Proceedings of the Second NAHWOA Workshop

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Is there a such a thing as "organic" animal welfare?

Vonne Lund

Swedish University ofAgricultural Sciences, Facultyof Veterinary Medicine/Department of Animal Environment and Health, PO Box 234, SE-532 23 Skara, Sweden, E-mail:



Animal welfare is a widely discussed concept, including among scientists. During the last quarter of a century, science has tried to define the concept. Generally, animal welfare refers to one or several aspects of an animal’s quality of life. It has been argued that the welfare concept contains both a scientific aspect (describing the status of the animal) and a value aspect (since it implies moral considerations regarding the animal’s quality of life) (e.g. Tannenbaum, 1991; Sandøe and Simonsen, 1992). Other scientists have argued that animal welfare can be measured objectively and scientifically, and that ethical considerations are a separate matter (e.g. Broom, 1991).

The establishment of organic agriculture as an alternative to conventional agriculture raises the question whether there can be a specific "organic" definition of the animal welfare concept.


Animal welfare is important in organic agriculture

Animal husbandry is an important feature of most organic farms. One of the 17 basic principles of organic agriculture stated in the IFOAM Basic Standards is "to give all livestock conditions of life with due consideration for the basic aspects of their innate behavior" (Anon. 1998). In marketing organic animal products, an important argument is that organic livestock are allowed to express more of their natural behavior and are provided with better welfare than livestock on conventional farms. It has also been shown that, for example, Swedish consumers believe organic livestock experience better animal welfare than animals in conventional farming (Holmberg 2000).

Welfare is thus an important issue not only to animals on organic farms but also to the organic movement and to consumers.


Basic values in organic agriculture

Is there such a thing as "organic" animal welfare? If welfare is considered to be a composite concept, the value part makes it context-dependent. To interpret it in an organic context then implies that relevant values in organic agriculture must be identified and related to a welfare concept. In the following, it is suggested how this can be done.

One problem when trying to identify basic values of the organic agriculture movement is that no comprehensive "official ideology" has been published where these values are explicitly stated. There are, however, some values that may be considered the core on which organic farming is built. These are expressed, for example, in the aims stated in the IFOAM Basic Standards and in the Nordic Platform, a consensus document adopted by the Nordic IFOAM group (Granstedt et al. 1998). The values are close to the biocentric and ecocentric philosophies developed by Leopold, Taylor, Calicott, Næss and others.

Here we have chosen to describe these basic values with the following three concepts: respect for nature, aim of sustainability and aim of a holistic view. We will not, in this paper, go in detail regarding why these particular concepts are selected, and they are only briefly presented below. The aim is rather to show how one may reason in order to arrive at a welfare definition suitable to basic values in organic agriculture.


Respect for nature

The respect for nature view is based on the perception that all forms of life on the planet is interconnected and interdependent. It implies recognition of the interrelations in nature and between humans and nature. This means that mankind is seen not as the crown of creation but rather as one of many species in the complex ecosystems of the planet, giving humans no self-evident right to interfere negatively with other life forms.

This view also implies that nature is perceived as providing good models for human action (Lindholm 1998).

The philosopher Paul Taylor has developed a philosophy with a strong respect for nature view. He argues that all organisms have an "inherent worth", and that the realisation of the being’s good is something to be promoted or protected as an end in itself and for the sake of the being whose good it is (Taylor 1984). The biocentric view that he advocates is probably too radical for most people in the organic movement since it repudiates the killing of animals. Animal husbandry is important to organic agriculture, since it stabilizes the agro-ecological system and makes this more productive, and animal husbandry presupposes slaughter. Organic agriculture can therefore in this respect be said to be closer to an ecocentric view, where killing of animals is not a moral problem (unless the animal belongs to a threatened species). But respect for other living organisms is part of the organistic and holistic tradition on which the organic movement is partly based (Worster 1994).



There is an abundance of definitions dealing with "sustainability". Often, ecological, economic and social sustainability are mentioned in the same definition. The IFOAM standards as well as the Nordic Platform deal with all these areas of sustainability.

Here we will deal with the concept of sustainability using a narrow interpretation, focusing on sustainability in relation to the life-supporting ecological and biological functions on the planet. Sustainability in this sense refers to an agroecological system aiming at neither depleting non-renewable resources nor seriously impairing the life-supporting functions or resilience of the ecosystem of which it is a part. (This does not mean that economic and social sustainability are not as important, but that these aspects need not be considered for the purposes of this paper.)


Holistic outlook

In addition to the respect for nature attitude within the organic movement, there is an aim of a holistic outlook, recognizing complexity and favouring systems thinking (Thompson 1992, Alrøe and Kristensen 1998). Also, there is outspoken criticism of the reductionist approach advocated by "traditional" science and the positivistic ideal of how to reach knowledge. The idea of an objective science is rejected (e.g. Rasmussen et al. 1997). Human influence is recognized regarding, for example, what objects to study, how the study should be performed, how results should be interpreted and implied etc.

Organic agriculture is based on the belief that the study of "the whole" will provide more and better information than the study of the parts only (Borgen 1998). Adopting a holistic and deliberately subjective view is considered to yield a better understanding of problems and greater opportunities of finding proper solutions.


Suggestions for an "organic" definition

The three concepts stated above can be used to give guidance regarding criteria relevant to a suitable definition of animal welfare in organic systems.


Respect for nature

The respect for nature view justifies the claim for animal welfare in organic animal husbandry systems. (This cannot be derived from, for example, aims of sustainability or efficient use of resources.) From this view it can be argued that humans have a moral responsibility to respect other living creatures and a special responsibility for farm animals since they are directly under human control.

The respect for nature view considers farm animals as more than only a means of production. As fellow beings, they have a value of their own and should not be thoughtlessly exploited merely for human gain, even when no direct physical or mental suffering is caused (e.g. through genetic manipulation). The use of concepts like integrity or dignity can be useful to describe something that is to be respected independently of whether the animal actually experiences negative feelings such as suffering, or whether or not it has good biological functioning measured as high production or good health. Although these concepts are not easy to define (Dol et al. 1999), they are clearly compatible with an organic view and could be connected to a welfare concept.

Respect of animal integrity and dignity could require the opportunity for the animal to exhibit species-specific behaviour in an environment as close as possible to the species’ "natural" environment - in other words, similar to the environment that animal would have chosen if wild, or at least offering key features of that environment. The animal’s needs for social behaviour should also be included. For example, pigs should have the chance to root and sows to build nests when farrowing; poultry should have access to perches, nests and dustbaths; cattle should graze in summer and feed mainly on fibre-rich diets; etc.

The respect for nature view is linked to a belief that nature offers the best solutions to problems, and that we should look to nature to find good answers to our questions (Lindholm 1998). This implies that "naturalness" should be important when defining animal welfare.

Thus a claim can be raised to include "possibility of behaving naturally in an environment with key elements of the one natural to the animal" in an "organic" welfare definition.



There are several ways in which the sustainability of the ecosystem, the agroecological system and farm animal welfare relate. One important link is animal health. In organic farming, a major aim is to keep livestock in good health without the use of (chemically synthesized) medication. There are several reasons for this aim. Animal welfare concerns are one important reason. Another reason is the aim of sustainability (ecological as well as economic). Ecological sustainability demands minimum emission of foreign substances of low degradability and/or high toxicity (such as antibiotics and anthelmintics) into the ecosystems. To avoid this, good animal health is necessary and a prerequisite for a healthy agroecological system. From a sustainability point of view, good animal health and good biological functioning should thus be included in an organic welfare definition. Natural behaviour then becomes indirectly included, since it has been shown that opportunity to exhibit species-specific behaviour is important for low stress levels and thereby for good health.

System health is linked to individual health: a functioning biosphere with healthy ecosystems is (in a longer perspective) a basic requirement for individual welfare. (System health is, however, not sufficient to guarantee the health of the individual or vice versa.) But recognizing the interconnectedness between the ecosystem and the individual animal, a proviso could be added to the conditions for animal welfare that the agroecological system should be sustainable. Of course, this would be to extend the welfare concept far beyond its common use.

If a strong conflict exists between environmental protection (system health) and individual welfare, the latter may be given less priority from a sustainability point of view. For example, there is a tendency among organic farmers to hesitate over administering medication such as biocidic preventive medication such as anthelmintics, or antibiotics to sick animals. This reluctance to administer medication has been strongly criticized by, for example, some Swedish veterinarians, who argue that animal welfare is neglected.

Relating the organic aim of holistic thinking to the concept of animal welfare, the conclusion is that we must look for a complex definition rather than one focusing on single parameters. From the organic critique of reductionist and positivistic scientific methodology, one may conclude that the welfare concept does not need to be limited to what is scientifically measurable according to current scientific knowledge. It would, for example, be fully acceptable to include feelings in the concept.

A holistic view demands that the welfare concept should include not only negative parameters but also positive ones. A further conclusion is that animal welfare should be considered a composite concept, based on both subjective values of ethical concern and scientific measurements.

As mentioned above, a systems perspective can be problematic if it does not grant individual welfare. Further examples of this are when natural behaviour conflicts with environmental concerns, as can be the case with free-range pigs during rainy periods and on certain soil types.


Discussion: How do current welfare definitions fit with the organic view?

In the following section, we will discuss how the above requirements fit with current welfare definitions. Most of the proposed animal welfare definitions so far are found within two major areas, of which one may be called "the subjective experience approach" and the other "the biological functioning approach". A third kind of approach has also been suggested, the "natural living approach" (Fraser et al 1997). They cover different aspects of welfare and have advantages and disadvantages, including from an organic agriculture perspective. More recently, authors have suggested looking for complex definitions using multiple parameters, trying to cover more aspects important for animal quality of life (see below).


The subjective experience approach

This approach claims that the feelings of the animal, such as suffering, pain or pleasure, are to be considered when its welfare status is evaluated. Welfare is degraded by subjective experiences such as pain, fear, frustration, hunger etc. and enhanced by experiences like comfort, contentment and certain social interaction (Duncan and Fraser 1997). One of the most outspoken advocates for this definition is Duncan (1993):

"Neither health nor lack of stress nor fitness is necessary and/or sufficient to conclude that an animal has a good welfare. Welfare is dependent on what animals feel."

There are several advantages to the subjective experience approach – not least, that it coheres with most people’s intuition of what welfare is. From the organic viewpoint, this "common sense" is important. Also, it coheres with a preferred non-positivist view demanding that non-measurable parameters such as feelings should also be included in evaluations.

The subjective experience approach also has disadvantages. A major one is the difficulty of measuring feelings (Fraser et al 1997). From an organic point of view, this could be more of a practical than a principled objection, since the welfare concept does not need to be limited to what is scientifically measurable according to current scientific knowledge. A major criticism would rather be that the approach is too narrow, since it only deals with the feelings of the animal. Thus it does not provide protection from genetic manipulation nor give any special value to the possibility of living a "natural life".

The dilemma for organic agriculture is to spell out the balance between the natural living and the actual experience of well being of the animal. Although pain and suffering are natural parts of life in nature, the responsibility of humans in animal husbandry is still perceived by most people (and by animal welfare legislation) as the prevention of suffering and the promotion of well being. The organic interpretation is not always in accordance with what animal protectionists and other concerned parties find appropriate.


The biological functioning approach

Other scientists have argued that quality of life is when the biological systems of the animal are functioning in a normal/satisfactory manner. Biological functioning has been defined somewhat differently by different scientists. One common interpretation is that welfare depends on whether the animal can cope successfully with its environment and function normally from a biological perspective. Welfare will then be reduced by disease, injury and malnutrition; good welfare will be indicated by high levels of growth and reproduction, normal functioning of physiological and behavioral processes and high levels of longevity and biological fitness (Duncan and Fraser 1997). Some versions of this approach emphasise the opportunity for natural behaviour as crucial for biological functioning. This definition is argued by Broom (1991), for example.

"Animals have to contend with a complex environment and they have a variety of methods of attempting to cope with it. … The coping methods include physiological changes in the brain adrenals and immune system and, linked to some of these, behavioral changes. Some factors affecting an animal may result in great difficulties in coping. It may fail to cope in that fitness is reduced and either it dies fails to grow or its ability to reproduce is reduced in some direct way. The welfare of an animal is its state as regards its attempts to cope with its environment." (Fraser and Broom 1990).

The approach fits into the positivistic tradition of science, and it has the advantage that physiological parameters can be measured scientifically. From an organic point of view, it is good that it can allow emphasis on natural behaviour and other "natural" processes. However, the link between functioning and welfare is not always clear. There is, for example, no simple connection between high production and welfare.

 Taking a claim for "natural living" as its departure point, biological functioning interpreted as health will be rejected, as prime goal systems like SPF systems for raising piglets are not accepted in spite of the fact that they aim at good animal health (although in a narrow sense). A more natural system is preferred, even though health hazards may be greater in such a system.


The "Natural living" approach

A third type of approach is the "natural living" approach, proposing that an animal’s welfare depends on it being allowed to perform its natural behaviour and live a "natural" life (Fraser et al. 1997). A version of this approach has been presented by Rollin (1993):

"Not only will welfare mean control of pain and suffering, it will also entail nurturing and fulfilment of the animals’ natures, which I call telos." (B. E. Rollin, 1993)

Welfare, in his understanding, means freedom to perform most types of natural behaviour in a natural environment. Rollin can accept changes in the genetic setup of the animal (Rollin 1993), but the concept of "telos" could easily be extended to encompass the idea that the telos should not be violated through genetic engineering.

From an organic point of view, this approach is appealing, since it puts much emphasis on natural behaviour. Used in a wide sense, it will also allow a ban on genetic engineering, extreme production levels and other phenomena criticized by organic agriculture proponents as "unnatural" and threatening to animal welfare (or unsustainable for the environment).

However there are also disadvantages to this concept. It is difficult to define what the "telos" actually is. Further, it can be difficult to use the concept for guidance in all welfare issues, since the farm situation is unnatural per se. Also, the general view is that since we have taken farm animals into our service we have a responsibility to care for them, not just to leave them as they are. Pain and suffering can be caused by livestock systems that are not natural enough – or by those that are too natural.

However, the "natural living" approach is a good departure point, even if it is insufficient, for an organic definition of animal welfare.


Complex approaches

The organic demand for a complex definition is actually in accord with what several authors have argued for in the welfare debate lately. For example, Stafleu et al. (1996) state that it is broadly accepted that the best way to tackle the phenomenon of diversity is to use multiple parameters. They further urge scientists to co-ordinate the research on different relevant parameters to get more reliable results. Fraser et al. (1997) suggest an integrative model for judging animal welfare that includes all three current approaches to animal welfare definitions. Authors such as Rollin (1993) and Mench (1998) suggest a move to a broader quality-of-life concept that includes not only a high level of biological functioning and freedom from suffering but also positive experiences. (The natural living approach could also be considered a complex approach.) It thus looks as if the welfare debate is leaving behind positivistic perspectives and moving in the organic direction.



From an organic viewpoint, animal welfare should be recognized as a composite concept, based on both (subjective) values of ethical concern and scientific measurements. The value aspect should correspond to values advocated by the organic movement.

Taking these values as a departure point, the organic animal welfare concept should be a complex one, including multiple parameters, reflecting the holistic approach of organic agriculture. Positive parameters should also be included. Several scientific authors have lately suggested a move in this direction.

The organic emphasis on "naturalness" implies that an organic definition should promote animal health and biological functioning in a natural environment (or an environment that contains corresponding key features), allowing it to perform species-specific behaviour and feed according to its species-specific requirements.

Not only feelings are morally relevant (otherwise welfare issues could easily be solved through administering painkillers or "happiness pills"). The use of concepts like animal dignity, integrity or intrinsic value could be a way to describe morally relevant features that do not directly affect the animal’s experiences of pain or suffering but can still be considered important for animal welfare. However, these concepts must be carefully defined in order to be useful.

A further extension of the welfare concept could be to require a sustainable and well-functioning agro-ecological system in which the animal is to live.

The risk with an over-broad concept is that it would not be useful when it comes to deciding on conflicting issues. It would also raise great practical difficulties of measurement. An alternative would be to state that, in addition to a narrow welfare concept, other issues (such as environmental issues) also have moral significance in the welfare discussion.

There is a conflict between the concept of "naturalness" and systems thinking on the one hand, and individual welfare on the other. To find good solutions to this dilemma is a challenge to the organic movement.



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