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Concepts of Animal Health and Welfare in Organic
Mette Vaarst •Hugo F. Alrøe
Accepted: 5 April 2011
ÓThe Author(s) 2011. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com
Abstract In 2005, The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Move-
ments (IFOAM) developed four new ethical principles of organic agriculture to guide
its future development: the principles of health, ecology, care, and fairness. The key
distinctive concept of animal welfare in organic agriculture combines naturalness
and human care, and can be linked meaningfully with these principles. In practice, a
number of challenges are connected with making organic livestock systems work.
These challenges are particularly dominant in immature agro-ecological systems, for
example those that are characterized by industrialization and monoculture. Some of
the current challenges are partly created by shortages of land and manure, which
encourage zero-grazing and other conﬁned systems. Other challenges are created in
part by the conditions for farming and the way in which global food distribution
systems are organized, e.g., how live animals are transported, how feed is traded and
transported all over the globe, and the development of infrastructure and large herds.
We ﬁnd that the overall organic principles should be included when formulating
guidelines for practical organic animal farming. This article explores how the special
organic conceptions of animal welfare are related to the overall principles of organic
agriculture. The aim is to identify potential routes for future development of organic
livestock systems in different contexts and with reference to the speciﬁc under-
standing of animal welfare in organic agriculture. We include two contrasting cases
represented by organic livestock systems in northwestern Europe and farming sys-
tems in tropical low-income countries; we use these cases to explore the widely
different challenges of organic livestock systems in different parts of the world.
M. Vaarst (&)
Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University, Blichers Alle 20, 8830 Tjele, Denmark
H. F. Alrøe
Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University, Blichers Alle 20, 8830 Tjele, Denmark
J Agric Environ Ethics
Keywords Animal health Animal welfare Organic principles Naturalness
Human care Ecology Care Health Fairness
Organic livestock farming has an explicit goal of improved animal health and
welfare compared with non-organic farming. Zander and Hamm (2010) found that
among seven additional ethical attributes, consumers in ﬁve European countries
generally ranked ‘‘animal welfare’’ the highest, in some cases ranking it second to
‘‘regional production.’’ However, there are many different conceptions of what
welfare is, and animal welfare is both an evaluative concept (such as argued by
Rollin, 1990, among others), as well as a normative concept, which involves both
value judgments and ethical concerns. In the investigation of Zander and Hamm
(2010) mentioned above, there was, for example, no clear deﬁnition of the term
‘‘animal welfare.’’ In organic agriculture, a number of animal welfare issues differ
clearly when compared to non-organic farming. This means that not only is there an
explicit goal of improved livestock welfare, but—more important—an underlying
philosophical and ethical idea and deﬁnition of what constitutes good animal
The ﬁrst organic principles were based on farming experiences in India, and
agro-ecological agriculture developed in tropical countries. The deﬁnition formu-
lated by The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM;
Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils,
ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and
cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse
effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to
beneﬁt the shared environment and promote fair relationships and good
quality of life for all involved.
With this deﬁnition as a background, we assume that organic livestock
production both in northwestern Europe, for example, as well as in tropical
countries, can be carried out in accordance with the principles, although using
widely difﬁcult practices.
The idea of organic agriculture includes a concept of naturalness. For the
animals, this includes access to outdoor areas and freedom of choice that allows
each animal to express its individual preferences (Lund 2002 and 2006; Verhoog
et al. 2004; Waiblinger et al. 2004; Verhoog et al. 2007). In addition to
considerations regarding the individual animal, organic farming incorporates a
systemic view of humans and animals as part of a larger ecological system (Baars
et al. 2004; Vaarst et al. 2004; Alrøe et al. 2001), and incorporates climatic, cultural,
traditional, and social conditions of the surroundings (Vaarst et al. 2006). On a
larger scale, individual animals, livestock farms, and the livestock sector in general
are inﬂuenced by larger food systems, some of which are global and involve trading
of breeding stock, feedstuffs, and animal products (Gura 2008; Steinfeld 2006).
M. Vaarst, H. F. Alrøe
Animal health and welfare is inﬂuenced by the ways in which these systems are
constructed, and also has the potential to inﬂuence these systems. The organic
livestock sector also represents a way of farming that can be claimed—as any other
sector of organic agriculture—to be based on IFOAM’s four principles of health,
ecology, fairness, and care (IFOAM 2005). It therefore is relevant to explore how
the underlying idea of animal welfare in organic farming is related to these
principles and how the principles are put into practice with regard to the interface
between livestock as individuals, herds, parts of farming systems, and parts of food
Lund (2002) emphasized that although organic farming aims to improve animal
health and welfare, animal welfare is not explicitly mentioned as a core value of its
own; she adds that it might be justiﬁed to mention the interests of animals as a core
value. This question also was brought up when the four principles were developed in
IFOAM in 2003-2005, and there was discussion about whether ‘‘good animal
welfare’’ should be included as a separate principle (Luttikholt 2007). In particular,
there was a difference of opinion between the marked European and North
American focus on animal welfare in contrast with the emphasis on poor people
over animals in low-income countries, e.g., in Africa, Asia, and South America. It
was decided that good animal welfare was contained in the four principles as part of
the more overarching principle of fairness, which concerns both humans and
animals, and which features animal welfare in the accompanying explanation. This
is a major reason for exploring how the overall organic principles link to organic
livestock farming’s particular understanding of how animal welfare involves
naturalness and human care as key features (Fig. 1).
Intervening when necessary and
interacting gently with animals:
- Taking responsibility for the
animals in the farms that they
are not suffering and that they
do not experience pain, distress,
injuries, frustration, disease,
hunger, or thirst
- Interacting gently and with care
with animals in daily life
- Creating the framework which
allows naturalness, and in which
it is possible to observe the
animals sufficiently without
Giving animals a framework that
allows ’naturalness:’ as much as is
possible in a domesticated life:
- Allowing natural behavior
- Allowing the animal to meet
its natural needs
- Natural environments
- Species-specific feed
- Space to interact and
- As much freedom of choice as
possible, to eat, drink, move,
lay comfortably down
- Harmony between animals
Human care giving
Fig. 1 The interfaces between naturalness and human care and how they together can be viewed to
constitute a key concept of animal health and welfare in organic animal farming. In practice, there will be
negotiation in each context how to understand this
Concepts of Animal Health and Welfare
In the following, we explore and analyze how the concepts of animal health and
welfare in organic animals and livestock farming as previously discussed by Alroe
et al. (2001) can meaningfully and constructively be linked to the organic IFOAM
principles of health, ecology, fairness, and care; ﬁnally, we discuss the potential
implications this can have for the future development of organic livestock systems.
To understand how the principles can be put into practice on widely different types
of livestock farms, we discuss these issues in relation to two contrasting cases
represented respectively by organic livestock systems in northwestern Europe and
farming systems in tropical low-income countries.
Distinctive Issues of Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Livestock
Farming, Including Naturalness and Human Care-Giving
In the early 2000s, the authors of this article participated in a research and fact
ﬁnding processes in which animal welfare in organic livestock systems was
explored and conceptualized. One outcome of this was published in 2001 (Alrøe
et al. 2001). In the following the main conclusions from this work will be
summarized, as they will be a starting point for the analysis and discussion in this
article about how the concepts of animal welfare relate to IFOAM’s four principles
of organic agriculture.
Animal welfare at an individual level can be understood as three basic
concepts: (1) the animal should feel well (referring to its experience, feelings,
interests, and preferences), distinguishing between welfare as the satisfaction of
preferences, or as pleasure (hedonism), i.e., experienced as pleasant feelings along
with the absence of unpleasant feelings; (2) it should function well (meeting its
needs and being in good clinical health condition); and, (3) it should lead a natural
life through the development and exercise of its natural adaptations, with reference
to its innate nature. The concepts of ‘‘nature’’ and ‘‘natural’’ here refer to the idea
that a long evolutionary process has led to a harmoniously balanced living
organism that is in harmony with its surroundings. The animal’s genetic or innate
nature has been continuously and slowly changing and adapting through evolution
and domestication, but if signiﬁcant and rapid modiﬁcations are made through
modern breeding and biotechnology, or through changes in the form of production,
this harmony potentially can be broken. Where the term ‘‘harmony’’ is commonly
used in connection with organic production, the term ‘‘integrity’’ is a more widely
used term in animal welfare and animal ethics in general, with more or less the
In light of the above, ‘‘naturalness’’ does not limit the welfare of an animal to a
question of whether its needs are met. It also involves thoughts of animals being able to
live a richer life with the opportunity to express a greater part of their natural behavior
(e.g., play and social behavior), to have valuable experiences, and to have access to
feed and surroundings that can be considered natural for the species and breed. In
reality, it includes taking seriously the ‘‘Freedom to perform normal behavior’’ (one of
the so-called ‘‘Five Freedoms’’; http://www.fawc.org.uk/freedoms.htm), although the
organic principle goes much further, since ‘‘naturalness’’ is a much wider concept than
M. Vaarst, H. F. Alrøe
‘‘natural behavior,’’ as discussed above. This is a clear distinction from non-organic,
intensive, and industrialized farming systems, where ﬂock animals are individually
caged or are unable to move, root, graze or have minimal freedom of choice.
Of course, a domesticated farm life with a huge pressure on productivity is far
from ‘‘natural,’’ and the framework for ‘‘naturalness’’ is designed by humans.
‘‘Naturalness’’ in a farming system is not synonymous with ‘‘living as in nature.’’ In
nature, there is great risk of suffering, since there is no protection against hunger,
thirst, predators and harsh climatic conditions. In an organic livestock farming
system, the humans have a clear moral obligation to prevent suffering in accordance
with the ﬁrst basic concept of animal welfare above.
In practice, creating and working within a farming system in which animals are
able to fulﬁll their natural behavior and meet their natural needs often is more labor
intensive and demanding regarding supervision and observation of the animals in
ﬂocks and sometimes on very large outdoor areas. On the other hand, keeping
animals in more extensive ‘natural’ environments may lighten feeding routines, for
example, because the animals are grazing or fed in one place ad libitum. Because of
the aim of letting the animals live as naturally as possible, whilst still surrounded by
human care, the organic farmer must intervene whenever necessary to prevent a
critical situation from arising, but without intervening unnecessarily. This requires
more attention to daily life and sufﬁcient knowledge of epidemiology, disease signs,
and natural behavior, as well as signs of responses to inadequate surroundings
(Vaarst et al. 2004).
Exploring The Connections Between Animal Welfare and IFOAM’s Organic
Principles of Ecology, Care, Health, and Fairness
Linking the Principle of Ecology to Naturalness
In the IFOAM principles for organic agriculture, this principle is brieﬂy explained
as follows: ‘‘Organic Agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and
cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.’’ We perceive that this
principle is understood in close connection with naturalness, including the animals
in ecological systems, and allowing the individual animal to feed, live, and behave
to fulﬁll its natural needs regarding physiology, psychology, anatomy, and in all
other ways, being part of the ecological systems where it has developed its role and
niche. As such, the principle of ecology refers to the integration of the animals
(individually and as herds) into the whole agro-ecosystem and, on a larger scale,
into the whole food system in ways allowing all elements to support each other.
Segerdahl (2007) proposes that we understand farms as local human/animal
cultures, and believes this will help us to decide how we can understand ‘‘natural
behavior,’’ for example. Verhoog et al. (2007) link this closely to the concept of
integrity, which comprises ‘‘the respect for the wholeness, harmony or identity of
living entity.’’ Farmers have to understand the animals’ natural needs in the context
of the farming systems, for example feeding ruminants like ruminants and not like
Concepts of Animal Health and Welfare
monogastric animals. To be able to fulﬁll this, breeds must be chosen that are
appropriate in relation to each context. This requires a diversity of locally adapted
breeds from each species. It can also emphasize the importance of developing
diversiﬁed farming systems in which each animal species has its role in the entire
The Principle of Care Reﬂects Human Interaction with Animals
Alrøe et al. (2001) combine elements of naturalness with elements of human care to
understand the concept of animal welfare in organic agriculture. The IFOAM
principle about care is formulated ‘‘Organic Agriculture should be managed in a
precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current
and future generations and the environment.’’ We perceive that the principle of care
expresses the human responsibility to protect, intervene, and interact wisely and
with humaneness. Appleby (2005) argues for humaneness in relation to animals as
an asset that is very closely linked to the sustainability of agricultural systems. He
argues that this interconnectedness between humane treatment of animals and other
aspects of sustainable farming (e.g., following the deﬁnition above) is not
Clustering of animal production facilities into limited geographical areas tends
to go hand-in-hand with intensiﬁcation: with increased farm size, conﬁnement
of animals, and less individual attention given to those animals. So although
animal treatment is not universally better on small than on large farms, small
farms do tend to have some advantages for animal welfare. A move away from
concentration of production, and in particular a reduction in building of
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, therefore, should also result in
more humane husbandry (p. 297).
Appleby (2005) refers to the following deﬁnition of humane given in the
Merriam-Webster dictionary (1990, quoted by Appleby 2005): ‘‘marked by
sympathy or consideration for other human beings or animals.’’ The concept is
thereby closely linked to the idea that animals are in certain senses equal to humans
and therefore equally worthy of moral consideration (Singer, 1975), and unlike the
Kantian notion that we should treat animals humanely only because ‘‘tender feelings
towards dumb animals develop humane feelings towards mankind’’ (Passmore
This understanding of humaneness links the term nicely to the principle of care,
and includes the aspects discussed above. In organic agriculture, the aspects of
sustainability (social, economic, environmental, and institutional) are generally
important. The issue of humaneness is a part of the concept of sustainability
promoted, for example, by ‘‘The Alliance for Sustainability,’’ where sustainability is
deﬁned as ‘‘ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane’’ (
http://allianceforsustainability.net/). In the case of understanding animal welfare in
farming systems built on concepts of sustainability, this underlines the care for the
animals as individuals as well as parts of livestock systems.
M. Vaarst, H. F. Alrøe
The Principle of Health on the Level of the Individual Animal, the Herd,
and the Livestock System
The immediate understanding of the principle of health is rather simple and has
been stated throughout the history of organic farming. It is that healthy soil gives
healthy plants that feed healthy animals and healthy humans, who then feed the soil
(with, among others, manure from healthy animals). IFOAM phrases the principle
this way: ‘‘Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant,
animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.’’
It is important to emphasize that health is a concept covering much more than a
combination of ‘‘absence of disease’’ and ‘‘high performance, production and
A healthy organism is an organism or a system in homeostasis, meaning that it
has the ability to withstand shocks and adjust or react to changing environments.
This is supported in health promoting strategies, where the immune system and
disease resistance are strengthened generally. It could be achieved by the provision
of good quality hay to ruminants, abundant fresh air, and good quality water, or by
maintaining a high level of hygiene in the housing and feeding systems. Health
promotion can as such be distinguished from disease prevention actions, which are
often targeted towards avoidance of certain well-deﬁned disease conditions such as
lameness, mastitis, or diarrhea. If focusing on disease, one disease preventive action
can potentially have negative side effects on other aspects of the animal’s life
because it does not include the idea of homeostasis in the individual whole animal
viewed as one organism. An example of this could be provision of limestone dust in
the bedding material of dairy cows to keep the claws dry, which then also dries out
the skin on the udder and teats of dairy cows, for example, causing skin cracks.
Homeostasis is not only a characteristic of the individual animal, but as much a
herd or a livestock farming system. The emphasis on health as the wholeness and
integrity of living systems links the principle of health directly to the conception of
animal welfare as leading a natural life (according to the distinction by Fraser et al.
1997). To ensure health in animals and livestock systems, the living conditions
should actively promote health physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The Principle of Fairness in Relation to Animal Health and Welfare, as well
as Livestock Systems in a Globalized World
The IFOAM principle of fairness encompasses both current and future generations
of life on Earth, expressed as follows: ‘‘Organic Agriculture should build on
relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life
opportunities.’’ Fairness towards the individual animals implies a fair treatment in
all life situations, from birth to death, including transport and handling. The
principle demands that animals be provided with the conditions and opportunities of
life that accord with their physiology, natural behavior, and well-being (IFOAM,
2005). Humans have a moral obligation to ensure that animals are in situations they
can be expected to manage. It also points to the importance of integrity for the
animals. This includes that their surroundings should be designed to ﬁt the animals,
Concepts of Animal Health and Welfare
e.g., in terms of space, stability in ﬂock composition, and appropriate ﬂock sizes,
rather than mutilating animals.
In the understanding of animal health and welfare and the lives of farmed
animals, the principle of fairness can to some extent be linked to the issue of
‘‘animal rights,’’ then taking a rights-based approach to the lives of animals, as
described by Rollin (1990), for example, who raises the question of human morality
to ensure the animal’s well-being, and sees this as a natural extension of social
responsibility. However, organic animal agriculture involves animals in the farming
system and sees animals as belonging to the wholeness and as ‘‘stock’’ that can be
owned by humans. This is far from the animal rights view, discussed by Dogan
(2010), for example, who defends animal rights and emphasizes that animals do not
belong to humans, but have the right to live and be secure from attacks on their
physical existence. Lund and Olsson (2006) emphasize the view on animal
agriculture as a form of living together between humans and animals that has
evolved over 1000s of years. Lund (2002) and Lund et al. (2004) discusses the
‘‘moral contract’’ between humans and farm animals in organic farming, where
farmers agree to a moral obligation to take care of the animals for which they have
responsibility, allowing them access to as much naturalness as is possible under
farm conditions, and caring for them in all situations. According to this contract,
humans are allowed to use animal products and take animals’ lives, but they have
the obligation to ensure that the animals in our households live a life in which they
are allowed naturalness, and where they are taken care of when needed. Both
‘‘naturalness’’ and ‘‘care when needed’’ are vaguely expressed and seem unavoid-
ably left to negotiation in practice. This negotiation will be based on individual
perceptions of ‘‘welfare’’ and ethical choices, e.g., based on what is possible in
terms of naturalness, and when a ‘‘need’’ calls for action. It is completely dependent
on humans’ knowledge, insight, empathy, and ability to relate to the animals and
their needs (Vaarst et al. 2004).
The principle of fairness links the animals and livestock herds to issues of the
world food system. The industrialization of livestock farming and the increasing
trade and transport within the sector including transport and global trade of live
animals that in some cases are moved to environments they can hardly manage (e.g.,
European breeds transported to tropical areas where they are much more susceptible
to disease, heat stress, etc.) is obviously unfair to the animals. Other transport and
trade issues are also linked to livestock production and can be strongly linked to the
principle of fairness in two ways. First, the transport of feed from tropical areas to
the Northern hemisphere’s industrialized livestock farming systems is an important
issue of fairness that extends to fairness to the people who could have used their
land for food production, the burden of transport fuel etc. Second, the transport of
animal products from one continent to the other also opens a larger discussion of
fairness in the entire livestock sector, such as keeping animals in Conﬁned Animal
Feeding Operations, which may be subsidized and thereby undermine other local
non-subsidized animal and livestock systems and markets. Being conscious and
reﬂecting on the implications of this may contribute to a necessary rethinking of
global food systems to make them more humane to the animals, in addition to being
more resilient and responsible to people (consumers, citizens, and voters—groups
M. Vaarst, H. F. Alrøe
that also include farmers). However, the last of these is beyond the scope of this
How Can a Distinct Concept of Animal Health and Welfare for Organic
Farming be Understood and Integrated in Two Different Contexts?
Based on this analysis, we conclude that the four organic principles can support a
distinct understanding of animal health and welfare in organic agriculture. The
individual animal, the organic livestock production system, and the role of humans
in organic animal farming can be understood in relation to naturalness, human care,
ecology, and health.
However, when one reviews the literature about animal disease patterns for
various species, it seems very challenging to reach this well-balanced state in
practice. In addition, livestock farming takes place under many different conditions,
which requires that a special analysis be made of the potentials and challenges
linked to the principles for each context. In the following, we brieﬂy summarize the
characteristics of two cases respectively from industrialized European farming and
farming in a tropical livestock system.
Northwestern European Livestock Farms
In northwestern Europe, livestock farming—including organic livestock production
to some extent—has developed into more specialized and monocultural farming
over the last several decades. Taking Denmark as an example, 68% of farms
(conventional as well as organic) had cattle, swine, and plant production in 1970,
whereas in 2008, only 3% had mixed production. The average dairy herd has
increased from 17.3 cows per herd per year in 1975 to 110.9 cows per herd per year
in 2008 (Anonymous, 2008). The legislation in Denmark, for example, requires a
certain ratio of number of animals to farm area in order to prevent pollution, such as
from nitrogen, and the livestock herd provides manure and nutrients to the farm.
Livestock products enter the globalized food markets. Animals are generally very
high yielding, and relatively few breeds and breeding lines are represented in the
population. Within the population, relatively narrow genetic material is being used,
and there is a low degree of biodiversity and diversiﬁcation on the farm level.
Production diseases in general are reported to be major challenges on most
European organic farms, whether for poultry, pigs, or cattle (Sundrum 2001;
Thamsborg et al. 2004; Lund and Algers 2003). Also, most studies cited in Europe
refer to specialized and to a varying degree industrialized animal production,
animals are given less access to naturalness, and humans in many cases have less
time for speciﬁc care-giving actions.
Industrialized in this context is deﬁned as characterized by mass production, rationalized labor
organization, a high degree of separation between work and free time for humans involved in the
livestock herd, and extended use of technology and automation.
Concepts of Animal Health and Welfare
Seen from an agro-ecological point of view, these farming systems are relatively
vulnerable and immature in terms of sustainability, and they are highly dependent
on infrastructure and transport, and thereby fossil fuels. Factors like transport of live
animals, bio-security challenges, high yields, and big ﬂocks can present risks for
animal welfare, e.g., restrictions on performing natural behavior, and risks of
infectious diseases, which is partly connected to unstable immune functions in open
groups of animals. These challenges need to be discussed with regard to whether
they allow this type of herd to be considered as living up to the organic concepts of
animal health and welfare as well as the livestock-related issues of the basic organic
principles in northwestern and some North American livestock farms.
Tropical Organic Livestock Systems
The role of livestock in many tropical countries is to contribute to the ecological and
environmental sustainability of these systems, e.g., in nutrient recycling (Herman-
sen 2003; Powell et al. 2004). Tropical smallholder livestock keepers represent
about 20% of the world population (McDermott et al. 2010), and livestock play a
signiﬁcant role in household food and income (Funes-Monzote 2008; Deschee-
maeker et al. 2010), serving cultural and traditional purposes, as well as supplying
the household members and local communities with products like meat, milk, eggs,
skin, and bones (Wilson 2009; Powell et al. 2004; Devendra and Thomas 2002), and
ﬁnally providing draft power (Powell et al. 2004; Descheemaeker et al. 2010). In the
farming system, the integration of livestock can give longterm beneﬁts in terms of
compost and utilization of marginal areas, in this way helping to prevent land
degradation and erosion and contributing to resilient and robust, diversiﬁed, and
intensiﬁed agro-ecological systems (Funes-Monzote 2008; Pretty 2006; Halberg
et al. 2009; Vaarst 2010). Dixon and co-authors (2001) stated that generally, the
diversiﬁed farming systems play a major role in reducing poverty, and well-
balanced organic farms are generally based on diversiﬁcation. However, dilemmas
and pressure on the livestock farm exist, such as the aim of letting animals range
freely outdoors, where their manure is needed for compost or other redistribution of
nutrients, and at the same time, land is very scarce and must provide food for many
people. In many such farming systems, the change from traditional farming to
organic/agro-ecological farming has led to keeping animals indoors to a much
higher degree because of newly gained awareness of the value of manure (Muwanga
et al. 2010). Araya and Edwards (2006) and Edwards et al. (2010) give a illustrative
example of one of the major dilemmas in organic or agro-ecological livestock
production in the tropics, namely that a severe land degradation problem in arid
areas in Ethiopia was solved mainly by creating zero-grazing systems for the small
ruminants in the area. This conﬂict between ‘‘ecology’’ (preserving soil quality by
not letting animals roam and at the same time, produce sufﬁcient amounts of manure
to improve soil quality), and on the other hand animal welfare, including
naturalness, allowing animals to carry out their natural behavior, and having access
to water and foraged feed in accordance with their needs.
Another major challenge, pointed out by Vaarst et al. (2006) and Muwanga et al.
(2010), relates to larger ﬂocks of animals, e.g., ruminants in pastoralist communities
M. Vaarst, H. F. Alrøe
or scavenging village poultry. These animals can carry out their natural behavior
and (depending on the surroundings) can get sufﬁcient amounts of feed in
accordance with their natural needs. Nevertheless, these systems often have been are
proven to be risky with regard to infectious and endemic diseases for which
vaccination is needed (e.g., Newcastle disease in free ranging poultry), or where
heavy medication is often used to prevent disease outbreaks (e.g., tick-borne
diseases in cattle). Rubaire-Akiiki et al. (2006) concluded that endemic stability in
dairy cattle regarding most tick-borne diseases could be well managed by hand
picking of ticks. This is possible in smallholder herds but is less possible in
pastoralist herds with hundreds of cattle.
Final Discussion: Future Development of Organic Livestock Systems
The organic principles described and discussed above give guidance on what can be
considered a balanced agro-ecosystem. If a high degree of harmony and integration is
built into the system, it is likely that animals have or can take a special role, for which
they can be valued. In a mature, diversiﬁed agro-ecosystem, the animals’ natural
behavior is expected to be fulﬁlled when they are let out on outdoor areas. Based on a
questionnaire administered to Swedish organic farmers, Lund et al. (2004) concluded
that particularly the so-called ‘‘pioneers,’’ (who had converted to organic farming
early), perceived natural behavior as a key issue in animal welfare, whereas this was
less true among the so-called ‘‘entrepreneurs,’’ who also were more skeptical of the
organic standards. This suggests that not only the possibilities for performing natural
behavior in organic livestock farming, but also the perceptions of the farmers, are
changed with changed practices and inspirations connected with these changes. In
contrast, animal welfare in accordance with the principles described above seems
much more difﬁcult to practice on farms that are more mono-cultural and
industrialized and do not fully live up to the organic principles in other ways. For
example, naturalness is difﬁcult to introduce in large conﬁned systems, and human
care is also difﬁcult to insist on in systems with a high ratio of animals to people.
In tropical systems, the immature agro-ecosystems are represented e.g., by
traditional farming systems such as so-called slash-and-burn; the farmers may have
animals, but they are not integrated into any strategy for improving soil quality.
Another challenge may be related to the production of certiﬁed organic products for
export, if the producers are unaware of the organic principles and only see it as an
opportunity to sell products. Systems for certifying organic products have been
developed mainly in northwestern Europe and the USA, and focus to a great extent
on the commodity aspect of organic farming systems. This can push a development
towards monocultural production systems such as enormous cotton ﬁelds or coffee
plantations. This can give the farmers opportunities for income-generating
activities; introduction of certiﬁed organic production has been shown to have
great potential beneﬁts for poor farmers, such as in the Swedish-African EPOPA
Walaga (2009) emphasized the importance of certifying the whole farm,
Concepts of Animal Health and Welfare
not only the crop that is being exported. This may stimulate an integration of the
organic concept into the whole farm, viewing it as an opportunity for changing to a
more productive and well-balanced farm, rather than niche production for export to
privileged consumers in the Northern hemisphere.
As illustrated above, several factors inﬂuence the creation of healthy, fair
livestock food systems with meaningful consideration of ecology and care aspects.
Hence, the challenges become very complex. In order to create systems that meet
the animals’ needs, much knowledge and the ability to reﬂect and innovate is
required. A practical example of this is given for organic calves, where the farmer
needs knowledge about natural behavior and epidemiology as well as ethology to
design systems and act in these systems in ways that are appropriate to the animals
that he or she has taken into the household (Vaarst et al. 2001 and 2004). Farming in
accordance with the principles is not ensured through setting up standards, as we
have seen in the EU (Sundrum et al. 2006; Vaarst et al. 2008). Merrigan et al. (2010)
identify four discrete standards to be adopted within the organic program of the
USA, but also conclude that it is challenging because the organic livestock sector is
still underdeveloped and the infrastructure poor. Future recommendations on the
development of the organic livestock sector towards the fulﬁllment of the principles
should include standards, which continuously stimulate this development, but
should not rely on standards alone.
Organic agriculture is a farming system built on ethical choices and values. This
should obviously include farmers and other actors in the organic sector as the most
important partners in it, in order to link it to daily practice and priorities. According to
Hendrickson and James (2005), group and self identity are prime movers for behavior,
such as moral behavior, and one’s sense of self will have an effect on behavior. They
analyze how the increasing pressure of industrialized agriculture seriously constrains
decision-making abilities among farmers, for example because of economic pressure,
and consequently also inﬂuences farmers’ self-perceptions. They explain how this
changing environment can lead to what they deﬁne as ‘‘erosion of farmer ethics.’’ This
will have severe structural and practical consequences for the way the farm is
designed, organized, and managed, including the animals. European action research
projects demonstrated how emphasizing farmer ownership in decision-making,
empowerment, knowledge exchange, and common learning can mediate signiﬁcant
change on the farm level (Anonymous 2010; Vaarst 2007; Ivemeyer et al. 2010;
Vaarst et al. 2010; Bennedsgaard et al. 2010). On the sector level, the constant debate
in combination with addressing and involving relevant actors such as decision
makers, citizens, and politicians, can stimulate further development of livestock
systems with high animal welfare in accordance with the basic organic principles,
even in situations where the agricultural sector is under great pressure, e.g.,
economical pressure to produce more for less money.
Organic farming has a distinctive view on animal health and welfare that it is
possible to live up to, especially on diversiﬁed, well-integrated farms that to a large
M. Vaarst, H. F. Alrøe
degree already live up to the basic principles of organic farming. This distinctive
understanding of animal health and welfare involves increased opportunity for the
animals to live more natural lives and to count on sufﬁcient human care. The
organic concepts of animal health and welfare can be understood very well within
the framework of the four principles for organic production: ecology, care, health,
and fairness. Different types of challenges exist in different organic livestock
systems, e.g., for industrialized versus tropical smallholder production systems. The
challenges for a well-balanced organic livestock food system are very complex. In
particular, joining livestock farming in practice with the fairness principle points to
challenges that are very difﬁcult to handle, e.g., issues of losing biodiversity with
regard to breeds used in organic systems, including trading of breeds, livestock, and
semen, or trading of feedstuffs and food worldwide.
Acknowledgments The authors acknowledge the anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this
article for profound reviews and very valuable comments and suggestions. We gratefully thank Willie
Lockeretz for language editing and suggestions to improve the understanding of this article.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-
commercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any med-
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