Animal welfare can be defined as the physical and mental well-being of an animal.
Animal products have been a major part of Western diets for decades. They provide our bodies with a source of protein, fat, and essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and selenium. Although they provide our bodies with nutrition that we need, they can also be detrimental to our health as many studies have shown. High intakes of red meat, and processed meat products have been linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancers (Pan et al., 2012; Song et al., 2016).
In modern times, farming and rearing of animals has become more intensive and on a far larger scale. With the world population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100 (FAO, 2017), this puts a tremendous amount of pressure on global food production. Some farmers and commercial enterprises are more concerned with profit and mass production, and unfortunately are less concerned with the welfare of the animal. Animals are being confined to smaller spaces, subjected to unhygienic living conditions and stressful environments, with their lives being cut short for consumption.
More recently, we are becoming more aware and conscious of the sentience of animals and their ability to feel pain and experience fear, which relates to one of the arguments of veganism: “The basis of the argument that vegans make for the welfare of animals is that animals are living, breathing, sentient beings that are capable of feeling things like pain and fear, as we are” (Zeppieri, 2021).
Could switching to a plant-based diet benefit animal welfare? In this article we explain (in plain English!) the conclusions of scientific studies that have looked at animal welfare benefits of vegetarianism.
Vegetarian diets consist of plant-based foods rich in whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, while avoiding red meat, processed meat products, refined foods, and sweets.
There are several variations of a vegetarian diet:
Benefits of Vegetarianism on Animal Welfare
In the sections that follow we look at the issues of animal farming on animal welfare and highlight the benefit of vegetarianism on animal welfare.
Adopting a vegetarian diet could:
The Five Freedoms
The Farm Animal Welfare Council (UK), set up the ‘Five Freedoms’ guidelines to ensure proper animal welfare, namely:
- Freedom from thirst and hunger
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
- Freedom to express normal behaviour
- Fear from fear and distress
Can Fish Feel Pain?
Whether animals have the ability to feel pain has been a controversial topic for decades.
Scientists from the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences at the University of Guelph, Canada investigated whether fish are in fact able to experience pain, fear and psychological distress. They concluded that fish are indeed able to experience pain “Anatomical, pharmacological and behavioural data suggest that affective states of pain, fear and stress are likely to be experienced by fish in similar ways as in tetrapods. This implies that fish have the capacity to suffer, and that welfare consideration for farmed fish should take these states into account” (Chandroo et al., 2004).
According to Brown (2010), “All vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) are sentient in that they have the capacity to experience pain, distress, suffering, positive and negative feelings”.
Switching to a vegetarian diet could prevent pain and suffering inflicted on animals.
Prevention of Infectious Disease Outbreaks
Unhygienic living conditions, over-crowding and mass breeding of animals are all factors which can lead to the spread of infectious diseases in animal production “The production, distribution and consumption of animal-based products (such as meat, dairy and eggs) is a major risk for zoonotic transmission” (UNEP, 2020).
An estimated two-thirds of disease outbreaks are thought to be animal-borne: “Among new and emerging diseases affecting humans, an estimated 75% are suspected to have animal origins (such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome in bats and the Zika virus in primates)” (Sandhu et al., 2021).
COVID-19 is an example of an animal-borne disease that has led to countless human and animal lives being lost: “the zoonotic origin of COVID-19 is hypothesized to have been a wet animal market in Wuhan City, China, where a large number of infected people were exposed during the early stages, with bats and birds being the potential intermediary link between animals and humans” (Sandhu et al., 2021).
Due to a COVID-19 outbreak at a mink farm in Denmark, the government made the decision to cull the entire mink population of Denmark, an estimated 17 million animals across 200 farms.
Switching to a vegetarian, animal-free diet could lower the number of infectious disease outbreaks occurring in future.
Livestock rearing makes use of large amounts of antibiotics in their farming practices to ensure their animals are free from illness, and prevents a loss of income to the farmer if the animal is not fit for consumption or sale.
This frequent use of antibiotics in mass farming practices has become a breeding ground for antimicrobial- resistant bacteria, which finds its way to humans through the food-chain, and wastewater on farms: “Pathogenic antimicrobial-resistant bacteria can be transmitted to humans via food-chains and through wastewater from farms, hospitals and pharmaceutical facilities” (Sandhu et al., 2021).
Switching to a vegetarian diet, and saying no to meat could prevent the spread of anti-microbial resistance and prevent the build-up of antibiotics in our waterways.
Prevent Painful Castration of Piglets
Switching to a vegetarian diet could prevent the unnecessary and painful practice of castrating young piglets in the meat industry.
In the meat industry, the quality of the meat product is of paramount importance. Farmers go to great lengths to ensure the colour, taste and texture of their meat is optimal for consumers.
In the swine industry, one way to prevent an unpleasant taste and odour known as boar taint is by castrating the young male piglets. According to Sodring et al. (2020), “The practice of surgical castration is considered to be both stressful and painful for the piglets, and is therefore under scrutiny due to animal welfare concerns”.
According to a paper published in the New Zealand Veterinary Journal, “teeth clipping, tail docking and castration are common invasive husbandry procedures performed on piglets on commercial farms, generally within the first week of life; Teeth clipping, tail docking and castration all cause behavioural and physiological changes indicative of acute pain and can have potentially long-term negative consequences such as causing abscesses, lesions and the formation of neuromas” (Sutherland, 2013).
Prevent Culling of Millions of Male Chicks
Each year, an estimated 330 million day-old chicks are being killed in the European Union: “Approximately 330 million day-old male chicks are culled annually in the European Union” (Reithmayer et al., 2020).
Male chicks are a problem for the intensive poultry farming industry. Male chicks do not lay eggs, and have little economic use to these farmers and are thus killed via maceration or gassed with carbon dioxide (Reithmayer et al., 2020).
A shift to a vegetarian diet would reduce or eliminate the gruesome and unnecessary killing of baby chicks.
Prevent Unnatural Growth in Chickens
Intensive farming practices and the need to optimize profits has resulted in farmers breeding animals to produce more meat in a shorter period of time.
Broiler chickens are bred to grow rapidly and produce more meat in a short period of time. Their legs and heart are unable to cope with this extra weight and this unfortunately results in lameness. According to a study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics, “Modern broilers have been bred for rapid growth, and this leads to increases in lameness and ascites as the legs and hearts of the heavier birds find it difficult to cope with the extra demands placed on them” (Morris, 2009).
Caged broilers live in restrictive conditions and this leads to weakened bones and feather loss. According to an academic paper published in the journal, Animals, “Caged broiler chickens may suffer from poor bone strength due to lack of exercise, feather loss, and restriction of natural behaviour” (Shields & Greger, 2013).
Say No to Animal Fur
Vegetarianism could prevent the unnecessary killing of animals for their fur and hides for clothing products and accessories, such as fur coats, leather handbags and shoes.
According to PETA (2022), “The most commonly farmed fur-bearing animals are minks, followed by foxes. Chinchillas, lynxes and raccoon dogs are also farmed for their fur”.
PETA has uncovered many horrific cases of the despicable conditions that animals living on fur farms are being subjected to. Animals have been found living in unhygienic, confined, tiny cages. There have been reports of inhumane slaughtering and cases of animals still being conscious while they are being skinned. Common killing methods used on fur farms are gassing, decompression chambers, and neck-breaking. The quality of the fur is very important to the farmer, and they will disregard the pain and suffering of the animal in order to ensure the fur is unblemished.
Vegetarian diets are not just beneficial for our physical and mental health – they are also beneficial for animal welfare. Scientific evidence supports the fact that a shift in dietary habits to vegetarianism, is able to reduce the negative impact of animal consumption on the welfare of defenceless creatures.
Switching to a vegetarian diet could:
Although meat provides our bodies with the protein and nutrition our bodies need, our nutrition shouldn’t come at the expense of another animal’s suffering.
A well-planned, balanced vegetarian diet rich in healthful plant-based foods such as wholegrains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds can provide you with the nutrition your body needs to stay healthy, and rescuing countless animals from a life of mass commercial farming, where they may be exposed to stressful and unhygienic conditions, and ultimately death.