Animal welfare is not always covered in EU trade measures related to sustainability

While the EU is now pushing to include Sustainable Food System (SFS) chapters - which contain animal welfare provisions - in its trade agreements, the link between animal welfare and sustainability is still not mainstreamed throughout all EU trade measures.

With the publication of the Trade for All strategy, the EU put sustainability at the heart of its trade policy. Recent EU FTAs contain Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) chapters, based on which the EU cooperates with its trade partners on a wide range of issues, ranking from climate change to labour rights. Yet, these chapters do not contain any mention of animal welfare, or any provisions on sustainable agriculture. The von der Leyen’s Commission has mainstreamed the achievements of SDGs throughout all portfolios, including trade policy, and with the publication of the Green Deal’s Farm-to-Fork and Biodiversity 2030 strategies, there are increasing discussions on how to ensure that trade policy supports the completion of SDGs. 

The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which contains the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), states “We envisage a world […] in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living creatures are protected.” 

Protecting animal welfare is thus essential to sustainable development in its own right. It is also complementary to a number of other aspects of sustainable development. Among the SDGs, several are either directly connected to animals or cannot be achieved without addressing animal welfare-related issues. An obvious exemplification of these interconnections is the spread of intensive farming. Highly industrialised animal production systems have had devastating effects on both the welfare of the animals exploited and on the environment, as they lead to water and ground pollution, deforestation, and thus to a sharp increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Production systems with the potential to provide higher animal welfare conditions are also more likely to have a lesser impact on the environment, the climate and livelihoods. 

Ensuring that animal welfare is considered when discussing SDGs or sustainability in general in the context of trade policy is important as, in view of the growing challenges the world is facing - such as the climate crisis, the spread of zoonoses and antimicrobial resistance - it is of utmost importance to avoid animal welfare is traded off in the pursuit of compromised solutions. 

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The first academic study on this topic, published in October 2019, scored the interactions between SDGs and Animal Welfare, in both directions. The scoring was made by a group of stakeholders, which provides us with an overview of how the public conceives the link between animal welfare and SDGs.

The conclusion of this exercise was that, even if animal welfare is not explicitly mentioned in the SDGs, it is positively linked with all of them, to various degrees. Higher welfare does not impede any SDG. To the contrary, while, for some of them, the mutually beneficial effect is strong (SDG 12 “Sustainable Consumption and Production” and 14 “Life Below Water”), in some cases, higher welfare would have a direct positive impact on the SDGs (SDG 1 “End Poverty”, SDG 2 “ Zero Hunger”, SDG 3 “Good Health and Wellbeing”). 


In Europe, DG Agri has recognised since 2012 that animal welfare is part of sustainable agriculture. Recently, DG Trade also conceded this by adding a provision recognising the link between improved animal welfare and sustainable food systems in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and a chapter on SFS including animal welfare in the revised EU-Chile agreement. Yet, this is not systematic. For instance, the recently concluded FTA with New Zealand does not mention this link.

The EU is also working on measures that will affect the global value chains, for instance on extra-financial reporting and due diligence. While animal welfare was added to the scope of the revised directive on extra-financial reporting, it is still missing from the proposals on due diligence.