The 3Rs & food: If people changed their diets, would animal welfare benefit?

19 09 2014

At the ABW meeting yesterday, we read and discussed the recent Nature Climate Change paper on animal-based farming and the environment. I wanted to know if what the authors were advocating (eating less food, and shifting from beef to chicken) would be as good for welfare as it would be for the environment.

After much debate as to the relevant welfare merits of beef and meat chicken production (since it varies greatly between farms), beef farming won: beef cattle experience less chronic pain than broilers, more animals eat natural diets and have natural social groups, weaning age is natural, and the parent stock isn’t permanently hungry. Beef also wins in terms of number of individuals involved – if you eat beef every day rather than chicken, you are morally responsible for far fewer animals’ lives over the course of a year. So in one way, what the authors are advocating is really quite bad for animal welfare.

But what if we all ate and wasted less food, and ate fewer animal products regardless of type? Everyone agreed that this would improve welfare for the simple reason that fewer animals would be farmed (like the ‘reduction’ principle in the ‘3Rs’ so often applied to lab animals).

The paper was a bit frustrating in that it didn’t consider non-meat animal products (e.g. milk and eggs) – surely as environmentally impactful as meat? And it ignored all aquaculture, and didn’t even mention eating insects: it was just way less comprehensive about food than we would have liked.

But it did make me think about applying the 3Rs to eating. What if we did this, for example at CSAW events?

Replacement: make non-animal-based foods the default; ask people to actively say if they want to eat meat/dairy/eggs.

Refinement: make those as welfare-friendly as possible as the default (so ask people if they want products from conventional intensive systems – they can have them, but they have to actively opt for them);

Reduction: for any meat products requested, serve beef (sorry environment!) not chicken, as that involves fewer lives (less than one animal per event, as opposed to several).

I’m still trying to work out where eating invertebrates would fit into this scheme  (it’d be a no brainer – pun intended – if we knew for sure they weren’t sentient).