Five factors to add to your animal welfare watch list in 2013

Alberta Beef Producers chair Doug Sawyer says livestock welfare issues 
become a permanent part of sustainable production

It’s a fact as clear as the rising sun on a crisp New Year’s Day morning over Doug Sawyer’s Pine Lake, Alberta, area ranchland. As 2013 kicks off, there’s no doubt the issue of livestock welfare has ascended to become a big and likely permanent part of the emerging “sustainability file” for global agriculture.

“There’s no doubt that’s where it is,” says Sawyer. “There’s going to be more talk. More focus. More questions and expectations for our industry to deal with. But there are also opportunities for us to manage this issue well and come out ahead.”

Sawyer, who was recently re-elected as chair of Alberta Beef Producers, has had the opportunity to develop a better read than most on the pivotal year ahead and the dynamics involved around the livestock welfare. The cow-calf producer has a long history of involvement in sustainability issues, including work on livestock welfare through his years of service — including several as chair — with Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC).

Always a straight shooter with a common-sense perspective, Sawyer took time from his ranch duties to discuss some top-of-mind thoughts. The focus was what he feels will be important factors to consider when looking at the year ahead – ones that have maybe flown a little below the radar or haven’t been discussed as much as others, but could just be the difference-makers in terms of what will impact producers.

The codes and what they mean at the farm level

Among the most significant developments underway in Canada is a new set of nationally developed Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals.

“The codes are a big step and there are a lot of important questions around them,” says Sawyer. “What impact are the codes going to have on producers? What may or may not they need to do with them? What’s in them? There are some unknowns until we see the final results. That can naturally make people a bit nervous.”

It’s an area that calls for patience and good communication to make sure these codes fit the role they are intended for and are a good fit with industry, he says. “That communication is not easy, but it’s important we recognize how important it is and do our best to get it right.”

Merging retail-level talk with on-farm reality

Talking about farm animal care at the retail level is a concept that is gaining traction among the Wal-Marts, Costcos, Sobeys and Safeways of the world. But it’s important the conversation at that stage also makes sense with what is happening and what is practical at the production level. Sawyer feels producers need to see the conversation as something that represents how they feel about this issue and is something they can stand behind, rather than as new rules or expectations dictated in a top-down way.

“As a consumer, when you see a product in the store that is marketed as welfare friendly, it’s an easy sell. It makes you feel good to buy that product. But as a producer, I see it bringing up questions. How does that relate to me? What’s my aspect of this? Am I comfortable with the expectations this is creating or what it implies about conventional production practices?”

The way Sawyer sees it, the more things can be done to make sure producers are on board and comfortable with this, the better and more sustainable it will be. “We need to be at the same table more often as producers and retailers. That is happening and we need to continue.”

The coming challenge: Reconciling different standards

As a beef producer, this one hits close to home for Sawyer. “For example, pain mitigation is a complex area we hear a lot of talk about in our industry. The dairy sector has included specifics around pain mitigation in its Code of Practice and they updated their code first. We weren’t involved in developing their code and how that relates to us has been challenging. You do something in one sector, and it creates expectations in another. It’s not wrong that happens, but it’s just a reality we have to be aware of and do our best to deal with.”

The most urgent example for Sawyer is at a global level. Specifically, the influence that overseas standards, particularly European ones, may have on the North American industry. “With the next trade agreements coming up, one of the biggest concerns North American agriculture has is that importation of overseas standards, whether it be animal welfare standards, environment, or other areas.”

Transport standards are a main area of concern, he says. “Our transportation is so different from theirs. If you drive an hour on a British road, it’s totally different than driving an hour on the road in Alberta, and we have totally different challenges.” Pain management is also an important area where there are significantly different approaches and challenges between Europe and North America.

Part of the issue is there are more global players who like the idea of streamlined standards, he says. “This includes some very key customers of our product. And I worry about them trying to sum up European and North American standards in the same sentence.” Uniformity has advantages, but these players and the sustainability initiatives they are involved with also need to recognize differences and find that right balance, he says. “We definitely don’t want to start importing European standards that have no application over here.”

Environment factor: Accelerating the learning curve

On a positive note, Sawyer believes the experience of agriculture in managing the environment file has helped to pave the way for faster and better management of the welfare file. “To me, environment was the issue that broke the ground on what we now talk about more broadly as sustainability. Livestock welfare has an easier path because of that. With environment, we went through the gamut of have our head in the sand, then get mad and fight it, then acceptance and then realizing this isn’t as bad as we thought, and then, how do we manage it.

“With welfare we’re a lot quicker to figure out we can manage this and that’s what we need to focus on. Because of that we have been able to move much quicker in terms of the industry uptake.”

Remember why we’re doing this

For Sawyer, there are two levels of reasons to do something on livestock welfare. “The first level of reason is for the animal side and what that does for our business. It helps us in terms of being able to export, being able to keep consumer confidence, have happier and more productive animals and just that it’s the right thing to do. There are a whole lot of reasons on this side.”

The other level is the defensive side, he says. “We’ve realized the big concern on the defensive side is not our own governments or regulations or even consumers. It’s from attacks from the more extreme activist groups that we’ve begun to realize are going to be relentless. We’re not going to be doing one thing and showing them it’s good and then they go home for a while. It’s never good enough. This is the side where we’ve had to draw some lines in the sand.”

The key to handling both sides well is to recognize this distinction and address each differently, says Sawyer. “The more we try to intermix them, the more screwed up we get. When it comes to production changes, we always need to be clear on why we’re doing this and it needs to make sense on the first level. This is where we can do what makes sense and keep the big consumer base on side.”

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