5th Dec 2023


Time is now for EU to boost animal welfare

  • Ending the suffering of billions of animals should be the main argument for the commission president to deliver on the pledge to revise EU rules on animal welfare (Photo: Compassion in World Farming)
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The EU still likes to pride itself as a leader in animal welfare. But the reality is that its existing legislation is very much out of date — with the latest update going back almost 20 years.

In fact, as a CEO at Eurogroup for Animals, I have witnessed two legislative terms and several European Commissioners promising improvements regarding animal welfare, with few results.

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While EU law remained untouched for two decades, scientific research has not ceased turning the spotlight on the inadequacy of the EU's standards.

The latest European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opinions show that animal welfare legislation is no longer fit for purpose, pointing out that only through a set of defined, harmonised indicators can the situation be improved.

At long last, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen showed strategic insight and committed to revising the entire acquis. With less than a year to finish the job, the naysayers are of course camping on the Berlaymont's doorstep.

An investigation by ANIMA International on a laying hens farm in Poland, the largest egg producer in the EU, recently revealed serious welfare issues and irregularities.

Nevertheless, ending the suffering of billions of animals should be the main argument for the commission president to deliver on her pledges.

Over the past decades, we have seen systematic evidence of the immense shortcomings of the current animal welfare legislation to protect animals. Beyond animal welfare, why should the EU uphold and improve EU rules designed to protect animals?

Here are three arguments:

1. Animal welfare is at the centre of European direct democracy

EU citizens have been repeatedly vocal on the need for better animal welfare standards, they have called for the transition to cage-free systems, for a ban on fur farming, and on the placement of farmed fur on the European market, and overall for improved legislation.

A pan-European Eurobarometer on animal welfare revealed an overwhelming concern amongst citizens, from Dublin to Sofia, on the need for the EU to act. A more recent poll, due to be published at any moment by the Commission, is expected to further highlight citizens' concerns.

In recent years, about six out of 10 successful European Citizen Initiatives (ECIs) related to animal welfare. This is a fact that politicians simply cannot ignore.

In the run-up to the EU elections, during this period of instability and doubt across Europe, the revision of the animal welfare legislation is an opportunity to reach out to citizens and take concrete positive actions on a subject close to their hearts.

If the revision of the EU rules on animal welfare is to be dropped, would that not feed a little more citizens' disenchantment with European democracy?

2. Animal welfare comes at a cost, but through inaction farmers and consumers pay the bill

The naysayers are quick to dance around the cost scarecrow. However, the real cost to citizens, consumers and farmers is inaction.

Our animal farming practices take a heavy toll on the environment and climate. As the environment suffers and disastrous climate events become the norm, citizens are increasingly paying the price.

Monetised, the external costs of animal products — such as waste, pollution, biohazards or human health risks — far outweigh their market value.

Animal-sourced food production and consumption in the EU create costs to society that are many times larger than their financial value.

A recent report by the Impact Institute tallies the costs of producing food from animals at €1,568bn, 7.6 times more than its economic value. Similarly, the external cost of consuming animal-sourced food is €1,4 bn, or approximately 7.8 times more than its economic value.

This is a whopping bill for EU citizens to pay.

For farmers, higher animal welfare may require investment, but it is an opportunity to generate better returns through increased yield and product quality, as well as better job satisfaction and worker safety across the supply chain.

For example, there has been a significant increase in the number of laying hens in five EU countries that are undergoing the most significant transition from classic cage to non-cage production.

Similarly, producers that have converted to higher welfare broilers have maintained the amount of meat produced with fewer animals due to lower mortality and morbidity and better carcass balance and quality.

Imposing EU new rules on imported products would ensure that EU consumption does not end up fuelling cruelty elsewhere in the world and that EU farmers benefit from fair competition.

This would be legally possible under international trade rules, and desirable, as it would mainly impact multinationals in developed or middle-income countries that can afford to up their game.

3. Higher animal welfare is a business opportunity, not a constraint

The proof is in the pudding: the latest BBFAW report, which is supported by 35 investors representing £2.5 trillion in managed assets, revealed that 89 percent of companies acknowledge farm animal welfare as a business issue compared to 71 percent of companies surveyed in 2012.

Coming forward with new proposals on animal welfare, now, will allow the EU's farmers to make informed decisions on their future investments, future-proof the agri-food sector for market trends and reduce risks for potential investors.

The naysayers have come forward with many reasons to postpone revising the legislation, as first reported by the Financial Times this week.

But none of the arguments they put forward are new and will still be used in the future.

The truth is that the time is now.

There is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the inefficiencies of the farming system in the EU while supporting its farmers by reducing the suffering of millions of animals and bridging the gap between the European Union and its citizens.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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