Fair prices that respect life

Fair prices that respect life

A short personal retrospective from an activist

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My experience began with the development of “Thierry Schweitzer pork”, inspired by Swiss animal welfare models. At the beginning of the process (and of the millennium), I even organised events in supermarkets to promote these products. Not every campaigner can boast of having come face to face with the issue of sales. This just goes to show the involvement of civil society. In fact, it was the associations that raised the profile of this fledgling brand, which could have become France’s first structured ‘animal welfare’ label, had its advertising not become commonplace.all donloa

I was hoping that a few well-intentioned individuals in the supermarket sector would be able to promote greater animal welfare, but this was not confirmed. There are a few interesting products improving the “image”, but for the bulk of the volumes the commercial method discourages ambition and prevents the emergence of agriculture with a human face. In the meantime, however, the “animal welfare label” (étiquette bien-être animal) (English available), a private partnership for credible evaluation and labelling, has come into being and is showing the way. The Planet Score is also moving in the right direction.

At the Animal and Society Meetings organised by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2008, I was able to contribute a brochure on behalf of France Nature Environnement entitled “Raising animals: a culture of respect”. My recollections of those meetings are as follows: a DGAL that was very tense because of the fear of animal welfare claims (something that was totally foreign to them); a plethora of reports that served no purpose; the ‘consensus’ rule that validated all the vetoes from the farming and hunting worlds. The only positive outcome was that INRA was commissioned to write a report on pain in farm animals, with a view to possible future progress, which will take more than 10 years to emerge very slowly.

I’ve always been attentive to the economic question. As farmers say: “You can do anything if there’s a price to pay for it”. In 2012, Alsace Nature and I published a leaflet entitled “Des prix justes pour le respect du vivant” (fair prices for the respect of the living), which was circulated for a long time. The idea didn’t catch on, to say the least.

For the Alsace Region, I had written in 2012 “Local Initiatives to Promote the Protection of Nature and the Welfare of Animals: Respect en Plus”. This approach led to four small booklets:

Respect en plus: Animal welfare Respect en plus: Milk Respect en Plus: Pigs Respect Plus: Laying hens

This PLUS = MORE of respect is always presented as being threefold: fairness and MORE added value for the producer, MORE animal welfare and MORE biodiversity. In short, all of this would be perfectly feasible…. provided that we share a sensitivity and a political will to set up particularly virtuous sectors in a concerted and coherent manner. Which, as you can imagine, is far from being the case. There has been no support for such attempts, except to a certain extent for organic farming. The CAP funds the agriculture of big tractors and other agro-suppliers, and the Water Agencies have the right to fund meadows, which amounts to making them do social work so that cattle farms don’t totally collapse because we can’t let that happen (thanks to the environment). For the moment, there is no cross-cutting, decompartmentalised construction of virtuous and coherent sectors, encompassing all categories of animals and going beyond restricted zoning; however, developments could move in this direction. The Rhine-Meuse Water Agency has commissioned a study into the production of organic grass-fed steer in the Ardennes.

In fact, the major political objectives have always been competitiveness and performance (even if this is environmental), and the objectives of farm advisory services are to reduce production costs and improve animal health issues. My experience of the past is that the demand for animal welfare has always been met with a vigorous (and virile) NO, except for the claim that farmers are concerned about animal welfare for productivity reasons anyway. “There will be no ethology in the Chambers of Agriculture”. Why so much refusal? My search for understanding resulted in “L’empathie racontée au monde de l’élevage” (empathy told to the world of livestock).

But times are changing, public opinion is stirring, Europe is funding research into animal welfare, Germany is moving on the issue, and observation of the animals is being promoted. All sectors are introducing animal welfare assessment software. This software enables progress to be made. However, they are calibrated in such a way that conventional, industrial livestock farming can obtain scores that are not excellent but sufficient, even if it means correcting a few major faults (morbidity and lesions) while remaining within the same system. When, to be honest and to speak the truth, these systems are by their very nature incompatible with animal welfare. Even INRAE researchers have written this*.

The desire to obtain ‘fair prices’ for a production model that does not respect living creatures is contradictory in essence; cynicism breeds cynicism. One day, ethics will have to be taken seriously. Fair prices that respect the living world are the dream of a better world.

But farmers demand better prices first, and after that, with fewer economic worries, they might consider changing their practices. That’s understandable; they have to bear the risks. However, it is better to link the two from the start, in order to be sure of the result (and to be insured). This is called ‘paying for a service’, and animal welfare is one of them.

Why is it so complicated? Because society is rotten with profiteers, with the temptation to increase volumes (it would be up to Europe to develop export markets… and to pay in the event of overproduction and crisis! ), the appeal of “as bad as permitted”, the exploitation of all the holes in the racket, regulations and specifications riddled with derogations, non-compliance, distortion of competition everywhere, cheating and deception, unfair and unsustainable commercial practices, attempts to control all this, disappointment and discouragement, not to mention climate and sanitary hazards… As for Europe, it is the Member States that make the final decisions, not the European Commission; common rules are always negotiated allowing for flexibility, and France has distinguished itself by its braking of environmental, social and animal protection progress. But doing nothing is still the worst solution.

A final word. I’ve been very involved in opposing factory farms. But the conflicts surrounding new farms are not necessarily black and white. I mean, the farmer is not necessarily the bad guy and the neighbour the good guy. It can be the other way round. I still have one vivid memory: I attended a public meeting organised against a project to raise free-range laying hens in a maize field. I was the only one to defend the project, along with the representative of the Chamber of Agriculture, in a very angry hall, amidst boos (which seemed nasty to me) towards a family of conscientious and sympathetic farmers. My experience is that the more modest and qualitative a project is for the animals and the environment, the more fragile it is in the face of ill-informed opposition (out of legitimate but sometimes disproportionate concern). The really big mass production projects have powerful support…

*Improving the welfare of farm animals: is it always possible? by Christine Leterrier, Geneviève Aubin-Houzelstein, Alain Boissy, Véronique Deiss, Valérie Fillon, Frédéric Lévy, Elodie Merlot (INRAE) et Odile Petit (CNRS), Sesame, 28 juin 2022