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Today more than 94 percent of Americans say that nonhuman animals deserve protection from harm and exploitation.1 Factory farms pose the greatest challenge to that commitment. Animals suffer on factory farms with virtually no protection from policymakers, despite the general population’s overwhelming support for improved conditions. Farmed animals are not the only ones harmed by factory farms either—wildlife, our waterways, and public health suffer too.
Animal welfare is the simple idea that animals should be treated well with respect to their physical, mental, and emotional needs. The Five Freedoms are a well known metric by which to judge animal welfare. They are referenced in state and federal policies, and corporate and research guidelines, and provide a simple rubric for assessing the basic needs of non-human animals that must be met in order to ensure a minimal level of welfare. Though the Five Freedoms provide a base standard by which to measure animal welfare and avoid the worst animal suffering, their lesser-known counterparts the Five Provisions provide more practical guidance on what is necessary for animals to thrive.2 The most important Provision recognizes that non-human animals need conditions and treatment to help them to avoid mental suffering and to feel contentment. Fulfilling the Five Provisions requires caring for the species-specific needs of different kinds of animals, like the need of pigs to socialize, of chickens to form stable pecking orders, and of mothers to raise their young.
However, the Five Freedoms and even the Five Provisions are sometimes co-opted and used by the meat industry to justify low welfare practices. For example, a corporation raising tens of thousands of chickens for meat in a windowless shed might provide chickens “enrichments,” but only provide one enrichment per thousand birds, then celebrate that it has improved animal welfare by providing the birds “freedom to express normal behavior.” Similarly, a producer might routinely feed birds antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness and pat themselves on the back for supporting “freedom from disease,” while perpetuating breeds of birds that are immunocompromised, creating a breeding ground for pandemics, and contributing to the antibiotic resistance crisis. Claims by the meat industry that they provide good welfare because they follow the Five Freedoms or Five Provisions miss the forest for the trees. Any common sense lay evaluation of good welfare would conclude that raising tens of thousands of genetically compromised animals in cramped, unnatural conditions is poor welfare.
Improving animal welfare is important because of the inherent sentience of the animals themselves and the profound environmental and ethical concerns associated with continuing to raise animals on factory farms for human consumption. The downsides of continuing the status quo of raising animals in the billions far outweigh the benefits. Improving conditions for farmed animals is also a popularly held position across the political spectrum. In a 2022 poll of 1,353 people nationwide, 80 percent of likely voters percent stated that preventing farmed animal cruelty is a matter of personal moral concern. This included 83 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents, and 77 percent of Republicans.
Industrial animal farming also negatively impacts wild animal welfare. As land is cleared to make way for factory farming and to grow crops for animal feed, wild animals’ habitats are destroyed and the likelihood of disease passing between farmed and wild animals increases. Factory farming provides the ideal conditions for the spread of diseases including avian influenza. In 2022 alone, the number of factory farmed birds in the U.S. affected by avian influenza was more than 49 million, and the disease became more virulent as it evolved through farmed bird populations. With farmed poultry representing 70 percent of all live birds worldwide, industrial poultry farms constantly risk cultivating disease and spreading it to the 30 percent of the global population that is wild.3
Land based industrial animal farming also has a negative impact on surrounding aquatic environments and the living beings they host. Raising farmed animals this way creates runoff of pesticides, fertilizers, and manure that enters waterways and worsens algal blooms that in turn kill fish and other aquatic life in both freshwater systems and along coasts. The factory farming of aquatic life has many of the same problems as terrestrial animal farming.
The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the strongest piece of federal legislation protecting animal welfare in the U.S. Under its provisions, minimum standards are set for the care and well-being of animals used or bred for entertainment, research, or commerce. Though at first glance the law seems fairly comprehensive, the definition of “animal” employed leaves the vast majority of animals in the U.S. without any protection. Exempted from the definition of “animal” within the law are all farmed animals raised for food or fiber; birds, rats, and mice bred for research, and horses not used for research.
The United States Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act in 1966 and it was amended in 1976, 1985, 1990, 2002, and 2008.
Animal welfare laws fail to protect farmed animals from the unimaginable suffering they endure every day. Those few laws in place to protect farmed animals from suffering, such as the 28 Hour Law on transport of animals, are largely unenforceable as there are no policing or monitoring mechanisms in place and, on the rare occasion that a violator is caught, the resulting fine is not enough to deter future violations.4
One example of animal welfare among farmed animals can be found in poultry farms raising healthy breeds of chickens and turkeys. These operations ensure that their animals have plenty of genetic diversity and come from breeds that are able to thrive naturally, and avoid the genetic manipulation that is standard on factory farms. Instead of being artificially inseminated, birds on heritage farms are able to mate naturally and take twice as long to grow to slaughter weight as birds raised on factory farms, allowing their bodies to grow at a healthier rate.
Animal welfare on factory farms is minimal. Factory farms are motivated by profit and only implement supposed “animal welfare” practices when necessary to protect the value of the animals in the face of the awful conditions in which they are kept. For example, the tails of pigs are frequently docked to prevent tail biting on factory farms. However, the primary reason that tail biting takes place is because pig housing on factory farms denies pigs an environment where they can root and forage.
The increasing interest in animal welfare, and specifically the welfare of farmed animals, is in large part due to the work of the animal welfare movement. Though colonial Massachusetts saw a law protecting animals from cruelty enacted as long ago as 1641, the modern animal protection movement really got its start in the U.S. when the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in New York in 1866. The ASPCA was given the power to enforce animal cruelty laws and was instrumental in passing new legislation. Much of the early animal protection movement focused on protecting the welfare of horses, as they had an important role in supporting the economy through transporting both goods and people.5
By the 1870s, advocates for animal welfare were also turning their attention toward protecting children from cruelty. Organizations that once focused solely on animal protection became “humane societies” that had a dual purpose of both child and animal protection. This connection of the animal welfare movement to human welfare lasted until the 1930s but was fractured by the professionalization of social work that came to regard children and animals as separate concerns. The 1975 publication of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer further separated the animal movement internally, with one arm focusing on more issues such as animal sheltering and adoption while the other turned to focus more heavily on farmed animals and the ethical implications of recognizing animal sentience.6
Concern for the welfare of farmed animals is now widespread. In a 2016 survey of 1,000 adult consumers in the U.S., 69 percent of respondents indicated that they pay some or a lot of attention to food labels indicating animal welfare, and 74 percent of respondents paid closer attention to how farmed animals are raised than they did just five years earlier.
Though often used interchangeably, animal rights and animal welfare are two different movements with different, though sometimes overlapping, goals. The animal rights movement posits that animals have intrinsic rights as sentient beings and that they should not be used as a means to an end. Those in the animal welfare camp often accept that animals will likely continue to be used for human purposes but argue that, if they are, the animals should be treated well. A good example of a difference between the two camps is in their approaches to meat. An animal rights advocate would be more likely to advocate for vegan diets, to reduce humanity’s use of animals. An animal welfare advocate might work to develop higher welfare alternatives to factory farms, such as farms that raise the animals on pasture and provide plenty of space and opportunity for farmed animals to express their natural behaviors. While Farm Forward is an animal welfare organization and promotes higher welfare alternatives to factory farming, we also advocate that consumers eat conscientiously—as few animals as possible, ideally none.
There are a number of organizations in addition to Farm Forward working toward a world with improved welfare for farmed animals and greater reliance on alternatives to animal products. Our report “The Farmed Animal Protection Movement” identifies dozens of organizations doing excellent work in the animal welfare and animal rights space. The report is a great overview of the movement and place to find additional organizations to reach out to, volunteer with, and support.
The fight for improved animal welfare has been a long one filled with great successes and painful setbacks. Due to decades of effort from animal advocates across the country, public opinion has swayed to support improved welfare for animals suffering on factory farms. It’s time that policy protections for farmed animals caught up with our expectations that these sentient beings be treated well. With your help we can work to end the worst suffering of animals taking place in intensive confinement, and build a future free of factory farms.
Rebecca Riffkin, “In U.S., More Say Animals Should Have Same Rights as People,” Gallup, May 18, 2015, https://news.gallup.com/poll/183275/say-animals-rights-people.aspx.
David J. Mellor, “Updating Animal Welfare Thinking: Moving Beyond the “Five Freedoms” towards “A Life Worth Living,” Animals 6, no. 3 (March 2016), https://doi.org/10.3390/ani6030021.
World Animal Protection, “The Hidden Health Impacts of Industrial Livestock Systems” (World Animal Protection, March 2022), https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/HealthImpactsofIndustrialLivestockSystemsFINALWEB.pdf
Animal Welfare Institute, “A Review: The Twenty-Eight Hour Law and Its Enforcement” (Animal Welfare Institute, April 2020), https://awionline.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/20TwentyEightHourLawReport.pdf.
Janet M. Davis, “The History of Animal Protection in the United States,” The American Historian (November, 2015), https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2015/november/the-history-of-animal-protection-in-the-united-states/.
Davis, “The History of Animal Protection in the United States,” https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2015/november/the-history-of-animal-protection-in-the-united-states/.