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Improving animal welfare on South African farms

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Picture: Erin van Voorheis. In many cases the conditions in which farmed animals live their pathetic lives deny them even their most basic needs such as stretching their limbs, running, flapping their wings, foraging for food, mud and dust bathing, natural reproduction and other everyday behaviours, the writer says.

By Dominic Naidoo

“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.” – George Orwell, Animal Farm

Last Sunday, October 2, 2022, we commemorated World Farm Animals Day, a day established to celebrate the animals we farm for food and to promote awareness of their plight. The day is observed on the anniversary of the founding of the US-based Animal Welfare Institute.

It is a day when people all over the world speak out against the cruel treatment of animals in factory farms, calling for an end to the use of gestation crates, battery cages, and other devices that cause animals pain and suffering.

Humane Society International Africa has said that the day can be used as an opportunity for members of the public to recognise the suffering and climate impacts of the approximately 88 billion land animals that are bred, raised and slaughtered globally for human consumption each year.

“This year, while animal protection organisation Humane Society International/Africa (HSI/Africa) works with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and industry bodies to improve the welfare of these animals, the organisation also calls on the public to use their purchasing power and make conscious consumer choices.”

Despite farmed animals playing such a significant role in human lives, most people have little knowledge of how those animals actually become their food. As the human population grew over the last century or so, so did the need for more food to feed this population.

Picture Credit: iStock

This saw the methods used to raise animals change significantly. The idyllic image of farms with happy animals munching on green pastures has given way to a massive industry in which animals are intensively confined, seen as commodities and raised in a way that has led to a range of negative impacts for both animals and humans.

Animal agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to climate change, representing more than 16.5 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally, which is on par with all forms of transportation combined.

HSI/Africa says that it is the single largest anthropogenic (human) user of land and a major driver of deforestation, species extinction, land degradation, exhaustion of water resources and pollution. The increasing demand for animal feed is also a major driver of the loss of habitat, biodiversity and the destruction of rural livelihoods.

If the implications of intensive animal production appear this dire for people and the planet, the consequences for the animals can only be described as horrendous. Animal production has been optimised in whatever way the pursuit of profits sees fit.

Selective breeding, unnatural diets, castration, tail-docking, debeaking, amputation without anaesthesia, the routine use of prophylactic antibiotics, long distance live transport and industrial scale slaughter are some of the common inhumane practices that animals on farms face.

In many cases the conditions in which farmed animals live their pathetic lives deny them even their most basic needs such as stretching their limbs, running, flapping their wings, foraging for food, mud and dust bathing, natural reproduction and other everyday behaviours.

In South Africa, nearly 70 percent of the 135,000 sows in production systems are confined to crates and more than 90 percent of the 27 million egg-laying hens in the country are housed in small wire battery cages, giving each hen less than an A4 piece of paper’s space.

Studies show that the intensive confinement of these animals not only causes them physical pain but also great psychological stress.

Further, crowded and unhealthy conditions in which animals are kept, whether on farms or during live transportation, present the ideal environment for zoonotic diseases to spread, potentially raising the risk for future pandemics. Industrial agriculture and livestock farming also promotes intensive use of agricultural chemicals that can affect food quality, human and environmental health.

Candice Blom, farmed animal welfare specialist for HSI/Africa, has said that “although South Africans are exceptionally proud and protective of our diverse wildlife, often expressing great outrage towards cruelty inflicted upon companion animals, it is tragic then that the same mercy is not shown for the over 1 billion farmed animals who are bred and slaughtered in the country every year, many in horrific conditions.”

The mass production of animals for meat, eggs and dairy has grave consequences for the animals, people and the planet, but is largely ignored and even disguised.

Decades have passed without material amendments of legislation to improve the welfare standards for farmed animals. HSI/Africa hopes that acknowledging a day dedicated to farmed animals and raising awareness of the lack of welfare in our intensive animal production facilities will help increase South Africans’ consciousness about where their food comes from.

The unimaginable suffering of farmed animals in South Africa’s industrial production systems should not continue unnoticed. South Africans have the opportunity to improve farmed animal welfare now and in the future by assuming responsibility at the till point and purchasing higher welfare products or alternatives to animal-proteins.

The best thing we can do as consumers is to just stop eating so much meat. We do not need to be eating meat three times a day, seven days a week. It is unimaginably unsustainable for the planet and our future.

The increase in demand for higher welfare products will encourage the government to enforce anti-cruelty legislation and the agricultural industry to commit to environmentally sustainable food production systems not premised on cruelty.

Dominic Naidoo is an environment activist and writer

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.