Does organic agriculture guarantee more “well-being” for livestock?

On 30 June 2021, the European Commission responded positively to the 1.4 million citizens who signed the European Citizens’ Initiative (ICE) “End the Cage Age”, announcing that it would propose by 2023 a legislative proposal aimed at banning detention. of animals in cages. This news is a considerable advance for these animals whose freedom of movement and social contacts are limited.

At the European Union (EU) level, where States must take into account the welfare of animals as sentient beings, several texts already establish rules for the protection of farm animals.

We speak of “well-being” when an animal is in good health (physical and mental) and has the possibility to express natural behaviors that correspond to its needs and expectations.

But these texts are still insufficient and do not guarantee animal welfare. For example, breeders are not required to provide access to the outdoors for their animals (which, however, does not prevent them from doing so if they wish to do so).

For organic farming, specific rules are added to the minimum protection rules – here again, organic breeders can go further and proactively adopt virtuous practices for their animals. “Contributing to high standards of animal welfare” is one of the goals of organic farming, with the guarantee of better animal welfare being one of the motivations for the consumption of organic products.

However, do the regulations applicable to organic production guarantee an optimal level of animal welfare?

Goat farming © PxHere

In many ways this promotes, even if not optimal, better animal welfare compared to the law applicable to conventional farms.

A more natural environment

Access to the great outdoors represents, without a doubt, one of the most significant advances in organic agriculture for better animal welfare. On many farms, animals no longer have access to the outside and spend their lives in buildings, preventing them from expressing certain natural behaviors, such as grazing for dairy cows. However, the latter express a very clear preference, as well as a very strong motivation to have access to pasture.

Unlike conventional farms, where nothing is imposed in this regard, organic farms must provide outdoor access for their animals as soon as conditions allow. This outdoor space must also meet certain conditions that vary by species – access to a body of water for waterfowl, access to a shelter or shaded place for land animals.

Isolation, tying and creation of prohibited cages

Organic sheep © RawPixel CC0 1.0

While cage-rearing remains permitted in conventional agriculture, it is prohibited on European organic farms. This is a significant advance for many animals, especially birds. In France, although the number of laying hens in cages has dropped sharply in recent years, a third of them are still raised in cages.

So-called “tethering” systems are common in some EU states, mainly Sweden and Germany. This practice, which considerably restricts the freedom of movement of animals, is prohibited in organic farming.

However, exceptions are foreseen, but they remain limited: on some farms (especially in mountainous areas), tethering of animals is still possible if the animals have regular access to the outside.

Another exception concerns the freedom of movement of sows. On conventional farms, sows are usually kept in cages in which they can only stand and lie down for long periods (between eight and ten weeks per reproductive cycle).

On conventional farms, sows are usually kept in cages for the first four weeks of gestation, as in this photo, the week before farrowing, as well as the nursing period © We Animals Media (via The Conversation)

In organic farming, sows can only be contained for a short period (eight days before farrowing on French farms). This is a considerable improvement, although it is unfortunate that the use of these cages is not simply prohibited.

The isolation of animals is another practice prohibited in principle in organic agriculture, but which may be authorized in some cases for a limited period.

Social isolation can seriously compromise the development of young animals such as calves, which are usually housed individually after birth. In organics, they can only be alone for a week while this isolation can last up to eight weeks in conventional farms. The difference is significant, as social contacts are important for these animals.

In a recent study, researchers showed that individually housed calves were motivated to join their peers (their motivation was measured by comparing the maximum weight and frequency with which the calves pushed through a heavy door to access a pen with another calf in a empty square).

Towards the elimination of physical mutilation?

Organic regulations are also intended to limit physical mutilation.

In addition to castration, authorized “to guarantee the quality of the products and maintain traditional practices”, only mutilations such as amputation of the tail of sheep, the clipping of the beak of poultry or the dehorning of calves are authorized “exceptionally”. “on a case-by-case basis and only when these practices improve the health, welfare or hygiene of animals or when the safety of workers is compromised”.

However, some of these mutilations remain frequent in practice. This is particularly the case with dehorning, as cows that have kept their horns are considered more dangerous to breeders.

In order to minimize the suffering of the animals during these mutilations, it is mandatory in organic farming to anesthetize the animal and/or give it painkillers, which is a step in the right direction, as such mutilations are still carried out far too often . without any pain relief.

The legislator could have gone further in imposing the administration of anesthetic and analgesic, as recommended by the studies, mainly for dehorning. Above all, he could have given more control over the use of these practices, or even banned them.

Hornless Cow © Dave Young / Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0

most frequent checks

The specific rules provided for organic farming contain significant advances to improve the lives of farm animals. Their respect for breeders is also regularly checked, which is not the case with conventional farms, which are rarely inspected.

France, like most European Union states, has entrusted control of organic farms to independent private bodies. French organic farms must, in fact, be inspected at least once a year by one of the certification bodies approved by the National Institute of Origin and Quality (a public institution linked to the Ministry of Agriculture) and the French Accreditation Committee. This annual inspection can be supplemented by spot checks.

End of life: lack of ambition!

While there are many rules regarding the conditions under which animals are raised in organic farming, those regarding their end of life – that is, when they leave the farm to be transported and then slaughtered – are much more limited. Faced with transport and slaughter, animals – with few exceptions – face the same difficulties, whether they come from organic farms or not.

One difference – notable – concerns the stun. For an animal product to bear the organic logo, the animal must have been stunned before being slaughtered. It was the Court of Justice of the EU, under the impulse of the OABA association, which provided this clarification at the beginning of 2019.

This evolution is in the direction of better protection of the animal at the time of slaughter, insofar as the stunning aims to cause a loss of consciousness and sensitivity before slaughter.

It is unfortunate that nothing (or almost) was provided for transport. The regulations governing the transport of animals – which therefore also apply to animals from organic farms – are insufficient and are subject to strong criticism, including by institutions.

If, in principle, the animals cannot be transported for more than eight hours, this period may be extended. In reality, only the transport times are foreseen before a break or unloading, but the texts do not define a maximum transport time for the entire trip. So a pig might, for example, spend twenty-four hours in a truck before going out, not permanently, but for a twenty-four-hour “rest” period, before going out again (and so on).

Because transport – a fortiori long-term transport – puts the welfare of animals to the test, we cannot help but regret the inadequacy of the rules in this field, in particular the organic regulations which, however, show their desire to limit to the as much animal suffering as possible.

As we can see, if the regulations applicable to organic farms are not optimal, they nevertheless guarantee “animal welfare” that could serve as an example to improve the condition of all farm animals.

This analysis was written by Eugénie Duval, Doctor of Public Law, Research Associate at the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia (Canada), Associate Member at the Center for Research on Fundamental Rights and Legal Developments at the University of Caen Normandy and Benjamin Lecorps, PhD in applied animal biology and postdoctoral fellow in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia (Canada).
The original article was published on the website of The conversation.

– © The Conversation

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