In the last several years, multiple farmed animal welfare improvements have been announced and implemented through the enactment of new laws and company initiatives. These welfare improvements have included actual or planned bans on battery cagesgestation cratesveal crates, and bodily mutilations. Each of these welfare victories have been the result of intense campaigning by many animal rights activists and organizations, sometimes over a period of many years.

There is no doubt that these improvements make a difference to animals. Battery cages, gestation crates, veal crates, and bodily mutilations are terribly cruel practices that totally rob animals of the ability to live natural and healthy lives. But is focusing on the production of meat and other animal products with higher animal welfare standards worth the time and resources that we pour into them? Is there any chance that they may actually have unintended negative consequences?

What are Animal Welfare Improvements?

Animal welfare improvements focus on bettering the conditions of animals raised and kept for human use. In the case of farmed animals, welfare improvements make the animals more comfortable during their lives, typically by enhancing living conditions. For example, nine U.S. states and Canada have banned the use of gestation crates for mother pigs, and California’s Prop 2 eliminated the use of battery cages for layer hens in California.

However, welfare improvements are limited in that they do not seek to end the practice of using animals for food altogether. So while pig welfare is certainly improved when pigs are no longer confined to tiny, metal cages that prevent them from turning around, this improvement doesn’t change the fact that the pigs will eventually be slaughtered and used for food. Similarly, while hens in California are now free of the miniscule wire cages that the agricultural industry favors, they are still used to lay eggs for people and will eventually be slaughtered.

Unintended Consequences

Many animal advocates have voiced concerns that animal welfare improvements may not be worth the time and resources that are invested into them. This argument has merit, because the conditions in which animals are kept even after new welfare improvements are implemented are typically not much better than what they were before the improvement. The industry finds ways to comply with new laws while not compromising their profits. Pigs not confined to gestation crates are often kept in group housing that are so crowded that they can scarcely move about. Chickens not confined to battery cages are often housed by the thousands in huge, dark, windowless sheds. Advocates must seriously ask themselves whether these improvements merit years of campaigning and resources.

Another concern that is often voiced regarding these improvements is the fear that they make people feel better about eating animals and animal products, driving them to eat more of these products than they otherwise might. People may hear of welfare improvements and assume that they are now consuming “happy” meat, dairy, and eggs. For example, following the passage of Prop 2 in California, one study found that consumers did not decrease their egg consumption after hearing of the horrors of egg production. Instead, they switched to cage-free eggs. Troublingly, veal consumption actually increased in Europe following the passage of a veal crate ban.

The reality is that cage-free, crate-free, organic, grass fed, and “Certified Humane” animal products all still involve immeasurable animal suffering. No matter how many welfare improvements we make, animals who are raised for food will continue to suffer various forms of cruelty throughout their lives. The chance that everyday consumers will latch on to the promise that they are purchasing “humane” animal products is very real, and animal welfare improvements may further convince them of this fallacy.

The Question Is Not Whether it Helps, But Whether It is Enough

Animal welfare improvements clearly make a difference to the animals to which they apply. Hens not confined to battery cages are better off – even if only slightly – than hens who spend their entire lives confined to one wire cage. Mother pigs who can turn around are better off than those confined to narrow gestation crates. The difference may seem small, but it is a difference nonetheless to those hens and pigs.

However, animal welfare improvements are clearly not enough, and they are by no means an end goal to aspire for. When one cruel farming practice is banned, the industry often replaces it with another slightly less appalling practice, such as overcrowded (but cage and crate-free) group housing. Perhaps more alarming, consumers may be lulled into believing that animal welfare improvements mean that the animal products they are buying are free of cruelty and misery.

While animal welfare improvements have definite benefits, animal advocates must be keenly aware of their possibly unintended effects. We must find a balance between supporting welfare campaigns that will improve the lives of animals here today, while still continuing to educate people of the cruelty inherent in all animal products. Regardless of how many “humane” and “cage free” labels appear on a product’s package, production of animals for food is inherently cruel.

Through education, we can show consumers who are concerned about animal welfare that a plant-based diet is the only diet that truly ensures farm animal welfare.

So Green Monsters, do you think “humane” meat, and other animal products are possible? Tell us in the comments.

Image Source: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals