The new EU Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals
For a more balanced approach to the protection of animals EU must at least overcome one major ethical contradiction.
Livestock farming represents €149 billion annually in the EU, and the use of twelve million animals per year in experimentation is valued at €930 million. The additional costs of implementation of animal welfare policy measures are estimated at €3 billion, about 2% of the value of these sectors. EU spends €70 million a year supporting animal welfare, 71% of it being directed to farmers, and 21% – about €15 million – to research, the bulk of it on alternative methods to animal experiments.
These are some of the impressive figures cited in the Communication of the European Commission on the European Union Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals 2012-2015, accompanied by an Impact Assessment, issued on 19 January this year.
The subject of animal protection had already been discussed in the ambit of COMECE’s Reflection Group of Bioethics, at its meeting in Brussels on 10 October 2011. On that occasion, an official of the Commission - an invited speaker - expressed his appreciation of the involvement of the EU Bishops' Conferences as stakeholders in the issue.
Two important constraints pointed out by the Commission in the Strategy were: the importance of reconciling animal welfare with economic realities - what should be tackled through the appropriate recognition and instrumental use of economic incentives; and, secondly, the coexistence of diverse cultural appreciations of animal welfare aspects.
The main strategic actions to be drawn are: the definition of general principles in a consolidated, simplified EU legislative framework for animal welfare, foreseen for 2014; focusing on the actual results for animals, with the introduction of outcome-based animal welfare indicators (as opposed to input-based prescriptive welfare requirements) being considered; as well as the adoption of common competence requirements for personnel handling animals; supporting Member States in improving compliance with EU legislation; supporting international cooperation, for instance by means of continuing to include animal welfare in bilateral trade agreements; providing consumers with appropriate information, for instance by possibly granting funds for trans-national campaigns on animal welfare; optimising synergies with the Common Agriculture Policy and investigating the welfare of farmed fish.
Some matters still to be tackled
It is noteworthy that, as regards specifically research funding for animal welfare, the Strategy does not mention any extra financial commitments for refinement of animal experiments. This approach – putting special emphasis on the second R of the 3Rs («Replacement, Refinement and Reduction») welfare rule for conducting scientific experiments – had been referred to during the preparation of the Strategy. Nevertheless, the EU persists in a fundamental ethical contradiction which consists of promoting the replacement of animals used in research and testing at the same time as promoting the escalating use of human embryos for the same purpose of replacement, through funding projects involving human embryonic stem cells. As a matter of fact, there is a link between both of these results, as the first has been pursued by means of the second.
Moreover, a consolidated, simplified EU legislative framework for animal welfare raises the question whether it would be more adequate to keep differentiated principles and rules according to the different status of different species of animals, and to the different size of the producers. Common requirements for competence of personnel may become costly and burdensome particularly for small producers, and seemingly do not take into due consideration the prevalence of diverse cultural appreciations of animal welfare. The same can apply to the intention to continue to include animal welfare in bilateral trade agreements.
Finally, as regards the transnational campaigns, informed consumers might indeed be willing to support the extra costs of animal welfare measures, with a lesser necessity for direct support from the EU budget. Caution should be exercised, nevertheless, to avoid the hijacking of these campaigns for the promotion of a radical perspective of ’animal rights’, from which the Strategy now presented has apparently dissociated itself.