Animal welfare deserves better from investment policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Animal welfare is important to Europeans, but this seems to get lost when investment policy is being formulated. [Shutterstock]

International finance institutions and member state export credit agencies continue to invest in projects outside the EU involving cruel farm animal confinement systems banned in the EU. Better joined-up thinking is needed with regard to investment policy and animal welfare, writes Joanna Swabe.

Dr Joanna Swabe is executive director for Humane Society International/Europe.

Over the past couple of decades, the European Union has adopted and implemented legislation that has eliminated the most extreme confinement systems for farm animals, such as barren battery cages for laying hens, cages for broiler chickens and individual sow stalls for pigs.

The European Commission asserts that animal welfare is a priority for the EU. Indeed, the majority of EU citizens across all member states share this view of the importance of animal welfare, as the results of a recent Eurobarometer has revealed. Yet something seems to be getting lost in translation when it comes to safeguarding animal welfare through EU and member state investment policy.

EU countries own shares in multiple international financial institutions, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and European Investment Bank, which invest in animal agriculture outside of the EU.

Furthermore, member states also provide insurance in the form of export credits to domestic companies selling farm animal housing and equipment abroad. These investments can, however, turn out to be investments in cruel animal confinement.

In 2013, Humane Society International released a report that revealed that EU countries were funding many animal agricultural projects in non-EU members, either through international finance institutions (IFIs) or export credit agencies, which employ housing systems that have long been prohibited and phased-out in the EU.

Three years on, investments in third country farming operations using extreme confinement systems continue.

In fairness, the EBRD, which is owned by the EU, member states and other countries, was quick to respond to this critique by including animal welfare in its Environmental and Social Policy, thereby requiring its clients to adopt animal welfare standards equivalent to or exceeding those required in the EU.

However, in practice, it has proved difficult to ascertain how well this policy is being implemented either due to a lack of detailed information on animal housing and husbandry practices.

A handful of member states also started pushing for reform. For instance, in December 2014, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands signed a Joint Declaration on Animal Welfare in which they committed to promoting animal welfare in the framework of national and international finance institutions, as well as export credit agencies, which engage in the farming sector.

Similarly, Austria issued Strategic Guidelines for International Financial Institutions in 2015, which included a call for ‘animal husbandry criteria that meet the European standards’. The UK government also called on multilateral banks to ensure that their lending ‘strongly supports the delivery of appropriate animal welfare standards’.

What is really needed is better joined-up thinking on the part of both the Commission and EU states to ensure that they do not continue to fund and insure animal agriculture operations in third countries that violate the EU’s own animal welfare legislation.

It is a good start that Austria has pushed for the inclusion of this issue on the agenda of the next AGRIFISH Council meeting. Yet what is really needed is for governmental departments responsible for animal welfare and international finance policy to actually start talking to each other to make sure that EU policy is applied consistently.

As major shareholders of IFIs, including the World Bank Group’s International Financial Corporation (IFC) and a whole host of other development banks, EU countries should ensure that binding animal welfare standards are adopted that are consistent with EU standards.

Moreover, member states should take advantage of the OECD’s updated Common Approaches policy governing export credits as it now allows for countries to apply stricter standards to their export credits. EU countries must apply EU standards, as a minimum, to all exports insured.

Finally, as always, the devil is in the details. It is crucial that the member states should compel IFIs and export credit agencies to disclose the indicators of animal welfare in project summaries, such as stocking density and the type of housing systems. In so doing, it would make it possible to assess whether they are truly living up to their commitments to protect animal welfare.

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