Citizens and animal farming… an ongoing debate…

Over the last years I’ve been studying the socio-cultural sustainability of animal farming by looking at citizen perceptions in the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark of  two farming systems; dairy and pig production (see former blogs). The debate is ongoing and I am happy to see that an increasing number of researchers are actively involved in this field.

However,  I’ll be moving into another – also very interesting – field… also animal farming… also sustainability, but this time in Mozambique and smallholder goat production.  Hence, this is my final blog for Rural Sociology. From the 15th of June I’ll be working as post doctoral researcher for the International Livestock Research Institute ( in Africa and India.

For those of you interested in the field of citizens and animal farming in Western societies,  below is a list of my publications, including two recently published papers. One paper includes the results of pig farm visits (see former blog), the other is a very compact review paper of my PhD thesis, only 9 pages…. Two other papers are published in open access journals, so I’ve included the link to the full paper for you. You’re free to use them (with correct reference of course) 🙂  

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“What is a good life for animals?”

Last week 65 students Animal Science have been dealing with this question during the course ‘Animal Science in Society’ (RSO 11303). We used David Fraser’s book ‘Understanding Animal Welfare. The Science in its Cultural Context’ (2008) as guidance. David Fraser describes three concepts for animal welfare, i.e. what entails  ‘a good life for animals’ : a) a healthy life, b) a natural life, c) a happy life. The three concepts are not mutually exclusive, but overlap. Moreover, they often don’t go together, they are in conflict.

In groups of 6 students per group, the students worked on this question to get familiar with the concepts and to learn to apply these. Each group answered the question for a specific animal in a specific environment. “What is a good life for…?” …a dairy cow at a commercial farm? …a rabbit at home? …a rat at a laboratory? …an elephant in a circus? …fattening pig at a commercial farm? …a rabbit at a farm for meat production? …a fish in a fishbowl? …a laying hen at a commercial farm? …a mink at a farm for fur production? …a cat at home?

The students had to present their answers in a creative way. Well, one can leave that up to Animal Science students! You-tube movies about ‘Youp van ‘t Hek’s ‘Flappie’’, chips-eating cats, home-made movies about the ideal life for laying hens, a performance with students as rabbits and one group even designed a completely new mink production system with mink welfare as departure point!

The presentations as well as the discussions showed that the answer to this question is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Instead, the answers vary according to the animal species and their functionality. The functionality of the animal refers to the function the animal has for humans, for example food production, company, aesthetics, entertainment and testing medication. In some situations, the animal’s function harms its welfare so much, that the function itself is being questioned.  For example, a large majority of the students held the opinion that elephants should not be kept in circuses. In their opinion, the elephants’ welfare is harmed too much – as they are kept in a very unnatural environment – in comparison to the benefit for humans – entertainment. However, students were less unanimous when it comes to use of animals for food production, for example about the welfare of fattening pigs. There was one group of students who held the opinion that the welfare of fattening pigs was fine as long as the pigs were healthy. In their eyes, conventional production systems did not harm pig welfare. On the other hand, there was a group of students who considered conventional production systems too ‘unnatural’. They preferred organic farming systems which give space to more ‘naturalness’ and ‘happy pigs’.

The latter example also illustrates that in addition to the animal’s functionality, personal experiences, values and convictions play a role when defining a good life for animals. Hence, the answer to this question also varies among (groups of) people. Finally, the definition of animal welfare varies according to the social and cultural context in which it is defined and used.

Thanks to the original and enthusiastic input of the students, it was a creative and interesting closure of a week about animal welfare, in which the students could get familiar with present-day social and scientific questions (see former blog) about animal welfare!


‘We weten niet meer wat er in al die pakjes en zakjes zit maar voeden graag onze verbeelding met een geidealiseerd beeld van hoe ons voedsel groeit en geproduceerd wordt’, lees ik in één van de essays in Kost, nieuwe gezichten op eten. Daarvan vond ik recent een mooi voorbeeld. Want als een stier het lef heeft dwars door dat beeld te lopen ontstaat grote consternatie. De wildebras wist half november te ontspannen uit een slachthuis in Arnhem en stoof woest door de stad totdat hij verdoofd en gevangen werd.

Ot en Sien

Binnen no time had de stier een actiegroep die hem wilde redden. 41 landelijke en regionale krantebrichten later is de stier inderdaad geadopteerd door een ‘boerderij voor ontsnapte dieren’. Nog een paar kranteartikelen verder is hij toch afgemaakt. Hij bleek nog meer driftbuien te hebben en was als opstandige puber niet handhaafbaar.

Mary Douglas beschrijft in Purity and Danger mooi wat hier gebeurt met haar concept ‘anomaly’. Een abnormaliteit is een item dat niet binnen een gegeven serie of set past. Het is ‘matter out of place’. In ons verstedelijkte brein is de categorie ‘landbouwhuisdier’ aan het verdwijnen. We houden daarmee nog twee categorieen over, (huis)dier en vlees, nu volstrekt van elkaar gescheiden.

Zo gauw een normaliter anoniem landbouwhuisdier zichzelf zichtbaar maakt ontstaat een abnormale situatie. Als (huis)dier moet hij gered worden, de lapjes van zijn anonieme broertjes mogen op ons bord verschijnen als vlees.

Citizens and Animal Welfare: Methods, Findings and Policy Implications

Last Thursday (20th of May) I participated in an interesting workshop about citizens and animal welfare.  The workshop was organized at Aarhus University in Denmark and dealt with questions like: Whose opinion on animal welfare counts? How can one integrate the different perspectives of,  for example farmers, citizens, (animal) scientists and the government? We already know that citizens consider animals’ ‘naturalness’ a very important feature of ‘good animal welfare’. But what is naturalness exactly? Can you implement this in animal farming systems? Can you measure it? And what if the choice for naturalness is in conflict with other aspects, such as animal health? How do citizens make trade-offs between such dilemmas in animal farming? And how should one involve citizens in animal welfare research? Via surveys, farm visits, consensus conferences or are there other ways to be explored? To be short, although much research has already been done on animal welfare over the last decade, there are still many questions surrounding the animal welfare debate when it comes to citizens’ participation and involvement.

Raising new questions is of course a characteristic of research: finishing a research can give you the feeling that you answered some questions, but in the end it will always result in more questions. That’s what keeps us going. What in addition keeps me going, is the cooperation and discussion with other researchers in the world. Particularly after doing a PhD for six years on my own, it is really nice to exchange ideas and cooperate with other researchers in this field, like Jan Tind Sørensen of the Department of Animal Health and Bioscience and Peter Sandøe of the Danish Centre for Bioethics and Risk Assessment . During my PhD I often had the feeling I was one of the very few researchers who is interested in public perceptions of animal farming. But recently, the importance of the public opinion of animal farming is more and more acknowledged, also in the field Animal Science, of which this workshop was a good example.