Farm Animal Welfare Economic Policies

W. Ray Stricklin

Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, U.S.A.


Animal welfare is intricately related to economics. The various animal production systems (beef, pork, poultry, cheese, etc.) compete within and with each other for the same consumer dollar. This tends to keep production costs and food prices at a minimum. Technology has replaced labor and driven systems toward animal confinement and larger production sizes. And the public is increasingly asking for assurance that farm animals experience a reasonable quality of life, especially in Northern European counties. Opinions, both inside the United States and outside, matter because the world is moving rapidly toward a global economy.


The terms "animal welfare'' and "economics'' each have multiple meanings. Therefore, definitions are presented herein for clarity, with no intent they be adopted universally. First, the term "economic'' is inclusive of the monetary aspects of capital investment, labor, profits, losses, taxes, and trade and also policy, both written and implied. Animal welfare has no agreed upon definition even among the scientists who research the topic.[1] However, there is a consensus that the state of the individual animal is the critical issue, with general agreement that this includes the subjective mental state, i.e., animal feelings.[2]


Production level (number of eggs, volume of milk, rate of gain, reproductive rate, etc.) is an economic issue in that profit and loss is dependent on animal productivity. Unprofitable units go bankrupt. However, devaluing animals to nothing more than resources, objects that are simply a means to earning a profit, is increasingly viewed as not being morally defensible.[1] Some activists have charged that the lives of food animals are viewed by their owners as lacking inherent value and that they instead consider the animals as only "live stock.'' But historically, farm animal owners have viewed animal life as having worth,[1,3] and the majority of the public believes farmers and ranchers care about their animals.[4] However, the public also views the trend toward fewer farms and tendency toward larger, more intensive systems[5] as contributing to animals being treated as simply objects for profit.[4]

Animal scientists, especially in earlier years, have argued that high animal production levels are indicative of good welfare. At an individual animal level this contention has merit. In assessing the animal care program of a farm unit, reviewing the records of calving interval, pigs per sow, etc., can identify poor welfare. However, high productivity may have negative effects on animal welfare.[2] For example, high productivity can result in a metabolic challenge to the animal system as in high egg production causing calcium depletion of the hen's bones. Also, profit is typically determined at the group level not at the level of the individual.[2] Because profit is based on group performance, greater profits are not always directly related to better welfare for individual animals. Because of the high capital investment costs for housing and the relatively low monetary value of the animal, as in laying hens, for example, it is sometimes possible for profits to increase in association with higher stocking densities along with increased animal morbidity and mortality.[6]

The term "animal agriculture'' is common in usage and implies a homogenous group, when, in fact, there is not one entity identifiable as animal agriculture. Instead, U.S. animal agriculture includes a wide range of production systems. For example, the product "beef'' involves cattle across environmental conditions of the 50 states. Additionally, because "beef" is also meat from dairy cattle when slaughtered, animals involved in the production of beef are also found in a wide range of housing conditions. The various products of animal agriculture compete for the same consumer dollar. Pork, beef, and poultry (broilers) are highly competitive with each other. Consumption levels of these products per capita increase and decrease in relation to the price at the supermarket, while the overall level of animal protein per capita remains relatively constant.[7] Competition among the animal industries affects the willingness of producers to adopt animal welfare standards because


U.S. Farm Workers, by Type 1910 -2000


Fig. 1 Declining numbers of farm workers during the 20th century. (From http://www. typwk.htm.) (View this art in color at

of the fear that imposed standards of welfare could cause a loss in their competitive advantage relative to the other production systems.


Labor cost is possibly the most important economic issue relative to animal welfare. Farm work of 100 yr ago was "stoop labor'' often done by family members, share-croppers, tenant farmers, etc.[1] Even today labor policy treats farm workers differently. Lowly paid workers tend to be less educated and may not always be informed about proper animal handling and care. For example, cases of blatant animal cruelty at slaughter have occurred, and while these workers were not farm workers, agriculture still bears the consequences and some responsibility.

During the past 50 yr there was a radical change in the amount and type of labor associated with agriculture. Primarily, there was a decline in the number of persons working on farms, especially family laborers (Fig. 1). Approximately two persons of every three were working on farms at the beginning of the past century, whereas today only about two persons of every 100 work on farms.[5] Implementation of new technology, both mechanical and chemical starting at the end of World War II, was responsible for the dramatic decrease in the number farm workers.[1] This freed many people from hard, monotonous labor, but there was an increase in animal confinement, with less "freedom'' for animals to move about and live outdoors under natural conditions. This dramatic change lies at the root of much of the modern animal welfare movement. The book Animal Machines by Ruth Harrison[8] coined the term ''factory farming'' and arguably was the most important book in initiating the modern animal welfare discussion. The primary contention of her book was, in fact, that less labor and greater technology adversely affects the welfare of farm animals.


On a global basis, the relationship of welfare to economics becomes even more complex. This is due largely to trade but is also influenced by human values differing by world region. Northern Europeans consider appropriate animal welfare to be inclusive of natural conditions, whereas Americans tend to emphasize stress, health, and disease as the most important welfare measures. At times European and American scientists each charge the other with not being ''scientific'' when in fact the debate is based largely on different values not different scientific information. Different values have contributed to differing approaches to dealing with animal welfare. The European Union has adopted welfare laws but the United States has not. Europeans also express greater concern over genetically modified organisms than do Americans, including concerns about the possible impact on animal welfare. As the world moves toward a global economy, these differences in values and those in

Fig. 2 Only 23 cents of the dollar spent on food goes to the farm and the remainder is associated with marketing.'7-1 The cost of labor is the biggest part of the total food marketing bill, accounting for nearly half of all marketing costs. (From http://www.

Fig. 2 Only 23 cents of the dollar spent on food goes to the farm and the remainder is associated with marketing.'7-1 The cost of labor is the biggest part of the total food marketing bill, accounting for nearly half of all marketing costs. (From http://www.

parts of the world will have increasing importance on trade negotiations and agreements.

To date the World Court has ruled that animal welfare is not a basis for a country to refuse importation of animal products. However, trade negotiations on the topic continue and countries with animal welfare standards are likely to push for a world standard on animal welfare and changes in World Trade Organization rules. Also, because multinational fast food chains are pressured to maintain animal welfare standards across international borders, animal care standards have been adopted by their suppliers in the United States.

Developed countries in North America and Europe face the possibility of a major shift toward greater importation of animal food products because of the current labor costs associated with processing and packaging food. Only 21% of the U.S. food dollar goes to the farm,[7] and the biggest added cost, over 38%, is for labor associated with processing (Fig. 2). Today, grain and soybean products are shipped from the Americas to Southeast Asia, fed to livestock, and the food products sold mostly in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan. In Asia the number of production units are rapidly expanding. Lower labor costs for processing, combined with different environmental standards, could potentially shift a considerable amount of animal agriculture production outside the United States. Addressing welfare and environmental standards within the United States and being a serious participant in international negotiations are important to ensuring both appropriate animal treatment and a sound future for American animal agriculture.


Inexpensive food production is a goal of American agriculture, and abundant food, readily available to all members of society, has much merit. In 2001, Americans spent 10% of their disposable personal income on food.[7] However, striving for even greater efficiency of production and lower priced food can have negative consequences, including adversely affecting animal welfare. Hodges[9] summarized the overall view as follows:

''Agricultural and animal scientists need to embrace a new vision beyond the single minded existing pursuit of biological efficiency. The public in the West is no longer concerned solely with cheap food. Other para mount issues define quality of life, including: health and safety of foods; nutritional value; traditional, regional, locally produced, and organic foods; animal welfare; sustainable farming, environment, and rural resources.''

Ultimately, animal agriculture should not focus on any single issue such as profit or animal welfare. Instead, the goal should be to maximize the benefits and minimize costs not simply monetary costs and benefits but also ethical, biological, etc. to animals, humans, and the environment.'101


Animal welfare is very much influenced by economics but should be considered as involving more than monetary endpoints. Decisions about animal welfare have to do with how humans "ought to'' treat animals. Thus, animal welfare is about doing the right thing. Polls clearly indicate that Americans wish to continue eating animal products. However, they also ask for assurance from a third party that animals are given ''appropriate'' treatment.[4] In a sense the public is asking that ownership of animal life experiences be uncoupled from the ownership of the animal as a food product. Implementing this separation presents some major challenges for American agriculture. However, failure to seriously address this issue and act accordingly could have significant negative consequences not only to animal welfare but also the future of animal agriculture.


1. Mench, J.A., Stricklin, W.R., Eds. Proceedings of an International Conference on Farm Animal Welfare: Ethical and Technological Perspectives. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 1993, 6 (suppl. 1 and 2).

2. Edwards, S.A. Animal welfare issues in animal production. In Nordic Association of Agricultural Scientists, 22nd Congress, Turku, Finland, July 1 4, 2003 ( PAGE/AGRONET/YHTEISET HANKKEET/ NJF/NJF2003/19.PDF).

3. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). The Well-Being of Agricultural Animals, Task Force Report, Publication No. 130; 1997; CAST; ISBN 1-887383-10-7.

4. Salem, D.J., Rowan, A.N., Eds. The State of Animals; Humane Society Press: Washington, D.C., 2001.

5. USDA FASS. United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics, 2002 ( typwk. htm).

6. Craig, J.V. Domestic Animal Behavior: Causes and Implications for Animal Care and Management; Prentice-Hall Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1981 (ISBN 0132183390).

7. USDA. Agriculture Fact Book 2001 2002; United States Department of Agriculture, Office of Communications. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 2002.

8. Harrison, R. Animal Machines; The New Factory Farming Industry; Vincent Stuart Publishers: London, 1964.

9. Hodges, J. Livestock, ethics, and quality of life. J. Anim. Sci. 2003, 81, 2887 2894.

10. Stricklin, W.R. Benefits and costs of animal agriculture. In Proceedings of the Scientists Center for Animal Welfare Symposium on Science and Animals: Addressing Contemporary Issues; Guttman, H.N., Mench, J.A., Simmonds, R.C., Eds.; Scientists Center for Animal Welfare: Bethesda, MD, 1989; 87 92.

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