The time is always right to do what is right: why the cage-free transition cannot happen soon enough
Featherless, panicking laying hens shoved into crates and sent to slaughter; lame mother sows, a spray mark on their backs to indicate that their time is up; and then millions of rabbits, ducks, geese, quails confined for part or all of their short lives in wire cages, in dimly lit warehouse-like barns, inhaling dust and ammonia from their own waste.
I think that by now we are all familiar with the images, the investigations, the scandals, and the misery they inexorably document. What was once considered normal, and even necessary to produce cheap animal products, has become so controversial that European citizens have asked the European Commission to stop it.
End the Cage Age, led by our member Compassion in World Farming, collected the third highest number of signatures in the history of European Citizens’ Initiatives. The request to stop caged farming was not whispered, it was shouted loud and clear.
The message did not fall on deaf ears: with a historical decision, the European Commission, in its official response to the ECI, committed to put forward a legislative proposal by the end of 2023 to phase out cages from animal farming. The proposal was included within the scope of the ongoing revision of the animal welfare legislation, a necessary step to create a level-playing field for farmers throughout and beyond Europe. The transition will require substantial public financial support to enable farmers to invest in cage-free, higher welfare systems: let us not forget that almost half of the EU egg production still derives from caged hens. As for other animals, such as sows, quails and rabbits, over 90% of the production relies on the use of cages.
Change is scary, especially for an industry that is used to getting its own way, holding political institutions hostage with the rhetoric of ensuring food security and bringing home hefty profits from exports. But we know all too well that this is only one side of the story, specifically the one that omits the externalised costs of cheap animal products, including the looming public health threats posed by global pandemics and antimicrobial resistance. The animal farming industry’s lobbying machine is currently focused on dismantling many of the most ambitious objectives of the EU Farm to Fork strategy under the assumption that not only improving animal welfare, but also investing in sustainable food systems, will spell disaster for consumers, farmers, and the EU economic outlook at large.
This is also one of the reasons why, according to some, the cage-free transition should be postponed as much as possible. However, while the time will probably never be right for the industry, for European citizens the time is now. I am saying this as a rebuttal to some parties who are throwing spanners in the wheels of a speedy transition: true, the current economic outlook is not rosy, but farmers can and should be vocal in demanding that, starting from now, Member States allocate as many resources as possible under CAP and national payment schemes to anticipate the legislative change ahead. Stockmanship, human-animal relationships, breeding objectives, feeding strategies, animal health programs, will all need to adapt to the new species-specific cage-free environments; many of these aspects are already eligible for financial support under various EU and/or national payment schemes.
If sufficient financial support is provided, there is agreement among industry stakeholders that most sectors can switch to cage-free farming within 3-5 years. As shown by our recent report investigating industry stakeholders’ views on the practical and economic aspects of the cage-free transition, a staggered approach with different deadlines per sector is possibly the best way forward as it would allow for a gradual adaptation to cage-free farming.
The industry recognises that the impetus is there, and the answers to the most pressing questions - as well as technical solutions - can be found by studying the business models of many European producers who voluntarily and successfully switched to higher welfare, cage-free systems. We do not need to reinvent the wheel: our report illustrates in detail many examples of good and best practices that can be adopted to make the cage-free transition as smooth as possible, while also leaving room for continuous improvement.
For me, these are all reasons to accelerate, rather than delay, the cage-free revolution. Granting a reasonably swift transition period in the legislation can actually even mitigate the risk of creating disparity amongst Member States.
For instance, according to the latest 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 prices and created a situation of unfair competition amongst Member States.
For all these reasons, I hope that the phase-out period to shift to cage-free farming will be as short as reasonably possible and that it will be used wisely, making the most of all the forms of financial support currently available. The animal protection movement will play its part, of course, communicating to citizens and policymakers about the importance of supporting this transition in any way possible.
In my view, however, it will be equally important to promote a shift in mentality, from treating animals as commodities to seeing them for what they are, sentient beings worthy of good lives, however short we decide that these lives should be.