Fear mongering will not stop the transition to a better world for farmed animals
The impact study on transitioning to cage-free farming presented by Copa-Cogeca, the largest industry body representing the biggest farming entities, is a far stretch from EFSA’s scientific conclusions. The assumptions by the lobby organisation uses fear mongering to paint a picture that is far from the truth.
In this assessment, Copa-Cogeca starts from the premise that EU producers would need to adhere to standards mostly higher than those applied in third countries. This would turn the EU, currently a net exporter of animal products, into a net importer of such products. Moreover, it ends on the unsubstantiated assumption that the European Commission could be considering a “shock scenario” in their revised animal welfare legislation. This vision does not match the numerous commitments made by the European Commission to consider introducing import requirements in the new legislation.
Copa-Cogeca put forward calculations of welfare consequences which are strikingly different from those presented by EFSA in their scientific opinion on pig welfare, claiming a rise in piglet mortality and sow injuries, increased aggressive behaviour in sows and increase of culling.
Numerous scientific sources included in the EFSA opinion point to the opposite conclusions: that cage-free systems and free farrowing do not increase piglet mortality and generally improve the welfare of the animals.
Sows are calmer when they are free to move around and the satisfaction of staff is improved when they interact with animals with lower levels of stress. With the correct management, free-farrowing systems can be beneficial to both animals and staff, contrary to claims by the industry. The lobbying industry continued to ignore scientific basis, claiming that rabbits are impossible to farm commercially without cages, ignoring the fact that numerous farmers have been doing this for years. The basis of the revised animal welfare legislation, which is also looking into the ban of cages for rabbits, is based on scientific evidence and industry experience.
The economic analysis also contradicts the findings of existing studies on the matter. While Copa-Cogeca claims that cage-free systems are less profitable, existing studies establish that the most profitable system to the farmer is indeed free-range. The Best Hens Practice project has also demonstrated to farmers that there will be no difference in income when they transition from cages. Furthermore, the number of eggs produced in all EU Member States is growing despite the increase of cage-free systems being adopted.
Conveniently, the massive animal welfare consequences resulting from the current farming practices in caged systems were completely left out of the presentation. Scientists around the globe concur that cages are detrimental to animal welfare, and EFSA scientific opinions are very clear about the need to phase out cages for all farmed species. Consumer preferences were also absent from the presentation, despite the fact that millions of European citizens support the transition to cage-free farming and have high expectations when it comes to protection of animal welfare in the EU.
Despite the numerous claims of the report that contradict reputable welfare and economic studies, we agree with one of the conclusions: financial support from the EU is crucial for farmers to transition sustainably and keep farmers in the profession. We are pleased to see that this call is being echoed among all stakeholders in this debate, together with the ask to apply the same animal welfare standards to domestically produced products and imported goods.
The transition to cage-free will ensure a level-playing field across Europe, safeguarding the livelihoods of farmers. With that in mind, the shift should be swift to avoid creating more disparity among Member States and incurring any negative impacts, such as those that the industry encountered when the ban on barren cages came into force in 2012. As indicated in the report on the fitness check of the current animal welfare legislation, the long transition period to enriched cages led some producers to wait until the last possible moment before changing their infrastructure, which unnecessarily increased egg prices and created a situation of unfair competition among Member States. Such a situation can be avoided by setting short but realistic transition periods.
In the European survey of farmers' experiences, early adopters of this transition encouraged others to do the same, and to look at how different animal farming can be, when based on best practices and backed up by science. As one of the farmers interviewed for our report said: “To sum up, it is worth it. I think we all agree on that”.