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Animal welfare concerns more people than climate change

In the contemporary realm of food production, ethical considerations are becoming as substantial as taste and tradition. A new study dives into consumer attitudes, revealing that while climate impact is a concern, animal welfare significantly leads buyer priorities. This revelation poses new challenges and directions for producers, retailers, and policymakers in the pork industry.

Balancing animal welfare and the environment

Pork, a staple in many diets worldwide, is under scrutiny for various reasons. These include antibiotic use, infectious diseases, animal welfare, and environmental implications. Despite the notable climate footprint of industries like beef, coffee, and chocolate, pork consumption contributes significantly to global CO2 emissions.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food and Resource Economics sought to understand consumers’ willingness to pay for ‘improved’ pork. This improvement encompasses better animal welfare, reduced climate impact, minimized antibiotics usage, assurance against harmful bacteria, and avoiding feed that contributes to deforestation.

The price of ethical consumption

The study, conducted across Denmark, Germany, the UK, and Shanghai, China, indicates a readiness among consumers to pay more for enhanced pork. However, when it comes to prioritizing where their money goes, European consumers, in particular, demonstrate a clear preference for improved animal welfare.

Professor Peter Sandøe, the study’s senior author, notes, “The responses confirm that a narrow focus on climate-friendly pork production doesn’t align with primary consumer concerns. They deem the pigs’ quality of life crucial, overshadowing the importance of reducing the product’s environmental footprint.”

This sentiment isn’t isolated to a few eco-conscious individuals. A majority of the participants across all surveyed countries placed improved pig welfare above lowering the climate footprint. This fact highlights a direct, empathetic connection with animals’ living conditions.

Consumer climate paradox

Despite the surge in global climate-centric dialogues, consumers seemed to undervalue the climate impact of their dietary choices, especially concerning pork. Associate Professor Thomas Bøker Lund, a co-author of the study, shares the surprise in discovering that consumers gave “relatively low priority” to reducing pork’s climate footprint.

This attitude reflects a prevalent consumer belief. Most people feel that individual choices at the meat counter may not significantly impact broader climate issues.

Lund explains, “When purchasing meat, consumers feel empowered to improve a specific animal’s welfare. However, the climate impact of these choices seems more abstract, and many prefer addressing climate concerns through alternative actions.”

Holistic approaches to animal welfare

The findings serve as a clarion call for a comprehensive approach in the pork industry. Sandøe stresses the dilemma facing producers and policymakers, “Labeling pork as ‘climate-friendly’ won’t suffice, as it doesn’t meet consumer demand. Moreover, prioritizing climate-centric production could mean sacrificing animal welfare, potentially worsening their living conditions.”

There’s an inherent need to balance CO2 reduction with ethical animal treatment. Sandøe continues, “Cattle farming significantly overshadows pork in CO2 emissions, so substituting beef with pork or chicken is beneficial. However, we must collectively gravitate towards a plant-forward diet.”

The financial aspect, too, cannot be overlooked. While consumers expressed willingness to pay up to 20% more for ‘ethical pork,’ this premium falls short of covering the costs of substantial welfare improvements, according to the research team’s calculations.

Rethinking retail and regulation

Innovative strategies are necessary to reconcile consumer preferences with economic and ethical realities. The researchers suggest streamlining retail offerings, reducing product variety to achieve economies of scale and savings. Doing so would subsequently enable retailers to meet higher welfare standards without astronomical costs.

A regulatory overhaul, Sandøe suggests, could also drive industry-wide change. Drawing parallels with past successful interventions in poultry welfare, he proposes establishing minimum animal welfare standards for pork, enforced at a national level.

“In numerous countries, piglet mortality rates are unacceptable, and many sows are overburdened by intensive production demands,” Sandøe points out. He advocates for a halt in ramping up production pressures for the sake of climate concerns alone.

Animal welfare policy change

The research underscores an urgent need for updated regulations, particularly since there have been no significant reforms in welfare regulations since the late 1990s. Sandøe concludes, “Rather than exacerbating production strains in the name of climate protection, we need stringent welfare standards. It’s high time for decisive, compassionate action in the realm of animal welfare.”

In summary, the implications of this study are clear. The road to a sustainable, ethical food industry requires walking the tightrope between environmental responsibility and animal welfare, all while keeping consumer preferences and awareness at the forefront.

The full study was published in the journal Livestock Science.

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