• Home
  • Reflections on some things I learned at the Guelph conference

Reflections on some things I learned at the Guelph conference

09 Jun 2016 8:49 AM | Anonymous

Struggling for Good Data on Animal Welfare

CSWA member guest post by Jim Davies

Is this a "medium" sized cage? How the hell am I supposed to know?

A "Whole Foods" supermarket opened recently in my city, and I was very excited because it offers meat that meets what appear to be fairly rigorous ethical standards. For example, when I buy a chicken there, I know that it wasn't raised in a cage. I've read many things that make me think that animals that are raised for meat are pretty miserable, and I didn't want to support that.

I recently got back from the conference of the Canadian Science Writer's Association, which was held in Guelph, Ontario. It was hosted by the University of Guelph, which prides itself as being "Canada's Food University." I met a few farmers there, and what they told me has made me less certain.

We all have a problem with anthropomorphizing animals a bit too much. Without other data, I suppose it's okay, but we really should try to find scientific findings before insisting on this or that treatment. I remember being told by a zoo director years ago that there were people at the zoo protesting the fact that the orangutan was in an enclosure all by itself. But in the wild, orangutans are solitary creatures. So when we insist on good animal treatment, we should take care to know what it is the animals actually want. Of course, we cannot ask them, so we need clever experiments to get the answers we need.

According to the farmers, chickens evolved from a wild bird that liked to live in the roots under trees. They argue that being in a cage is actually less stressful for them than being in the open, because it resembles their ancestral home more. Further, chickens tend to be mean to each other. They have dominance displays that can result in some chickens being malnourished or dying. This is more likely in a cage-free environment. I was also told that chicken welfare has been studied, and the finding was that a "medium sized cage" (I'm don't know how big that is) is better than a cage that's too small and better than being out in the open.

Unfortunately, when you go to the grocery store, we are told that the chickens (or eggs) are either cage free or not, and you have no idea what size the cage was that the chickens were raised in. What's the customer supposed to do?

I also asked about small enclosures. In the book I'm reading right now, Sapiens, there is a picture of a cow in a small enclosure. I am told that this cow only gets out of this and able to interact with other cows on its way to slaughter, about four months into its life. That certainly sounds miserable. I told this to a farmer and she said that maybe this was done with veal, but not with cows. And the reason? Doing that is actually more expensive than putting them in a common pen.

And those pictures of pigs, locked into cages on their side? I was told that this wasn't done for their whole lives, but only for feeding piglets. And why? Because mother pigs have a tendency to flop over and crush their piglets. So even that cage, which looks like a medieval torture device, is used to protect the animals from hurting each other.

I was told that when farmers see videos of animal abuse, they think that the people doing it are idiots and are giving farmers a bad name.

Okay, so who should we believe? The problem is that we see these pictures and videos that are pretty scary, and we don't always know the reasons farmers do what they do (sometimes it's actually in the animals' best interest), and further, we have no idea of whether the abuse we see is systematic. How often does it happen? Are we really supporting that when we buy meat?

I can honestly say that at this point I have no idea. I feel I have no source of information that is from an unbiased group. Animal welfare activists have an interest in making us think the abuse is more widespread than it is (I'm not saying they're guilty of it, only that they have an incentive).

Likewise, the farmers have an incentive to make it look like everything's hunky dory. At the conference I was given a magazine called The Real Dirt on Farming, which was published by the Farm and Food Care Foundation, which is an association of farmers and associated businesses. This document is dismissive of the animal rights movement (p45):

"Activists of any kind are not usually interested in finding solutions, but prefer to focus on problems and dramatic examples to generate funds and support for their organizations." 

Wow. If they wanted to look unbiased, they sure screwed up there. Activists of any kind? Really? Is that what they think of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, or Martin Luther King, Jr.? It makes me wonder if the whole document is bullshit.

So now I'm not sure what to think. Are there any scientific results out there that is from arms-length groups that can shed light on this issue? What is a concerned consumer supposed to do?

(And yes, I tried being vegetarian and I was miserable.)

Related links:
I have implemented "meat offsets," inspired by carbon offsets, where I donate money every time I eat unethical meat. See my blog post at:

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 

Jim Davies is a cognitive scientist and author of Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One With the Universe, published by Palgrave Macmillan. He is also a frequent contributor to the popular science magazine, Nautilus.

He is an award-winning associate professor at Carleton University's Institute of Cognitive Science and director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory.