Why UK farmed animals could be among Brexit’s unexpected winners?
Animal welfare is a topic that has received increasing attention in recent years. Although a subsection of people has been arguing forcefully for animal welfare for a long time, it has only really been recently that the idea that we should alter our lifestyles, policies, and practices to accommodate the welfare of animals has caught on. Documentaries such as Cowspiracy and Land of Hope and Glory have helped popularise the problem of animal suffering, promoting individual lifestyle choices such as veganism. Companies have also jumped on the bandwagon, offering a plethora of plant-based products in an attempt to profit off this new wave of animal-focused ethical consumerism.
The problem of farmed animal suffering – something that is both directly and indirectly influenced by EU and UK policy – is one of indisputable importance. Animals make up the overwhelming majority of sentient beings. Our human population of 8 billion is dwarfed by the number of farm animals produced for food each year, which between 2013 and 2017 sat at around 70 billion, with two-thirds of these animals being factory farmed for slaughter (note that this figure doesn’t even include farmed fish, 51-167 billion of which were estimated to have been killed in 2017 alone).
Lack of space, mutilation without pain relief, and lameness or broken bones as a result of over-feeding are all commonplace on factory farms and no doubt cause extreme levels of distress over the course of farmed animals’ lives. Efforts to address this problem typically focus on advocacy towards individuals, corporations, or governments, but it goes without saying that some of these efforts are more effective than others.
This is all happening amidst a changing political landscape. Readers likely need not be reminded that the British public voted to leave the European Union in 2016, officially rescinding its member status at the end of 2020. Time has yet to reveal the direction in which the state of animal welfare will turn at this critical crossroad, but the impact will undoubtedly be far-reaching. Some commentators have argued, quite convincingly, that the impact on farmed animals will most likely determine what kind of mark Brexit will leave on the overall state of animal welfare. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward. The UK’s departure from the EU has left it outside the block’s Common Agricultural Policy, of which it had previously been a member of for decades. Moreover, a whopping 40% of the EU animal welfare laws (easily the largest proportion of the full suite of laws on animal welfare) relate to the welfare of farmed animals.
As a member of the EU, the UK was previously required to implement particular EU regulations like the requirement for member states to label products of animal origin by farming method, the ban on barren cages for laying hens, the ban on Ractopanimine (a feed additive that can cause health problems in farm animals), and many more. In some cases, the UK has implemented additional regulations on top of the EU’s baseline requirements. For example, the UK has banned the use of sow stalls throughout the sow’s pregnancy, whereas EU law permits the use of sow stalls after the first two weeks of pregnancy have passed. Despite this, it remains true that the majority of UK legislation on farmed animal welfare is based on EU law. As a consequence, Brexit has left gaps in UK legislation, formerly filled by EU animal protection laws.
An optimist might see these newly formed gaps as an opportunity. In the post-Brexit landscape, the UK will have a far greater scope to devise tighter rules than those prescribed by EU law. Earlier this year, for example, the UK government passed a bill formally recognising the sentience of animals, finally accepting what has been scientific consensus for years by including all decapod crustaceans (as well as land mammals and fish) in its definition of ‘animals’. This move formed part of a series of bills introduced by the government aimed at improving the welfare of animals in the post-Brexit era. Included in the proposed group of bills to be implemented by the UK government are a ban on the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter (previously not permitted under EU rule), new measures to improve the welfare of animals during transport, examining the use of cages and farrowing crates on farm animals, new incentives aimed at farmers to improve the health and wellbeing of their livestock, and finally a ban on the sale of the controversial EU foie gras.
What’s more, the UK’s departure has meant that it was able to resume its seat at the WTO for the first time in more than four decades earlier this year, giving rise to a number of conceivable opportunities. Among these is its ability to negotiate its own free trade agreements (FTAs) which incorporate in them improved animal welfare standards.
First on the list of FTAs to be negotiated was the UK-EU deal. In pre-Brexit times, the lack of tariffs and borders between the UK and the EU meant that the UK could export sheep and import eggs to and from the EU freely. Some worried that if the much-touted plight of a no-deal Brexit came to fruition, high tariffs imposed on imports and exports might pressure the UK to purchase lower welfare products. This was perhaps the most important part of the agreement. Fortunately, this misfortune has so far been avoided, with the new deal not only being free from tariffs (although the UK’s deal with the EU does not eliminate the possibility of tariffs being introduced in the future), but also including a provision aimed at preventing the UK from being undercut by cheap imports that would have been illegal to produce domestically. It goes without saying that we ought not to celebrate this news too much: it’s merely confirmation that we can keep doing what we’d been doing for years already. The new free trade agreement does, after all, is perhaps the only FTA that has ever been signed that has actually increased the amount of paperwork, not cut it. This increase in paperwork could wreck all sorts of havoc on farmed animals’ wellbeing: from lorries of live animals being held up at borders, to excessive paperwork acting as a barrier stopping EU vets from coming to and working in the UK.
Another concern that some commentators voiced after the 2016 referendum result was that the UK’s desperation to sign a post-Brexit free trade deal with one of the US, Australia, or Canada (all of which have lower animal welfare standards than the UK) could lead the UK to lower its standards instead of forcing its partner countries’ producers to match UK welfare standards. The first scenario was worrying in more ways than one. As well as the obvious negatives associated with reduced animal welfare, working with the looser welfare rules would require UK farmers to compete against low-welfare imports without differential tariffs on such imports. For example, a free trade agreement with Australia was announced in December 2021 which has unfortunately opened the UK’s doors to food imported at lower welfare standards. FTA negotiations are currently in progress with the US and Canada.
Thus far, this article has been mostly centred around the impacts of Brexit on animal welfare in the UK. The UK has historically been a front-runner with regards to animal welfare, for example, putting in place a ban on sow stalls 14 years before the EU. A common fear was that Brexit would hurt farm animals in Europe by removing one of the block’s fiercest champions of animal welfare. So far, this seems not to be the case, with the EU Green New Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy which includes in it a plan for a ‘fitness check’ in 2022 to assess whether current EU legislation remains fit for purpose with regard to animal welfare. This might look into (among other things) a ban on the export of live animals, on cages, on slaughter without stunning, and on an EU animal welfare labelling scheme. In fact, the EU’s post-Brexit plan for the future of farming and animal welfare looks rather similar to the UK’s own, perhaps indicating that the impact of Brexit on animal welfare might not be as significant as I’ve alluded to earlier in this piece. It’s difficult to accurately assess what the effects of Brexit will be without knowing the counterfactual.
And yet, the idea that Brexit presents substantial prospects for animal welfare reform in the UK, with impacts in Europe and internationally is certainly a convincing one. Brexit’s precise impacts on animal wellbeing are uncertain, and depend on a wide range of unpredictable political factors. Whether or not some of the risks and opportunities put forward in this article will materialise remains yet to be seen.