How does animal welfare fit into the sustainability framework?

By Maria Brito

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The responsibility to protect the wellbeing of animals falls in three main actors. The public, by demanding less for products that either come directly from animals or that involve their exploitation for the production of goods. Corporations, having a role in the promotion of animal welfare through supply chain management, product labelling, and corporate social responsibility initiatives. And the government, who still holds the biggest share of the responsibility by instituting policies and regulations to improve the welfare of both domesticated and wild animals.

Sustainability is a multifaceted concept that addresses the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and economic considerations in pursuit of long-term well-being. However, the role of animal welfare is often overlooked despite its critical impact on all three pillars, despite its profound implications across all dimensions of sustainability.

Sustainable agriculture

The first definition of sustainable agriculture is attributed to Gips (1984), where the author describes it as ‘‘ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just, and humane’’. However, subsequent definitions opted for the exclusion of the “humane” aspect of agriculture. This intended omission has shaped the way society perceives sustainable agriculture, thus disassociating it with animal welfare.

Environmental impacts

Large scale agricultural systems are recognised for lowering their animal welfare standards and not adhering to regulations to promote the wellbeing of animals being reared. Similarly, industrial agriculture is a significant contributor to environmental degradation, including deforestation, water and air pollution, biodiversity loss and habitat destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil degradation. Improving animal welfare practices can mitigate some of these environmental impacts by promoting more efficient resource use, reducing pollution, and preserving natural habitats. Biodiversity and Habitat Conservation Protecting the welfare of animals in natural ecosystems contributes to the preservation of biodiversity by maintaining ecological balance and ecosystem services. Additionally, sustainable land management practices that prioritise animal welfare, such as rotational grazing and habitat restoration, can help preserve natural habitats and mitigate the loss of biodiversity caused by agricultural expansion and intensification.

Biodiversity and Habitat Conservation

Protecting the welfare of animals in natural ecosystems contributes to the preservation of biodiversity by maintaining ecological balance and ecosystem services. Additionally, sustainable land management practices that prioritise animal welfare, such as rotational grazing and habitat restoration, can help preserve natural habitats and mitigate the loss of biodiversity caused by agricultural expansion and intensification.

Resource efficiency

Sustainable livestock production involves optimising resource use to minimise environmental impact while meeting human needs. Animal welfare plays a crucial role in resource efficiency by ensuring that animals are raised in environments conducive to their health and well-being. Practices such as providing adequate space, access to clean water, and appropriate nutrition not only improve animal welfare but also contribute to more sustainable production systems by reducing resource waste and improving productivity.

Economic viability

One other aspect to consider when we delve into the components that render a system sustainable or not is its acceptability by its users/ beneficiaries. The accessibility and rapidly spreading of information on how animals are treated by humans or cases where poor conditions have led to spreading of diseases in humans has received negative feedback from the public and is becoming increasingly morally unacceptable. Public concern about how animals are treated is growing, and as a result, it has become a criterion for rejecting a system that performs poorly in this regard, hence reflecting in its sustainability. Businesses that prioritise animal welfare in their supply chains can enhance their competitiveness and appeal to ethically conscious consumers. Consumer awareness and advocacy play a crucial role in shaping market dynamics and in encouraging businesses to adopt more sustainable and humane practices.

On the other hand, improving access to veterinary services and enhancing animal health and welfare management could increase global animal production by 20%, per the OIE, benefiting small-scale producers without resorting to industrialization.

Social wellbeing

The World Organisation for Animal Health released a vision paper Animal welfare: a vital asset for a more sustainable world, where it underscores the socio-economic benefits of animal welfare, noting that the fate of animals is intertwined with that of humans. Treating animals with respect cultivates compassion, empathy, and respect for life, contributing to positive mental health and social well-being, especially for the workers directly involved with them.

Another important aspect is understanding that by ensuring animal welfare, public health is directly impacted as it contributes to reducing the spread of zoonotic diseases and promoting food safety. Humans create conditions that promote the proliferation and spread of viruses and bacteria, such as through overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, inadequate food safety measures, and environmental degradation. Healthy animals contribute to a safer food supply, which enhances human wellbeing and reduces the risk of foodborne illnesses.

Recognizing welfare as part of sustainable development

In 2016, the United Nations Committee on World Food Security highlighted the role of livestock in its draft recommendations to achieve sustainable agriculture, with one of its articles stating the importance of enhancing animal welfare by following the Five Freedoms and the standards and principles proposed by the OIE.

The 2019 UN Global Sustainable Development Report included animal welfare as a key issue overlooked within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It acknowledges the interdependence between human health and well-being and the welfare of animals that is increasingly being recognized within ethical and rights-based frameworks. Ultimately, it appeals governance to take the reigns in protecting the well-being of both wildlife and domesticated animals by incorporating animal welfare regulations into global trade agreements.

In 2021, seven countries from Africa and South Asia put together a proposal at the United Nations Environment Agency (UNEA) 5.2, calling out on countries to prioritise animal welfare, recognizing its significance to biodiversity conservation, ecosystem restoration, climate change mitigation, and sustainable development. It emphasised the need for collaboration between de Parties, as well as promoting animal welfare within the United Nations Environment Programme.

GAL’s Work

In 2018, GAL released its first pre-draft for the creation of a UN Convention on Animal Health and Protection (UNCAHP). In this proposal, they aim at a commitment between the Parties to better protect the well-being of animals through stronger and enforceable legislation, namely at the national level, by promoting inter-parties cooperation, incentives for animal health, welfare, and protection, and through the adoption of alternatives to animal products and exploitation. GAL defends that protecting animals’ interests ultimately comes down to ending animal extinction (for wild animal species threatened by humans and human activities) and unnecessary suffering (for all animals used by humans in any way).

The concept of One Health was developed collaboratively by multiple organisations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). One Welfare, on the other hand, was proposed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and has gained recognition as an extension of the One Health approach, emphasising the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental well-being. In this sense, GAL supports the adoption of both these concepts, together with the Five Freedoms framework to assess animal welfare - freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; freedom from fear and distress; freedom from physical and thermal discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour.

Ensuring the well-being of animals requires collaborative efforts from the public, corporations, and governments. Integrating animal welfare considerations into sustainable development is paramount, as it directly affects environmental health, economic viability, and social equity. Recognizing the intricate relationship between animal welfare and broader sustainability goals is essential for achieving comprehensive development outcomes. Efforts like the proposal for a UN Convention on Animal Health and Protection demonstrate the growing global commitment to addressing animal welfare concerns.














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