Animal health the biggest challenge in livestock farming, researcher says

Improving animal welfare could go in the wrong direction in term of environmental risks and there is a new line of research to cope with this problem, said the French expert. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

This article is part of our special report Communicating modern animal farming.

Even more than climate change, animal welfare will be the main challenge for the future of livestock farming and will prompt a rethink of the entire system around the health of animals, a French farming researcher told EURACTIV.com.

Jean-Louis Peyraud is assistant scientific director at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA and President of the European Platform Animal Task Force.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s agriculture reporter, Gerardo Fortuna.

A multi-stakeholder group in the livestock sector claimed there is increasing disinformation about animal farming. What’s an example of livestock fake news, if there is one?

When there is some kind of misunderstanding of reality. For example, when people claim that it takes 15,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogramme of meat. It is not wrong, but we need to consider that 95-96% of this water is just evapotranspiration from plants. So, it’s rainwater otherwise used to clean buildings, not for human consumption.

Do you think this misinterpretation is genuine or intentional?

Sometimes it is pure misinterpretation, sometimes it is to push an economic or social interest. For instance, it is true that livestock has some negative impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emission, but people from the vegan movement use this argument to push their philosophy against killing animals for meat because humans and animals are at the same level.

And I’m sure, although I have no direct proof, that a lot of industries use this kind of argument to develop their own plant-based products. In this way, they can take advantage of the fact that livestock is under pressure as a form of good advertising, just by saying they can produce foodstuffs to replace animal products and this will be better for society.

But still, there are concerns about intensive livestock. How do you see this practice in terms of sustainability?

Indeed, intensive livestock raises more issues than extensive animal farming. But I have no definitive verdict on this practice because, to some extent, it is thanks to the intensification of farming that a lot of people now can eat meat and dairy products at a reasonable price.

We don’t remember that people after World War II did not eat enough meat. So, the intensification of the system has some good aspects, but there are also bad ones regarding animal welfare and the environment.

Can we change it? I wish I say I hope so, but in some countries, especially in the north of Europe, there’s not much room for the extensive system, as there is not enough land. That’s a political and economical problem, we need to think about the future of livestock keeping in mind that we have a huge diversity in Europe.

Do you think the opinion on farmers is changing in our society?

Farmers used to live in a world where they were considered able to feed the world or the European population at least. Now, their position in society changed from a good to a bad one and not only in livestock farming, as the debate on pesticides shows.

The situation is getting worse because people living in the cities know less and less about livestock and crop farming, while farmers don’t know how to explain the evolution of their practices. The citizens see that there is a problem, but there is a huge distance between the vision of the population on what farming should be and what is the reality from the farmer side.

What role can the media sector have?

Communication of science is very complicated and communicating the real world is complicated as well. When you are in the media, you have one minute or less to tell your truth. So, it’s about saying something is black or white, not light or dark grey. And we cannot say that livestock is black or white, good or bad: it is much more complicated than this.

But it seems there is a clash between livestock stakeholders and journalists who are accused of spreading fake news…

I think that “clash” is a very strong word and I hope we don’t reach this extreme. But even in the scientific world, there is a lot of debate on it. I have some colleagues at the INRA who are sure that we need at least to reduce drastically or even to suppress livestock farming.

But it’s not a problem when it happens in a debate between scientists. The problem is when the debate appears in the media and the arguments are very biased. To be honest, I partially understand the vision of some NGOs claiming that we need more reasonable livestock farming system.

We should change our intensive farming to improve animal welfare, for instance. But how we can reach this without destroying our economic food chain? We don’t know how to go into this direction so far.

You mentioned animal welfare, what’s the situation in this regard?

It is better in Europe than in the rest of the world, but we need to make more progress. I think animal welfare is the main challenge for the future of livestock farming, even more than climate issues.

We need to conceive a new farming system around the welfare and the health of the animals and the farmers. But we should reconsider the system in a rational way, as to some extent, improving animal welfare goes in the wrong direction in term of environment.

Putting pigs outside, as some NGOs claim, will increase some environmental risks. There is a completely new area of research on this aspect and as President of the European Platform Animal Task Force, I will push this line of research in the next Horizon Europe.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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