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Transforming Intensive Animal Production: Challenges and Opportunities for Farm Animal Welfare in the European Union



Since the 1960s, the European Union (EU) has made efforts to ensure the welfare of farm animals. The system of EU minimum standards has contributed to improved conditions; however, it has not been able to address the deeper factors that lead to the intensification of animal farming and the consolidation of the processing sector. These issues, along with major competitive pressures and imbalances in economic power, have led to a conflict of interest between animal industries, reformers, and regulators. While the priorities of the European Green Deal and the End the Cage Age initiatives are to induce a rapid phasing out of large-scale cage-based farming systems, the industry faces the need to operate on a highly competitive global market. Animal farmers are also under pressure to decrease input costs, severely limiting their ability to put positive animal-care values into practice. To ensure a truly effective transition, efforts need to go beyond new regulations on farm animal welfare and address drivers that push production toward a level of confinement and cost-cutting. Given the right socio-economic and policy incentives, a transition away from intensive farming methods could be facilitated by incentives supporting farm diversification, alternative technologies, and marketing strategies.
Animals 2022, 12, 2086.
Transforming Intensive Animal Production: Challenges and
Opportunities for Farm Animal Welfare in the European Union
Mariann Molnár
Animal Welfare Program, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia, 2357 Main Mall,
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canada;
Simple Summary: The European Union (EU) has made commitments to review all established pol-
icies on farm animal welfare and by the end of 2023 propose new regulations that will improve
farming conditions and phase out the use of cage-based systems. A case study of pig farming in
Hungary suggests that farmers are much constrained in their ability to make such significant
changes to their farming operations; hence, a purely legislative reform may not succeed in deliver-
ing the desired changes. Competing socio-economic interests and constraints created by global trade
regulations require that reformers extend their efforts from the limited approach of policy review
to addressing issues that are well beyond the control of farmers. These include economics-, legisla-
tion-, and technology-induced concerns. To ensure a truly effective transition, reforms need to ad-
dress those factors that push production toward the use of confinement systems.
Abstract: Since the 1960s, the European Union (EU) has made efforts to ensure the welfare of farm
animals. The system of EU minimum standards has contributed to improved conditions; however,
it has not been able to address the deeper factors that lead to the intensification of animal farming
and the consolidation of the processing sector. These issues, along with major competitive pressures
and imbalances in economic power, have led to a conflict of interest between animal industries,
reformers, and regulators. While the priorities of the European Green Deal and the End the Cage
Age initiatives are to induce a rapid phasing out of large-scale cage-based farming systems, the
industry faces the need to operate on a highly competitive global market. Animal farmers are also
under pressure to decrease input costs, severely limiting their ability to put positive animal-care
values into practice. To ensure a truly effective transition, efforts need to go beyond new regulations
on farm animal welfare and address drivers that push production toward a level of confinement
and cost-cutting. Given the right socio-economic and policy incentives, a transition away from in-
tensive farming methods could be facilitated by incentives supporting farm diversification, alterna-
tive technologies, and marketing strategies.
Keywords: animal welfare; farming; confinement; reform; transformative change
1. Introduction
In the current European Union (EU) farm animal welfare reform effort, there is wide
agreement that complex, interconnected factors affect farm animal welfare. To date, farm
animal welfare advocacy approaches have recognized that farmers and the general public
have conflicting norms, that there are inconsistencies between societal principles and con-
sumer purchasing behaviors, and that the uniform enforcement of existing legislative
standards is problematic. However, to deliver meaningful change to farm animals, addi-
tional issues also require careful attention. These include ensuring good-quality animal
care by sufficient numbers of well-trained staff [1] and addressing the constraints on farm-
ers caused by the economic power imbalance between farmers and the highly consoli-
dated meat processing companies that buy their products [2,3]. Farm animal welfare
Citation: Molnár, M. Transforming
Intensive Animal Production:
Challenges and Opportunities for
Farm Animal Welfare in the
European Union. Animals 2022, 12,
Academic Editor: Thomas Blaha
Received: 21 June 2022
Accepted: 11 August 2022
Published: 15 August 2022
Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neu-
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Animals 2022, 12, 2086 2 of 14
reforms also need to address the actual impact of the current legislative tools [3] and how
the norms of farmers and their ability to transform their farming operations vary with the
size and type of farming methods they currently use [4].
My understanding of these issues began with a research project into confinement and
alternative pig farming in Hungary, where, unlike much of the EU, the transition to inten-
sive confinement production is still in progress [5]. The research showed some of the con-
straints faced by farmers, including “technological lock-in” after farmers have invested
heavily in confinement systems, and the external pressures on farmers caused by low and
fluctuating profits.
This paper briefly reviews the evolution of the European pro-welfare reforms up to
the recent publication of the EU Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Initiative, and the End the
Cage Age citizen initiative and then assesses the shortcomings of the principally legisla-
tive approach that the EU has adopted. The paper then assesses efforts, challenges, and
opportunities for transformative change in animal agriculture in light of the Hungarian
case study.
2. From Silent Spring to EU Pro-Welfare Legislation and Back Again
Industrial methods of food production were first problematized by Rachel Carlson
(1962) in the book Silent Spring [6], which critiqued the abundant use of DDT and other
pesticides in intensive crop production in the USA. This book was soon followed by Ruth
Harrison’s (1964) account of emerging large-scale indoor animal agricultural practices in
the UK and their effects on the health and welfare of farm animals [7]. In a foreword that
she wrote to Harrison’s book, Carlson advocated a Schweitzerian ethic based on reverence
for life [8] and asked: “how can [farm] animals produced under such conditions be safe or
acceptable human food?”
Although ethical concern for animals in the UK dates back to at least the 18th century
[9], reforms in the 20th century rested on emerging scientific evidence, the activities of
professional non-governmental organizations, and a growing recognition of animal sen-
tience. The UK’s early anti-cruelty law dating back to 1822 was supplemented in 1968 by
legislation specifically targeting farm animal welfare in intensive farming systems. Provi-
sions in this Agriculture Miscellaneous Provisions Act resulted from a complex of ethical,
economic, and public concerns for animals [10], followed in 1979 by the UK Farm Animal
Welfare Council (FAWC) publishing the well-known Five Freedoms [11], which have pro-
vided high-level guidance for reform.
With concern for farm animal welfare spreading beyond the UK, in 1976, the Council
of Europe published a convention on “the protection of animals kept for farming pur-
poses” [12], opening a new phase of farm animal welfare reform efforts. Indeed, while the
1957 Treaty of Rome still identified animals as goods [13], the 1979 Council of Europe
Convention was the first major European legislation that aimed to protect the welfare of
farm animals raised in confinement systems. Subsequently, the Treaty of Amsterdam
(1997, later affirmed by the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon) recognized animals as sentient beings
[14]. In 1998, the European Union adopted the 1976 Council of Europe Convention and
passed Council Directive 98/58/EC, concerning the protection of animals kept for farming
purposes [15].
These legal documents, along with the so-called Protocol on Animal Welfare under
the Amsterdam Treaty, established the ruling principles “in key areas of European law
and policy making” [16] (p. 197). In addition to the general requirements laid down in the
directive on issues such as appropriate staffing of animal holdings, inspection, record
keeping, and automatic and mechanical equipment, minimum standards were prescribed
on freedom of movement; buildings and accommodation; animals kept outdoors; feed,
water, and other substances; mutilations; and breeding procedures [15]. In addition, spe-
cialized minimum standards were established on slaughter and killing practices (1993),
laying hens (1999), transport conditions (2005), chicken kept for meat production (2007),
calves (2008), and pigs (2008).
Animals 2022, 12, 2086 3 of 14
Therefore, since the 1960s, the EU has made major efforts to safeguard farm animal
welfare by defining minimum standards [16]. These rules, however, principally target the
actions of farmers by defining basic standards of care and aspects of on-farm housing, but
they tend to ignore other players in the value chain that may have a major influence on
the decisions of farmers and the welfare of farm animals. Moreover, although Member
States are at liberty to pass national rules that extend beyond the established EU legal
framework, norms higher than common EU standards have rarely been adopted.
Although these legislative reforms have brought many benefits, such as obligatory
pre-slaughter stunning, serious problems remain. While the Council of Europe identifies
animal welfare as an issue of common cultural heritage and acknowledges duty to care
[13], the level of protection to be delivered to farm animals in many cases seems open to
interpretation [14,17]. A critical examination of the principally legislative approach to en-
sure farm animal welfare in the EU by means of enforcing minimum standards indicates
some of the weaknesses of the present system. High on the legislative agenda are issues
such as animal health and food safety [18,19], while low on the agenda are issues such as
further increasing comfort standards or reducing boredom for farm animals. Other con-
cerns that are not addressed include the responsible consumption of animal products,
overproduction [20], and food loss and waste [21]. Many would argue that the intensifi-
cation of agricultural production; the consolidation of animal faming and processing in-
dustries; and the widespread use of large-scale, indoor confinement farming methods are
key areas where change is most needed [22]. However, in practice, current EU policies do
nothing to ensure a transition away from these methods. Standardized legislation also
fails to account for the diversity of farm scales, technologies, and management practices
that directly influence day-to-day animal welfare conditions [1, 3].
These challenges are now being acknowledged in the EU by the European Green Deal
[23,24] and the Farm to Fork Initiative [25], which present a much more complex under-
standing of the range of issues that need to be tackled. Within the context of sustainable
development, the strategies propose to deliver significant improvements to farming con-
ditions, including a substantial increase in the welfare of farmed animals, and to assess
the impact of farming technologies used. The momentum for change also seems to be pre-
sent in the social arena, as 1.4 million EU citizens have recently signed the End the Cage
Age initiative launched by Compassion in World Farming [26], which calls on the EU to
phase out the use of confinement farming methods. Key goals of the current EU agricul-
ture reform, therefore, are to review the EU’s entire policy system for agriculture and re-
flect on environmental (sustainability, environmental health, biodiversity), animal health
(food security), and animal welfare issues along the entire food chain, with a special em-
phasis on removing farm animals from confinement systems. This new approach is pro-
posed to “foresee better living and transport conditions, and enhanced protection of ani-
mals during slaughter” [27]. It is scheduled to be presented by the end of 2023 after exten-
sive consultation [26].
In summary, despite the substantial farm animal welfare reforms since Carlson and
Harrison, intensive farming methods are again in the spotlight. Further transformative
change in animal agriculture may be possible only if, in addition to legal protection, other
important aspects, such as the socio-economic context of animal farming and ethical prin-
ciples guiding decision-making, are also given sufficient attention [28].
3. Understanding the Need for Change
Effective EU policies on agriculture, food production and farm animal welfare are
thought to be challenged by a set of competing interests that could result in compromised
arrangements [29]. Competing interests (human vs. animal welfare) and the contradictory
mandates (animal welfare vs. economic interests) of the EU may be suggested to induce
significant challenges to the animal welfare reform effort. Depending on the context of
policy analysis, some would argue that the EU farm animal welfare reform effort to date
was able to act against “industrial” forms of animal agriculture and represents a “counter-
Animals 2022, 12, 2086 4 of 14
commoditization strategy” [19] (p. 77), delivering major animal welfare improvements
[30]. However, critics of the current legislative approach claim that pro-welfare legislation
only focuses on “the irrational property owner” who inflicts harm on animals without
reasonable human benefit [31] (p. 187) and highlight the difficulty of an ever-increasing
legislative burden on farmers [14]. These views are supported by individual farmers or
farmer associations that express their concerns over the tension between EU regulations
and production efficiency on a global market [32].
This tension between EU regulations and global trade in food has been understood
as the outcome of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules of conduct [19]. WTO trade
regulations necessitate the application of neo-liberal free trade principles [19] offering lim-
ited chances for a consistent set of rules governing both trade interests and pro-welfare
action. As Hobbs et al. [33] note, under WTO regulations, the EU is obliged to facilitate
the international trade of “like” products that cannot be distinguished from one another.
Obligatory labeling of the production method is a clear farm animal welfare interest but
cannot be carried out due to concerns over market distortion [33–35].
While free trade in its present form continues to be widely supported, a diverse set
of data indicate that damage or harm caused by large, intensive industries cannot be suf-
ficiently addressed on the market [28,36,37]. A dominant assumption of free trade is that
it is beneficial to consumers, who make choices consistently with and according to their
individual values [38]. This would mean that growing concern for and awareness of farm
animal welfare could—in theory—empower consumers to relieve animals from harmful
production methods [39]. Most willingness-to-pay studies emphasize this premise [40],
yet other studies suggest that direct causality between public concern and consumer ac-
tion cannot be found [41,42], as important self-protective mechanisms, such as cognitive
dissonance [43], the complexity of the market [44], or price sensitivity [40], could prevent
consistent purchasing behaviors. Falk and Szech [42] also find that moral decisions may
be affected when participants feel that they have no direct influence on an immoral act
and therefore exhibit “a tendency to lower moral values, relative to individually stated
preferences” (p. 710). Findings therefore suggest that moral concern alone is unable to
counter-balance negative market externalities [42], including harm caused to animals.
Consistent animal advocacy is also needed. Since the 1960s, societal concern for the
welfare of farm animals has evolved, and European animal welfare advocacy approaches
have changed over time. Prior to the publication of Animal Machines [7], the UK was al-
ready debating the problem of making farming “more profitable, modern and efficient”
[45] (p. 17), leading to concerns over farm animal stress, suffering, and cruelty [45,46].
After the publication of Harrison’s book, farm animal welfare, a “fundamentally new lan-
guage and concept” [45] (p. 14), emerged from a wide-ranging scientific, political, and
public debate [46]. Following recommendations by the Brambell Committee, animal wel-
fare developed into an established scientific discipline [47,48] and advocacy approach [31].
Most pro-welfare policies were developed on the animal welfare premises, acknowledg-
ing the subjective state of welfare matters related to animals and that given the possibility,
they are ready to contribute to their own individual state of well-being, including the
achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of pain [48–53]. A welfarist perspective is
therefore predominantly concerned with the quality of an animals’ life rather than its
quantity (unless longevity is used as an indicator of welfare) and has further developed
to ensure “good lives” for animals under human care irrespective of their use or value
[54]. An animal welfare approach therefore focuses on establishing and ensuring ethical
human–animal interactions via legislation, education, capacity building, and good prac-
tice [55].
However, other ethical frameworks, challenging the animal welfare approach, have
also been proposed. Most notable of these are the consequentialist, utilitarian animal lib-
erationist ethic developed by Singer [56] and the categorical animal rights theory pro-
posed by Regan [57], further developed into what is now called the abolitionist theory
proposed by Francione [58,59]. These theories rest on strong foundational principles and
Animals 2022, 12, 2086 5 of 14
propose the application of “non-interference rights” [54] in the belief that human–animal
interactions, such as farming animals and the consumption of food from animal origin,
are inherently wrong [56,57,59]. Therefore, in its most extreme form, non-interference
rights prescribe the total abolition of all human–animal interaction [57–59], while in other
cases, only harmful interactions are to be abandoned for all animals [60] or those species
that are comparable to humans in their capacity to suffer [56]. The animal welfare ap-
proach and its competing categorical hegemonic discourses and ethical frameworks
[61,62] lead to the fragmentation of scientific, social, and political reform efforts [28] solely
based on moral disagreement. These ethical debates have not been sufficiently resolved
since the 1960s [45], and evidence suggests that an increasing number of animal advocacy
approaches are based on non-interference rights in the US as well as the EU [63,64].
The model developed by Anderson [28] predicts that powerless groups, such as chil-
dren or animals, gain protection only if there is a common ethical foundation and a clear
understanding of what needs to be done. Hence, success in the EU reform efforts will
likely depend on establishing a clear, united ethical imperative guiding reformers on what
needs to be done for animals and why [28]. To date, the current, ongoing EU farm animal
welfare reform effort has not presented such a comprehensive approach that could take
reform beyond the review of existing policies. Some argue that “it will not be easy to reach
a consensus on what animal welfare is and how it should be achieved/improved” [65] (p.
116). However, it is likely that without attempting to broaden the reform effort, the pre-
sent status quo of animal farming will prevail and animal welfare reforms may lead to
progress on only a limited subset of issues [66].
In the related field of environmental protection, alternative economic models seem
to be developing. A circular economy, for example, presents a united moral and innova-
tive economic framework that seems to already function within the established neo-liberal
free trade context [67]. For farm animal welfare, continuous efforts provide progress in
establishing a functional moral imperative [68]. Such examples include Reverence for Life,
by Schweitzer [8]; Biosocial Communitarianism by Callicott [69,70]; the One Health initi-
ative [71]; and A “Practical” Ethic for Animals by Fraser [54]. Anderson [28] finds that
once a new ethic is firmly established… it can be… as powerful as legal reform… Without
this ethical shift, in fact, mere legislative reform will probably be ineffective” (p. 62).
4. Challenges for Transformative Change in Animal Agriculture
While it may seem that farmers can freely decide on how they keep their animals,
Molnár and Fraser [3] found in a case study of pig farming in Hungary that producing for
the ever-changing mainstream market severely constrains farmers’ choices. With the
large-scale consolidation of the processing industry, a large number of farmers compete
to sell almost identical (generic) products to a relatively small number of processors [3,72].
Larger, better-established companies thus have greater access to processors, leading to
competitive advantages over smaller companies that sell fewer animals [73]. Competitive
pressures on animal producers also seem to be induced by the inability of farmers to ne-
gotiate the price of their finished animals. As the price of pigs and other intensively reared
animals usually goes in cycles [23,24], farmers either opt to sell to processors based on a
long-term contract, setting a fixed price, or sell based on the daily rate determined by the
market [3]. In both cases, farmers will have to endure significant periods of losses [2,22]
and will therefore have to make savings during more profitable times to allow them to
continue to produce [3]. Free trade also enables international sourcing; hence, for example,
if local feed prices increase, processors can import animals from a distance and local farm-
ers will be unable to recover the cost of production [3,73], again leading to further eco-
nomic vulnerabilities of farmers.
With this imbalance in economic power between farmers and the processing indus-
try, the rational adjustment of product supply and demand would be necessary. However,
Molnár and Fraser [3] discovered that well-definable features of animal farming prevent
producers from adapting to challenges induced by the market. Unlike other industries,
Animals 2022, 12, 2086 6 of 14
animal farming cannot respond quickly enough to lower prices or demand because pro-
duction can only be adjusted after a significant time-lag (in the case of pig farming, at least
6 months or more) and in these periods, the market might change significantly [3]. This
inability of the animal farming sector to increase or decrease production as the market
dictates also induces a pressure on farmers to either further intensify or abandon their
farming operations, a feature that is already widely apparent in industrialized countries
[2,22,74]. Consequently, those farmers who would like to remain competitive have to en-
sure a high level of production efficiency. This need for efficiency seems to be the most
important reason why farmers who produce for the mainstream market build and then
continue to use production methods that necessitate large-scale, automatized confinement
systems [3].
Most intensive confinement farming operations also specialize in producing a single
commodity and invest in costly technologies that are suited for only a single species. These
housing technologies have been found to be difficult to adjust. Technological lock-in not
only seems to prevent farmers from being able to enjoy the economic resilience that a
mixed-farming enterprise would be able to offer [3] but also predisposes the farmers to
the continued use of these large, fixed investments [75,76]. The economic pressures that
force farmers to decrease input costs also lead to decreased amenities for animals, includ-
ing space, care staff, and labor costs, which further limit the possibility for farmers to put
positive animal-care values into practice [2,3,72]. In addition, while much research has
emphasized that farmers using confinement methods are mostly concerned about animal
health and productivity [77–81], this “entrepreneurial discourse” [2] was found to repre-
sent the beliefs of only the largest, most intensive farmers (≥1000 sow operations) [4].
Farmers operating medium-scale enterprises (≈400–600 sows), who used the same meth-
ods, but at a lower scale, were more critical of intensive confinement systems, and in ideal
circumstances, would have provided their animals with increased welfare through higher
standards of care and more natural living conditions [4]. Yet, even these famers struggled
to transition their technologies and increase farm animal welfare standards [82]. There-
fore, the combined effects of intensive farming technologies and economic pressures sig-
nificantly constrain the actions of farmers, despite their values [4].
Challenges endured by farmers in the EU and beyond have significantly impacted
the scale and intensity of farming operations [2], the health and well-being of farmers
[83,84], the countryside and rural communities [85], and overall farm animal welfare con-
ditions [12]. Yet, current standard (top-down) solutions seem to address only a limited
subset of the issues. In terms of regulatory approaches, inconsistent enforcement presents
significant challenges [13]. Additional problems have also been induced by the narrow
focus of policies on certain inputs that may not necessarily ensure good welfare outcomes
(e.g., flooring and ventilation), the neglect of other determinants that may lead to poor
welfare (frequent group mixing, boredom, etc.), and the unpredictability of events on a
farm that can limit compliance (e.g., unusually high birth rates) at certain times [3]. The
economic status of farmers seems to also limit the effectiveness of legislation, especially if
farmers face prolonged periods of losses and eventually lose so much that the level of care
given to animals is compromised [3]. Although generally well appreciated by farmers, the
subsidy system was also seen to be compromised. At times when the prices of finished
animals were low, subsidies were found only to prevent major losses [3], while at the time
of high prices, subsidies were not enough to allow major welfare-related investments
[3,82]. Subsidies also seemed to be designed for confinement farms and therefore may
have indirectly incentivized a move to intensive systems [3]. Finally, a reliance on con-
sumers exercising informed choice did not seem to apply well to the mainstream market
as processors were found to exhibit a preference for uniform “commodity” production,
which without consistent labeling prevented the differentiation of products [3].
Following global trends, the consolidation of animal agriculture is still ongoing in the
EU [3] and beyond. This process seems to facilitate the continued expansion of already
successful operations, while others are forced to abandon production due to the inability
Animals 2022, 12, 2086 7 of 14
of farmers to compete [3,5] or their unwillingness to grow the scale of their farming oper-
ations beyond a certain size [4,5]. Challenges associated with confinement farming in-
duced by an uneven distribution of economic pressures and power seem to affect those
medium-scale farmers who, given the chance, may be willing to engage in farming prac-
tices more aligned to their values [4]. A lack of transformative change in production meth-
ods may therefore lead to a further increase in the scale and distribution of intensive prac-
tices [2,5].
5. Opportunities for Transformative Change in Animal Agriculture
Despite the challenges, history indicates that as in the case of the successful European
child labor reforms that liberated children from mines and factories, change is possible to
ensure the welfare of animals [28]. A growing number of perspectives are calling for large-
scale intensive confinement agriculture to be transformed into a better model that ensures
good lives for farm animals [86], the responsible use of natural resources [87], the conser-
vation of biodiversity and wildlife habitats [88], and the production of safe and whole-
some food, while ensuring food security [89] and improving food distribution [90]. While
this paper primarily argues for the case of farm animal welfare, these goals appear of equal
importance and seem to depend on one another. While the dominant form of agricultural
production in the developed world is intensive confinement agriculture, alternative meth-
ods of production and retail present important models worth exploring.
Alternative agricultural production is a collective term representing a highly diverse
set of animal farming methods [91], yet in comparison to confinement farming methods,
key characteristic features identified in the case of pig farming are that these systems are
generally small-scale extensive or semi-intensive farms with a high level of personal in-
volvement of the farmer, where animals are kept in loose group housing with access to
indoor shelters and outdoor runs and with longer (at least double) life spans of both breed-
ing and fattening animals [4,5]. These farms are based on a low-capital model, as they do
not invest in and rely on expensive automated technologies and are therefore free of most
technological constraints [3]. Alternative farming also seems to rely on diversification
(mixed farming methods) to ensure resilience during periods of fluctuating prices and
costs [3,5]. While production efficiency is lower and variable costs of production are
higher than on confinement farms, alternative farming operations possess a greater level
of stability as farmers rarely sell their finished animals to processors but pursue niche
markets, often engaging directly in the processing and sale of their products [3,5]. As
UNIDO [92] also finds, a shorter food chain can secure a higher return for the farmer as
well as other benefits to rural communities, biodiversity, and the natural environment.
A transition away from intensive confinement farming methods is sometimes as-
sumed to compromise food security for a growing world population due to the ineffi-
ciency of alternative farming systems [93] and the need for more land [94] and agricultural
workers [95]. Intensive confinement production seems to provide a solution to these im-
portant challenges, but only when examined without full cost-accounting of harms caused
[96] and in the absence of assessing the combined negative effects of overproduction [20],
food loss and waste [97], and the effect of automation on worker wages [98]. Indeed, im-
portant factors driving intensification in animal farming seem to be inherently induced by
the replacement of human labor with automated technologies, first to save on wages and
more recently to make up for the lack of motivated workers for such facilities. The ever-
increasing rate of urbanization is taking its toll on rural communities [99], and a number
of complex factors influence the willingness of people to engage in farming [100]. The
advantages of emerging alternative farming methods, such as organic or ecological farm-
ing [101], permaculture [102], and silvopastoral systems [103], seem to be just as well un-
derstood by farmers [5] as they are accepted by both EU citizens and consumers [41] and
appear to address multiple challenges induced by current agricultural practices [4,5].
A bottom–up transition away from the use of monoculture farming may enable the
production of a more diverse set of products on a single unit of land, with well-adapted
Animals 2022, 12, 2086 8 of 14
and more resilient plant varieties and animals being produced in more natural conditions.
Diversity in farming practices, seeds, and animals can also enable the recovery of soil
health and even provide an opportunity to restore biodiversity [104]. It does not inevitably
mean a complete transition away from the use of “smart” technologies or some machin-
ery. However, it does seem to necessitate the preservation of rural communities and an
influx of motivated, educated, and well-paid workforces. Some data already indicate a
growing momentum for a new generation of farmers, who leave their urban, non-agrarian
lives to engage in agricultural production [105]. Other studies support the idea that con-
sumers who recognize the problems of confinement systems and have direct interaction
with farmers are more willing to negotiate the development of farming methods that ad-
dress common concerns [106,107].
In our research, differences between qualities of life of animals in intensive versus
alternative systems have even been acknowledged by some confinement farmers, espe-
cially those with medium-scale operations [4] but not by those with large operations.
Hence, strategies to transition intensive production may require policies, incentives, and
technological solutions that fit the priorities of producers working at different scales [4].
Large operations that are resistant to transformative change may require well-qualified
staff and expertise to improve farm management [4] and technological solutions (e.g., en-
abling the use of bedding, roughage, and environmental enrichment) that may improve
animal welfare without compromising farm efficiency or competitiveness [5]. However,
small- and medium-scale confinement farmers seem most open and able to change and,
given the right support, are most likely to transition their farming operation away from
indoor, intensive confinement systems and incorporate more natural production methods
[4]. In both cases, an increased level of transparency about farming methods will also be
needed to ensure that all farm scales find societal approval and a stable market [5].
6. How Can Confinement Farming Be Transformed to Ensure a Meaningful Increase
in Farm Animal Welfare Conditions?
The EU is highly committed to protecting the welfare of farm animals and is striving
to further improve conditions. However, the EU also appears be in a difficult situation,
because any transition of animal agriculture away from the use of intensive confinement
methods must be balanced with other socio-economic interests. The next year will be cru-
cial in determining the depth and breadth of EU involvement in pro-welfare action. The
level of current commitments suggests that the EU will limit its reform efforts to a com-
prehensive review of the existing legislative system and propose a new set of regulations
that will prescribe the phasing out of cage-based systems. However, these actions will
likely continue to principally target farmers. In recognition of the difficulty and cost of a
transition away from confinement farming methods, the EU may provide legislative and
financial incentives to farmers, for example, through targeted animal welfare payments.
Evidence suggests that this approach may probably lead to the largest, most intensive
confinement farmers or corporations (with the most lobby power) to resist a “forced” tran-
sition [93]. Yet, given that incentives are adequate in scale and are widely available and a
comprehensive agreement on the desired end point of the transition is reached, this ap-
proach may provide an opportunity for small- to medium-scale intensive confinement
farmers, who already face severe economic pressures. If the EU pursues this route, Euro-
pean farmers will require a system of coherent protective measures to ensure that as a
result of higher welfare regulations, farmers transitioning their operations will be able to
sell their products and that animal production will not simply be displaced to other juris-
dictions [108].
An alternative approach to the EU pro-welfare action is to go beyond existing com-
mitments and extend the review to assess the influence of other direct and indirect fac-
tors—such as the impact of global free trade inducing a continuous pressure to increase
the scale and intensity of farms—and propose new regulations and incentives that address
these other important drivers of confinement farming systems. Most importantly, this
Animals 2022, 12, 2086 9 of 14
new policy system will have to acknowledge problems induced by (a) the unequal distri-
butions of power and competitive pressures on the market, (b) the economic vulnerability
of farmers, (c) the high level of specialization of large-scale intensive farms, (d) the prob-
lem of technological lock-in induced by expensive confinement technologies, and (e) the
inability of the farming sector to quickly adjust production to demand. The current EU
animal welfare reform effort may, therefore, need to do much more than prescribe the
phasing out of intensive confinement systems; it will have to challenge global agricultural
production trends and provide a sound, workable alternative production and marketing
strategy to the farming community. To ensure transformative change in animal agricul-
ture and a meaningful increase in farm animal welfare conditions, farmers will also need
to be involved in the process of reform [3] and be empowered to put positive animal-care
values into practice [4,5].
In addition to the legislative process, opportunities for transformative change in an-
imal agriculture should also focus on preventing the further intensification of animal
farming. This could be most easily carried out in those EU Member States, such as Hun-
gary, that are in the process of intensifying their production methods or those that still
depend on small- to medium-scale semi-intensive or extensive farming systems (those
found in many EU accession states). Though the task of transitioning large-scale, intensive
confinement farms is challenging, inspiration for change can be found in the example of
alternative production and marketing systems. Well-targeted incentives to increase farm
animal welfare conditions, the ability of producers to process their own products, and a
workable solution on labeling (such as the EU egg labeling scheme) may improve market
access and relieve farmers of those excessive economic pressures that predominantly
drive intensification.
In the ideal scenario, the current EU reform effort should facilitate a sound transition
away from intensive confinement farming methods and enable the majority of animal
production to be realized in small- to medium-scale, semi-intensive and extensive, diverse
farming operations where animals are housed loosely and are able to access both indoor
shelters and outdoor runs [5]. A new era of farming may allow significant improvement
in farm animal welfare conditions as well as ensure increased resilience of farming com-
munities. As ideals often provide a momentum for reform efforts, so it may be possible to
assume that the transformation of intensive animal production is feasible [28,109,110].
7. Conclusions
The greatest challenge of current EU farm animal welfare reform efforts—initiated
by the EU Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Initiative, and the End the Cage Age citizen initi-
ative—is the problem of how to realize transformative change in animal agriculture when
many existing pro-welfare actions compete with conflicting mandates of the EU and con-
tradict global free trade policies. Current commitments suggest that the EU will focus on
a comprehensive review of the existing legal system to propose a new set of regulatory
principles and the phasing out of caged-based farming methods. However, transforma-
tive change in animal farming appears to be severely constrained by the established sys-
tem of intensive confinement production and trade practices.
This paper suggests that a narrow, policy-based reform effort may increase the vul-
nerabilities of farmers and fail to address major forces that shape animal farming. To de-
liver meaningful change to farm animal welfare within and beyond the EU, reform efforts
should extend the scope of legislative reform and engage in debating and devising an
alternative system of animal production and trade within the current free trade context.
Given a carefully devised set of legislative, economic, and market-based incentives, farm-
ers could break away from direct and indirect pressures that drive the intensification of
animal agriculture and should have the opportunity to transition away from the use of
specialized large-scale intensive confinement farming methods. The pro-welfare reform
effort, therefore, requires a broad, holistic approach to ensure that actions offer a realistic
Animals 2022, 12, 2086 10 of 14
path for transformative change in animal agriculture and a meaningful increase in farm
animal welfare standards.
Funding: This research received no external funding.
Institutional Review Board Statement: Not applicable.
Informed Consent Statement: Not applicable.
Data Availability Statement: Not applicable.
Acknowledgments: This paper was based on a research project generously funded by the Central
European University and the Animal Welfare Program of the University of British Columbia (UBC)
and its donors. I am especially grateful to Alexios Antypas (CEU) for his insightful supervision of
the PhD research project that this review is based on and to David Fraser (UBC) for his invaluable
comments on the manuscript, along with all his kind words of encouragement.
Conflicts of Interest: The author declares no conflict of interest.
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This book contains 9 chapters that discuss some of the latest developments in economic research that are relevant to animal welfare and related policy development, including the evolution of animal welfare as a branch of animal science; animal welfare from an economic theory perspective; consumer demand and related quantitative methods such as willingness to pay; economics of production; supply side; regulations; policy and trade and future progress. It will be of use to animal welfare and animal behaviour scientists, social scientists, agricultural economists, policy makers and policy analysts at both national and international levels.
We challenge the widespread appraisal that organic farming is the fundamental alternative to conventional farming for harnessing biodiversity in agricultural landscapes. Certification of organic production is largely restricted to banning synthetic agrochemicals, resulting in limited benefits for biodiversity but high yield losses despite ongoing intensification and specialisation. In contrast, successful agricultural measures to enhance biodiversity include diversifying cropland and reducing field size, which can multiply biodiversity while sustaining high yields in both conventional and organic systems. Achieving a landscape-level mosaic of natural habitat patches and fine-grained cropland diversification in both conventional and organic agriculture is key for promoting large-scale biodiversity. This needs to be urgently acknowledged by policy makers for an agricultural paradigm shift.
In Hungary, where intensive and non-intensive pig production co-exist, in-depth interviews were used to explore the views and priorities of pig producers regarding animal welfare and ethical animal production. Farmers using confinement systems and those with alternative, non-confinement systems shared certain core values such as attachment to animals and to traditional community values. Both groups agreed on most key elements of animal welfare (health, nutrition, etc) but had different priorities for how to achieve these within their production systems. Alternative producers considered unconfined, semi-natural environments important for animal welfare, and confinement producers with medium-sized operations (400–600 sows) generally agreed. Only the three largest producers (>1,000 sows) expressed strong confidence in confinement methods. Different producers emphasised different features for ensuring animal welfare. Producers with large-scale confinement systems depend strongly on staff and automation and require the means to find and retain good staff. Those with medium-scale confinement systems see automation and personal involvement with animals as crucial, and they need economic conditions that allow herd size to remain within their personal capacity. Those operating alternative systems see small herds and non-confinement systems as crucial for animal welfare and need markets that encourage such systems. Subsidies, regulatory systems and technological developments would need to be tailored to meet the different needs in order for producers to improve animal welfare in the different systems and according to their own values and priorities. Medium-scale confinement producers could better act on their values if economic conditions allowed them to use more natural systems.
Animal welfare conditions in conventional livestock farming systems have seen major reforms over the last decades, yet studies indicate that many problems are still apparent. Due to the “conflicting” interests of humanity and farm animals however, current problem-solving efforts aim to slowly transition conventional livestock farming to more welfare-friendly systems. But studies also suggest important inconsistencies in the societal evaluation of welfare and consumer behaviours, and farmers are often blamed for using production methods that many oppose. These problems initiated theoretical disputes over “what the right thing to do” for livestock should be. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the impacts of a fragmented livestock welfare reform effort. Using the Anderson (2011) model on how truly powerless groups such as children and animals gain societal protection, it has assessed important discrepancies between animal welfare reform principles and livestock farming practices. In particular, it aimed to identify the emerging features of a united “moral imperative” and “ultimate goal” for livestock welfare, and comprehend opportunities and threats that influence the livestock welfare reform effort. A Grounded Theory approach enabled the researcher to pursue a pluralist scientific perspective in which the socially constructed nature of “reality” was integrated with an understanding of the “lived realities” of animals. A qualitative research strategy provided data from in-depth semi-structured interviews with “experts”, “conventional farmers” and “alternative farmers” and observational data from conventional and alternative pig farms in Hungary. These data sets were comparatively assessed and captured many aspects of the livestock welfare problem which was “grounded” in empirical data. Results suggest that the majority of conventional and alternative farmers have a shared understanding of “ideal” livestock welfare conditions, which only alternative farmers are able to pursue. While “ideal” conditions are believed to provide good lives for animals, farmers thought that the “realistic” scenario was probable, in which only economically advantageous aspects of welfare are ensured. Farmers believe that conventional livestock farming is unable to transition to a system that ensures all aspects of welfare, not because farmers prioritise economic benefits over livestock welfare, but rather because they are constrained by major external pressures and conventional technologies. Data suggests that a successful livestock welfare reform will depend on extending current problem-solving approaches to incorporate “external” as well as “internal” aspects of agriculture that determine farming methods and livestock welfare conditions. Emerging features of the “moral imperative” and “ultimate goal” for farm animal welfare prioritize traditional “care principles” and aim to ensure good lives for animals in small-scale, low-intensity, near-natural farming systems. It did not call for non-interference rights for livestock, but rather enhanced and mutually beneficial human-human and human-animal interactions. The study suggests that this aim could only be achieved in situations where societal consensus and cooperation are ensured. To pursue a successful livestock welfare reform effort the contribution of conventional and alternative farmers is also essential.
Pig ( Sus scrofa ) production in Hungary provides a case study in how external pressures influence animal production, animal welfare and intensification. External pressures were explored in 24 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with Hungarian pig farmers operating either confinement or alternative systems. Confinement producers reported intense economic pressure because of a power imbalance with the large meat-processing companies that buy their animals. These companies, in the view of the farmers, can source internationally and largely dictate prices. When prices paid by the companies fall below the cost of production, farmers cannot respond by reducing production because of the long time-lags between breeding and marketing; and with their large investment in confinement buildings that are difficult to modify, farmers see little option except to reduce production costs further. Alternative farmers reported being more resilient to economic pressures because they sell into niche markets, use inexpensive technologies, and typically produce a diversity of agricultural products which buffer periods of low profit in any one commodity. The current regulatory system was seen as inadequate to protect animal welfare from economic pressure because it focuses on certain inputs rather than welfare outcomes, does not cover some important determinants of animal welfare, and does not accommodate certain realities of farming. Current subsidies were also seen as an inadequate remedy, and were viewed as inequitable because they are difficult for alternative producers to access. Consumer-choice options, while used by alternative producers, are not available in mainstream markets which demand uniform 'commodity' production. The economic constraints that influence animal welfare might be better mitigated by a regulatory system developed with greater consultation with producers, a more equitable subsidy programme, and more developed consumer-choice programmes.
This article examines the emergence of a new generation of innovative young farmers in Italy who are making a success of running farms (often very small) while contravening the basic tenets of the modernization script. We argue that the success of these farmers as entrepreneurs is due to their creativity, innovation, and ability to collaborate (often with agents from outside the agricultural sphere), together with their responsiveness to new societal demands and expectations regarding agriculture and food. These farmers, often with non-agrarian degrees, stand out in that they refuse to join the rural exodus, but instead want to make their mark on rural life by creating and developing land-based rural enterprises. Doing so requires tenacity, stubbornness and a belief in their own capacities and abilities. They form part of the vanguard of the ‘new peasantry’ because in many ways their business models conform to the strategies of peasants all over the world.