Will animal welfare and trade policy makers ever see eye to eye?

By Professor Lisa Collins, University of Leeds, Professor Tony Heron, University of York and Professor Fiona Smith, University of Leeds

This month saw the publication of the Government’s Action Plan For Animal Welfare. With an entire section devoted to international trade and advocacy, the Action Plan adds further pressure on the Department for International Trade to ensure animal animal welfare standards are not forgotten in the ongoing negotiations, not least in the current talks with Australia.

Recognising in law that animals are sentient beings is a landmark step for animal welfare in the UK. Whilst the Animal Welfare Act 2006 recognised that animals feel pain and can suffer, the new Action Plan for Welfare goes beyond this, recognising through a series of bills that animals are sentient — that have the capacity to feel and experience positive and negative emotional states, such as joy, pleasure, pain and fear, and sets out plans for an expert committee to hold ministers accountable for animal welfare in policy.  The Action Plan sets out a wide-ranging suite of reforms that will touch the lives of farm animals, wildlife and pets both on and off the UK’s shores, and bringing animal health and welfare fully into discussions and actions for the 25-year Environment Plan.

The Action Plan, produced by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), claims the Government’s work on animal welfare extends beyond its own borders; it wants to solidify and enhance its position as a global leader in this field by promoting high animal welfare standards across the world. It states “we will build upon the opportunities presented by our departure from the EU to build an independent trading policy, in which animal welfare will play an integral part and which will complement our strong domestic standards. Our manifesto was clear that in all of our trade deals, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”.

Interestingly the extent of the integrity of animal welfare in trade policy is about to become evident as the publication of the Action Plan for Animal Welfare coincides with the UK positioning itself to strike a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Australia, which if secured, as is looking very likely, would arguably constitute the UK’s most significant foreign policy achievement since it left the EU. Yet, we know the deal won’t be to everyone’s liking.  As reported by Peter Foster and George Parker of the Financial Times, the terms of the deal have been the subject of a ferocious battle in cabinet between Environment Secretary George Eustice and Trade Secretary Liz Truss over the subject of agricultural tariffs

What’s at stake?

As a net agricultural goods exporter, Australia sees the UK as a significant market opportunity, especially for its beef, lamb, dairy and sugar exports. At the moment, its access to the UK is controlled by tariffs and so-called tariff-rate quotas (TRQs), whereby only limited quantities of certain goods that meet UK food safety, quality and animal welfare standards can be imported tariff free. Australia, however, is pushing to have these tariffs and TRQs abolished. It is also calling for the elimination ‘where possible’ of non-tariff barriers on agricultural trade that it regards as unnecessarily trade restricting. In public, Australia is not being drawn on which of these non-tariff barriers it is targeting, although its opposition to the UK’s hormone beef import ban is well known. 

At the same time, the prospect of direct competition with Australian beef and lamb is probably the last thing the British farming sector needs at the moment. Although the overall economic effects of a free-trade deal with Australia will be modest, it could have disproportionate impacts in Wales and Scotland where upland farmers are already reeling from the trade disruption caused by Brexit and the phasing out of EU subsidies, not to mention Covid. 

Support for Farmers to improve welfare

While farmers look on to see the outcome of trade negotiations and prepare for the resulting ramifications, they may also be required to alter practices in line with Defra’s Animal Welfare Action Plan, which sets out  clear intentions to give more powers to police to tackle livestock worrying, and from 2022, to provide a source of financial support for farmers to improve health and welfare standards through the new Animal Health and Welfare Pathway. This will include support for biosecurity improvements and diagnostic testing to reduce the risk of disease spread and to encourage early diagnosis to ultimately reduce the impacts of infectious disease. The Pathway will also support the implementation of change in production systems for public-supported welfare enhancements. This will be linked to more transparent food labelling, allowing consumers more easily to support the production systems that they value. To be most effective, this needs to be supported with investment in research that demonstrates the welfare potential of different systems, and balances this against the key issues of sustainability, production sufficiency and farmer livelihoods. Turner-esque aesthetics are appealing on packaging, but we need to ensure the reality matches up to the painted idyll.

The Action Plan states that most live exports of animals for fattening and slaughter will be banned and there will be further consideration on transport conditions for animals more broadly. Alongside this, further reforms to welfare at slaughter will be considered. Whilst many animal welfare advocates were hopeful that the Plan would ban the use of cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for pigs, instead it laid out intentions to examine these two housing systems as part of wider reforms. Farrowing crates represent a welfare compromise for the sow, severely restricting her movements for up to five weeks until the piglets have weaned. However, they are typically associated with higher piglet survival than fully open farrowing systems where piglets are at risk of being inadvertently crushed or suffocated by their mother moving around. Alternatives, such as the PigSAFE and other freedom farrowing systems4, allow low piglet mortality whilst permitting the sow freedom of movement and the capacity to better mother her offspring. N8 facilities such as the National Pig Centre at the University of Leeds and the C-DIAL at the University of Newcastle offer opportunities to demonstrate the welfare benefits of such alternative systems.

Whilst improvements through the Plan may reduce the individual risks and associated severity of individual welfare ‘hazards’ on the animals experiencing them, there is a significant gap on the impact of cumulative experience and how best to protect animals from a lifetime of more minor negatives. Whilst there are major issues to contend with, the minor issues tend to be overlooked. The cumulative impacts of repeated, or many different smaller issues is one that needs more investigation and scientists and policy-makers should work together to determine best practice here, for all farmed species. 

Not one commission but two

Alongside pressure to meet promises in the Animal Welfare Action Plan, the UK’s deal with Australia comes hot on the heels of not one but two other separate reviews commissioned by the Government, both of which have produced recommendations for upholding UK food standards. The National Food Strategy (NFS) recommends a mandatory ‘verification’ system for FTA partners’ goods to enter the UK market tariff and quota free. Under this, food imports from the country concerned would need to show that they met a set of ‘core standards’, including but not limited to standards on food safety, animal welfare and the prevention of severe environmental impacts. 

The Trade and Agricultural Commission (TAC), meanwhile, recommends that the Government ‘should work with trading partners within future FTA negotiations to lower tariffs and quotas to zero’, but only where the partner country can demonstrate ‘outcome equivalence’ regarding a ‘core set of standards’ in the areas of climate change, environmental, ethical and animal welfare standards. The TAC report recommends that imports failing to meet an equivalence test should be treated as instances of an ‘unfair’ trade practice and subject to ‘countervailing duties’ (import tariffs beyond those normally applied to imports).

The policy proposals offered by these two commissions are genuinely innovative and worthy of further study. If implemented, they could serve to disentangle the use of tariff and non-tariff measures for the purpose of upholding high standards from their use as economic protectionism. However, they also share three common problems.  The first is that it is far from clear that using tariffs and non-tariff barriers in the ways proposed would be legal under WTO rules, where the issue of trade discrimination on the basis of different production methods is still a highly controversial one

The second is that it is unclear what incentives trade partners like Australia would have for signing up to such a system, since the logical response would surely be that their own farming systems may be different, but they are hardly unfair.

Third, and most importantly, it is ultimately up to the Government to decide which, if any, of these recommendations it wishes to take up and enshrine in its FTAs. This, after all, remains the central political problem raised by the Australian deal – how to satisfy the competing interests of different stakeholders and who to blame when things go wrong.

With the Australia deal imminent, we get to see for the first time how, in practical terms, the Government reconciles the tension between its simultaneous commitment to upholding UK food and animal welfare standards while liberalising trade through bilateral free-trade agreements.

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