Substitution (animals)

 

Introduction

Canada will have to move to a co-ordinated national approach with mandatory requirements, and the federal government using regulatory instruments, national standards, cross-compliance (see Instruments, National vs. Local) and funding to bring all actors into the fold.

Legislative and regulatory changes

The improved standards (see Efficiency) will be a higher bar than current regulatory requirements. As standards are adopted more widely, regulations (and in some cases legislation) will need to be amended. As typically happens over time, the many elements of the standards become a new normalized minimum.  Given that the current  Health of Animals and Safe Food for Canadians regulations (and many provincial ones as well) largely reflect a Tradition 1 approach to welfare (see Framing Solutions), they will need to improve as the transition progresses.  There may also be amendments required to the Criminal Code. This can be challenging given how infrequently legislative and regulatory elements are revised.

As is often the case with food system matters, Canada lags behind the EU in the specificity of its directives.  Both jurisdictions have significant room for improvements, but the regulatory architecture in the EU is more advanced and somewhat better structured for revision (see for example discussion of Sweden, the Netherlands and Austria in Animal Protection Index).  Key areas of amendment will likely include:

  • recognition by all levels of government of sentience as exhibited in Quebec's An Act to Improve the Legal Situation for Animals
  • shifting to positive, rather than just negative, directives
  • specifying permitted conditions for housing and space, routine surgeries (eg., tail docking, debeaking, castration) and the use of analgesics
  • specifying weaning, feeds and feeding conditions that are more consistent with  innate feeding behaviours and can better contribute to health and productive longevity
  • continuing improvements to transport of animals and slaughter regulations
  • increasing penalties for transgressions

Facilities transition funding

Federal and provincial governments have historically offered funding for farm structures related to animal production, including barns and manure handling and storage facilities.  Prominent (though not necessarily successful) examples include support for intensive hog production under some provincial expansion mandates in the 70s and 80s (eg., Manitoba and Quebec), and more recently cost-shared grants for manure storage under the Canadian Agricultural Partnerships (CAP) program and its antecedents.

Currently, the CAP program has modest funding in some provinces for facilities improvements related to animal welfare.  However, design of the grant program is very limited.  For example, in Ontario, the program (currently closed to applications) has two components, one for construction or modification of housing, the other for better equipment for handling and performing routine surgeries. The programs reference the NFACC codes. In both subprograms, preference is given to projects in northern Ontario with limited access to veterinary services and production of sheep, goat, veal, beef cattle and farmed cervids. Government contributions to the programs are capped at 35% up to $15000 for handling and up to $25,000 for housing.  Although the merit criteria do favour larger operations, the rest of the program design means that the most problematic production systems are unlikely to apply for funding or be funded.  As discussed under Instruments, this is a common deficiency of Canadian programming.  Few, if any other, provinces have prioritized these subprograms, so there is no national coverage.

Converting intensive production barns is not cheap. It's particularly a problem for hog producers, because the expansion incentives of earlier periods encouraged producers to invest heavily in intensive and expensive barn designs, with limited land base.  While the new construction costs of an open housing model are likely the same as a conventional hog barn (White, 2020), Richards et al. (undated) projected costs for converting from a conventional sow to a group housing system at $250-750 / sow, approximately 50-75% of new barn construction costs, substantially more if new electronic feeding systems are part of the conversion (White, 2020).  One farm in their study reported total renovation costs of $1 million to convert from what was originally a 3000 sow farrow to weaning operation. Only about 1/4 of Canadian sows are managed in group housing, so most of the rest are still in conventional operations, meaning a very significant industry wide expense for conversion.  Converting a laying operation to enriched cages or aviary may cost the same as building a new barn from scratch (Hein, 2018). In 2019, at least one analyst suggested that 95% of existing egg-laying barns would have to be rebuilt to meet requirements to eliminate conventional cages (Glen, 2019).  For an intensive beef operation, the issue may be less the barn conversion and more whether the operation has the land base to keep animals outdoors for most of the year.

Handling and slaughter changes can also be expensive, for example moving to systems with unconscious birds following stunning which can require a complete overhaul of the front end of a plant (Glen, 2019). Some larger plants are already undertaking such changes, but smaller operations may need transition assistance.

Clearly, existing programming is woefully inadequate to address the most pressing challenges in intensive production units and slaughter operations.  Given that much of what currently exists in intensive units was policy driven (or a result of policy neglect), it makes sense for governments to facilitate the transition to new systems.  A recurring reverse auction approach to program design could be suitable, consistent with conditions appropriate for this approach, because:

  • of significant market pressures to transition from processors, food service, retailers and the public;
  • some farmers and plants have already undertaking conversion on their own initiative;
  • of highly variable current and future designs, management options and associated costs;
  • of government budget limitations
  • government imposed deadlines for all intensive operations to convert to systems that meet improved national animal welfare standards (see below) creates pressure for large numbers of producers to participate

The bids could be based on a $ subsidy / animal unit converted to a humane system.  Governments might also set minimum and maximum bids to provide guidance to producers and a certain level of equity to the bidding process.  At least part of the subsidy would have to be up front, with the balance on suitable completion, given cash flow realities in the farm sector.  This approach has been used extensively in US conservation programming for farmers operated by the USDA (cf. Hellerstein et al., 2015) and can inform a Canadian program design. The 2021 federal budget announced a similar approach for protecting farm wetlands through Agricultural Climate Solutions, though reverse auction design details were not announced.

Welfare fully integrated with sustainability codes

Animal welfare and production sustainability are intimately linked. Well designed low - input systems with animals reared in conditions that are closer to mimicking their innate behaviours and very good pre-slaughter transport and handling result generally in lower stress, better health and generally higher product quality, all with a lower environmental footprint (cf. MacRae et al., 1990; Blokuis et al., 2008; Rostagno, 2009; Schwartzkopf-Genswein et al., 2012).  Yields are lower, but at this stage in transition, animal product consumption at a population level is declining and production systems are extensifying.

It makes sense then for welfare provisions to be integrated with sustainability standards. This has been called for by the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, the Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (Zwolińska and Żakowska-
Biemans, 2021). It has slowly been happening with the national organic standards, and Local Food Plus made this a central element of their livestock protocol. This allows for verification and marketing under the sustainability certification labels already established, rather than having a separate process, infrastructure and set of expenses (see Goal 5, Sustainable Food).  MacRae's experience, however, is that a substantial challenge is getting different organizations to collaborate on standards. It is more likely to happen with government carrots and sticks, particularly a funded facilitated process, somewhat akin to how organic standards came to be.  Given the diversity of traditions, this will be even more important in order to integrate robust sustainability and welfare standards into a unified approach.

Social media campaigns

Consumer support of farmers in transition is important, so market promotion through social media is likely to be a useful component of educational and marketing campaigns.  However, the objective is not to drive consumers to abandon animal product, but rather to reduce consumption and favour those producers who demonstrate commitments to sustainability and animal welfare. This requires a subtlety in the messaging that is largely absent from much current social media focused on animal welfare by both industry (defending current practices) and NGOs (encouraging people to eliminate animal products from their diets).

A key challenge of social media campaigns will be confronting the dominant forms of animal product advertising. Most ads show either the finished product, the live animal in a bucolic rural setting, or the farmer.  Absent from all this promotion are the stages between the farm and the plate, provoking a false sense that everything is serene in the relations between animals and humans.  In this way, advertising obscures what really goes on (Winter, 2020).  See Goal 1, Changing Consumer Information Systems for strategies to address this problem.

As part of the implementation of sustainable diets (see Goal 2, Demand-supply Co-ordination), the federal and provincial governments will need to direct such campaigns.  Many firms and organizations are well placed to help with campaign design, but industry and NGOs are unlikely, for different reasons, to be suitable participants in such campaigns.