Sustainable animal husbandry

A malicious saying describing something that cannot be reached any way: “you will see it when a pig will see the sky” is right on target here not only according to pig’s vision. Is that it? Can nothing be done for pigs, cows, hens to ease their life behind bars? The research findings do prove otherwise as the mere reduction of stocking densities and using e.g. phytogenic additives in the feed lessens the need to treat the livestock with antibiotics and reduces the mortality, thus resulting in improved growth rates…

Paulina Abramowicz-Pindor, PhD
Scientific Director, Research and Development
AdiFeed Ltd.

Nowadays, sustainable development is a very popular subject. In agriculture, it means striking a right balance between what is economic, social, and environmental. More specifically, it is about a development which respects environment and where resources are managed thoughtfully, causing no harm to what future generations may inherit from us. In sustainable development at farm level, all three dimensions are being taken into account. In the 21st century, global sustainability is measured by the mutual coexistence of the biosphere and civilisation in an environmental homeostasis. All 17 Sustainable Development Goals are presented in detail at the United Nations’ website (Figure 1), most of them directly or indirectly relating to agriculture, including livestock production. The impact of farming on greenhouse gas emissions can hardly be overlooked (Figure 2). Although much still remains to be done, the emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide methane, and their share in the various livestock production sectors are measurable and regularly reported upon.

Figure 1. Sustainable Development Goals

EU maintains a fairly restrictive policy in this matter. However, the high demand for animal protein coupled with growing pressure on reducing emissions are likely to result in the risk of relocating production to such parts of the world where EU restrictions do not apply. This, unless appropriate mechanisms are put in place, might result in an exacerbated negative impact on the climate on Earth.

Figure 2. From among the G20 economies, Saudi Arabia produces over six times more emissions per capita than India

“May you live in interesting times”, goes a Chinese saying, or more likely a curse. Today, after over a year of Russia’s continued invasion on Ukraine, one has to wonder how Ukraine has managed to provide its citizens with unfailing supplies of food. People in urban areas managed to survive thanks to their strong family ties, and traditional links with the countryside. Furthermore, the high fragmentation and diversification of agricultural production turned out a helpful factor, as food is easier to come by then. Thus, centralisation of livestock production and its intensification do have their limits and, in this case, they come under the heading of “food security”. The case of Ukraine just brought its importance back as it stayed far away from EU boundaries and still there is a problem of hunger being unsolved. Every four seconds, one person, usually it is a child under the age of five dies of hunger. There is a variety of reasons for this, from the growth of the world population and thus the increased demand for food, to changes in consumption patterns, rising food prices, expanding water-scarce areas, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and losses in and various wastages of food supplies. Nevertheless, as per the United Nations data, 40% of the world’s human population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods, with up to 80% of the global food demand being met by 500 million small, rain-water dependent farms. With this in mind, investing in small-scale farming seems key to strengthening food security for the poorest, as well as supplying local markets with food. One thing is certain: access to biodiverse and more fragmented farming, especially if not too dependent on technology, works really well in situations of crisis. The above does not contradict existence of more intensified farming because, as with just everything, it is good to maintain a right balance.

There are many factors on which the profitability of livestock production depends on, with feed costs as a major contributor. Then there are costs of handling the animals, veterinary care bills, costs of media such as electricity and water, depreciation of buildings and equipment, etc. In the past, the issue of profitability was a taboo topic for many, especially in the pig production sector, where only a small minority was able to make long-term profits while the vast majority suffered losses. In such circumstances, surviving instead of investments is top priority. The question is, and it actually concerns the entire meat sector, what might become an added value of meat which would allow its producers to gain a competitive edge at the lowest possible cost. Meat leaders, especially producers of poultry, derive their competitive advantage from lower prices based on lower production costs. The poultry market, is way more flexible with its shorter production cycles and higher liquidity, while the red meat production is by far more fixed. Even the bird flu seemed to have treated poultry producers somewhat kinder compared with how e.g.. ASF affected meat producers. In such conditions, how can one build a competitive advantage against the inflow of cheaper non-EU meat?

Over the past few decades, breeding progress has significantly re-shaped the whole animal husbandry, and it even has affected the very appearance of the animals. Also, feed efficiency, growth rates, meat yields, rearing parameters and survival rates have improved significantly, and this applies to virtually all livestock species. The meat yield of fattening pigs, the fattening period of broiler chickens, or the milk yield of cows seem now pushed to their biological extremes. In fact, however, industrial animal husbandry does have certain consequences and constraints as feeding the masses inevitably comes at a price. In the past, animals used to live in the countryside but now they live in city like conditions, since what else can one call all these stacked piggeries, barns, and poultry sheds? Furthermore, they have no access to sunlight and no opportunity to take forage or herbs from the pasture swards or to walk on anything other than concrete floors or grates: such is the daily reality of farm animals. A malicious saying describing something that cannot be reached any way: “you will see it when a pig will see the sky” is right on target here not only according to pig’s vision. Is that it? Can nothing be done for pigs, cows, hens to ease their life behind bars? The research findings do prove otherwise as the mere reduction of stocking densities and using e.g. phytogenic additives in the feed lessens the need to treat the livestock with antibiotics and reduces the mortality, thus resulting in improved growth rates. This of course has got a huge positive impact on animal welfare and comfort. As proven by a study conducted in Switzerland, where pig farrowing crates were completely abolished by 2007, concerns about sows crushing their piglets proved unfounded. If given more space, sows respond with more litters, higher birth weights, and higher weaning weight of their piglets. The economic success (or otherwise) of such a venture will be most likely resolved by consumers and the purchasing power of their wallets, just as the case was with cage-free eggs.

It takes an average shopper just over a second to select a product from what is displayed on a shelf. Is one second really enough to study the label? For digital natives, pictorial writing is nowadays a must. Packaging has become more important than the product itself. What’s inside the packaging? Advertisements for foods compete intensely in portraying farming as an idyllic space for both humans and animals. All the milk, pork and eggs in supermarkets do not come, however, from the farms as they are pictured in popular TV series. On the other hand, one indeed can hardly pass through the centre of any large city without being confronted with billboards posted by various NGOs which present themselves as promoting animal rights. Such billboards present images which consumers find disturbing. Certainly, these images are loaded with emotions, but do they present facts, too? On the one hand, animal rights activists sometimes do use surreal arguments, but are they all in the wrong? Consumers are informed about sows encaged for a significant part of their lives, without even being able to turn their bodies around. Other stories refer to castrations, docking of piglets’ and lambs’ tails without anaesthesia, trimming of beaks, cannibalism among farm animals, stereotypies e.g. of sows because of lack of stimuli of animals more intelligent than dogs. Finally, there are the issues of transportation, loading and unloading of animals, lack of space, use of prods, and general mistreatment of animals by their handlers. If animal husbandry problems continue to be denied, is it going to help consumers understand them better? Actually, such a strategy stands no chance since more inquisitive souls will rather decide to reject an entire market segment than give producers a second chance. And, even though it may not be easy to engage is a debate with someone who proposes a ban on eating all meats, it may be worth just giving the concept a thought. At the Feedinfo Summit in Barcelona (September 2022), Tony Anderson, former marketing director of Easy Jet and an outsider to the farming industry, said that the airline industry and animal production had more in common than not, and that they faced similar challenges. What he meant were high expectations on the part of general public regarding environmental protection and the associated emissions restrictions being implemented at a sensitive time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both sectors have a lot to change in terms of environmental impact. The air transport boasts about what has already been achieved and presents plans for the future. Is the meat sector working just as hard on how it is being perceived? Is it developing a strategy for the future or is it turning its eyes away from the problem?

“Antibiotic-free meat” is a slogan which consumers recognise only too well. But what about animal welfare? Given that animal husbandry has become heavily industrialised, is it possible for one’s pork chop to be ethically procured? Can we really think of some added value or is it just marketing? Steve Ells, founder of the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain, was one of the first to offer in his restaurants burritos made from antibiotic- and hormone-free, humanely-raised pork. Ells came up with the idea some 20 years ago and, despite a higher price (by about US $1), he managed to double the sales of his pork burritos. Of course, the statement on the label is important, but more important still is the certification. This is because meat producers, even those who farm grass-fed animals, too often take advantage of their consumers’ lack of knowledge: cattle grazing on grass or being fed grass pellets in the last phase of their fattening is something quite the opposite. An NGO called Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) administers the “certified humane raised and handled” program label. Furthermore, there are many NGOs which educate consumers about animal welfare and help them choose products which guarantee so. BC SPCA, a Canadian organisation, provides on its website ( a clear explanation of various markings. The added value in this case is the following: cage-free, restraint-free, farrowing restraint-free, an enriched environment, the possibility of expressing natural animal behaviour, and the transparency of the entire production process. The organisation presents several labels backed up by certificates and verified with independent audits (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Examples of certificates present on the market

The cooking website offers beginner’s guides to help consumers source meat from sustainable farms which ensure increased levels of animal welfare. Providing consumers with reliable information along with tracking the entire supply chain is part of the “farm-to-table” strategy, and it would be good to extend this to include animal welfare. The idea originated in the western economies and provides an alternative to the intensive farming model. Instead, farms operate according to the principles of regenerative agriculture as they draw on the idea of integrated, organic and precision farming. One of such farms is called “Lubuskie Angusowo” (located in northern Poland), whose owner aptly encapsulated the animal husbandry pattern as: “having a whole good life with just one bad moment”. The “bad moment” is when the fattened animal is killed with a shot to its head, fired from a hunting pulpit, in a company of a few other individuals from the same herd. The reaction of the other animals from the group is a slight wiggle, after which the cattle are moved out of their quarters. Then a special vehicle arrives (a type of mobile slaughterhouse) where the animal is bled out, with the blood fully recovered. By law, after slaughtering, an animal must be sent for processing within two hours. Slaughtering in pasture is possible only after obtaining an appropriate certificate. All what is missing is a QR code for consumers to easily identify the purchased product.

Nowadays, public opinion is increasingly guided by emotions rather than by objective facts. The market for added-value products, which would be different from conventional ones, is on the rise. Consumers are looking for food which is healthier and tastier, raised with no antibiotics, presenting good value for money and, increasingly, which meets high ethical standards. The market can either meet the demands by overcoming difficulties, or it can just ignore them as if saying: “it has always been this way”. This, however, will no longer justify a lack of action, and certainly will not convince the public. As scientific research demonstrates, change is not only possible and beneficial to the environment, but it is also economically and socially viable for farmers. But what about consumers? Can one have between three and five meat-based meals a day and still claim that they take good care of their health? It may sound like a cliché but why not shift from quantity to quality? Once this is done, then it will be helpful to have properly labelled food (which already proves tastier and of better quality than industrially-produced one). Even though decisions on purchasing one’s food are affected mainly by the affluence of one’s wallet, the price of cheap meat should not be paid by the environment, and certainly not by the animals themselves.

An animal is not an item. For this reason, any pig, cow, sheep or chicken should always be considered more important than the chop which finally is produced from it.

The time has come for meat products aimed at welfare sensitive consumers!