. For example, broiler (meat) chickens are already so efficient that they are ready to eat in less that 35 days after hatching and convert food to meat with an astonishing 1.8: 1 conversion ratio (projected to become even lower).  As a result of this fast growth rate, broiler chickens are at risk of a variety of ailments such as heart failure and inability to walk easily so there already appears to be a conflict between fast, efficient growth and animal welfare. Is this conflict inevitable? Could we avoid the conflict by having a more broad-minded approach to breeding chickens that gave the health and well-being of the animals equal priority with efficient growth? At the FAI Farm at Wytham, there is a chicken breeding programme that is trying to answer that question. After five generations, there are enough ‘all-rounders’ to show that it is possible to combine welfare and efficient growth.

It was to encourage AND-thinking rather than OR thinking that Kathy Willis (Director of the Biodiversity Insittute) and I have organized the conference Two Women Whose Books Changed Science: Rachel Carson and Ruth Harrison 50 years on. We have assembled a wide range of speakers on conservation and animal welfare (Andrew Balmford, Margaret Shannon, Amanda Vincent. Irus Braverman, Kurt Vogel, Dan Weary) as well as speakers with the specific brief of making links between them (Claudio Sillero, John Jensen) and of looking at environmental impact (John Jensen, Stan Stymme). Gavin Neath from Unilever and Roland Bonney  from Benchmark Holdings) will give the views form industry and Aubrey Manning will sum up for us.

Both Kathy and I were both struck that two books  - and popular books at that – could have had such a profound influence on the way we think, helping to turn animal welfare and conservation from fringe to mainstream scientific subjects. John Webster, who knew and worked with Ruth Harrison and Conor Mark Jamieson, who has written extensively about Rachel Carson, will set the scene for their achievements.  But most of the conference will look to the future. The issues that Harrison and Carson raised have not gone away and we still have much to learn from both of them.

The conference Rachel Carson and Ruth Harrison 50 years on takes place on March 12-13 at the Department of Zoology in Oxford

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.