Hunting, scientific experimentation, entertainment, the keeping of pets, farming, fishing, habitat destruction: there is no one story about the way that humans use animals – and cause them to suffer. So far, the UN reported this week, our collective efforts to protect wildlife globally have not succeeded. All 20 of the Aichi biodiversity targets agreed in Japan a decade ago have been missed.
But a gloomy big picture must not blind us to smaller, positive changes. In January, wild animals in circuses became illegal in Britain. Last month, the use of glue traps to catch birds was stopped by President Macron in France. Historically, the UK has played an important part in the development of laws protecting animals. Along with Sweden, it led the way on welfare rules in Europe with an influential report, setting out “five freedoms” to which farm animals should be entitled, published in 1965. The freedoms were the space to turn around, lie down, stand up, stretch, and groom. Having been made law in the UK in 1990, a ban on rearing veal calves in crates became EU-wide in 2006. It was followed by a ban on crates for pregnant sows.
Yet this record, of which many British people are rightly proud, is now in danger. Despite committing in their 2019 manifesto to uphold the UK’s environmental, animal and food standards, Conservative ministers are now refusing to rule out allowing imports from countries, including the US, that have no federal animal welfare standards at all. Instead of a ban on meat or dairy produced under conditions that would be illegal here, the government proposes a dual-tariff system, under which goods that don’t meet domestic standards would be charged more on entry.
So far, chlorine-washed chicken has been the main bone of contention in the debate over the place of US agribusiness in the post-Brexit food system. The safety concerns surrounding the use of chlorine, as well as the antibiotics and hormones routinely fed to US farm animals to promote growth, and GM ingredients, are all serious issues. Dilution of hard-won protections against food poisoning and other health effects, and an increased risk of environmental damage, is not what the majority of Brexit supporters thought (or were told) that they were voting for when they chose to leave the EU.
But animal welfare is also an important factor. So is the regulatory framework governing the treatment of workers. While it must not be assumed that the giant animal factories in which US meat production is concentrated necessarily have lower hygiene and other standards than smaller or European farms, many experts believe that huge numbers of animals kept in close proximity represent a health hazard to humans, as well as causing suffering to both animals and workers.
There is no call for starry eyes. Current standards leave much to be desired. An EU inquiry into the flouting of livestock transport laws was announced in June. The shocking extent of poverty in the UK, after 10 years of austerity and in the middle of a pandemic, means that food price rises are a serious worry. But while this might make the prospect of cheaper food tempting, deregulation is not the answer. Instead, we must keep fighting for a food system that balances human needs and tastes with values.