Supermarket chains and food companies guilty of lip service to farm animal welfare says researcher

By failing to fully understand and embrace the principles of farm animal welfare, big supermarket chains could be causing environmental damage and imperilling the long-term viability of their businesses.  This is one of the arguments developed by the University of Huddersfield’s Dr John Lever.

His latest publication investigates the extent to which farm animal welfare (FAW) is part of the corporate social responsibility (CSP) strategies adopted by large food companies.  It is argued that FAW is currently “unfocussed and separate” from the core business agendas of large global food companies.  Big firms “have little understanding of why they engage with FAW in the first place” and fail to make connections with broader issues of sustainability.

“There is mounting evidence that improvements in FAW can be linked to the three pillars of sustainable development – environment, society and economy,” writes Dr Lever in his contribution to the new book Stages of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Intensive animal agriculture has a major impact on climate change, being responsible for the emission of more greenhouse gases than global transport.  Also, it is in direct competition with humans for water, food, space and other scarce resources, and it can cause water pollution and damage ecosystems.  A large pig farm can create as much faecal waste as a small city.

“Keeping animals under less intensive conditions, with better welfare, can clearly have an impact in these areas by reducing stress, pollution and environmental damage,” writes Dr Lever, adding that “the poor treatment of animals can impact human health through the spread of pathogens”.

Increasing numbers of consumers view animal welfare as an important issue in its own right, but “it seems clear that many companies use FAW simply to communicate brand awareness through differentiated product ranges,” according to Dr Lever, who co-authored the book chapter with Dr Adrian Evans, of Coventry University.

One of the conclusions of the chapter is that “by damaging the environment and undermining social and economic development, supermarkets and corporate retailers are hindering their own ability and capacity to produce and sell food in the future”.

Dr Lever is Senior Lecturer in Sustainability in the Department of Management at the University of Huddersfield’s Business School.  He is a long-standing researcher into issues that include sustainable communities and food systems.

At the University’s recent Business School Research Conference, he presented a paper titled Farm animal welfare, responsible business & the role of big brands: the politics of sight.

“While some companies are starting to make commitments that appear to go beyond the usual public relations ‘greenwashing’,” Dr Lever stated that this new corporate embrace of FAW is part of a big brand takeover aligned with responsible business practice at the expense of the environmental sustainability concerns,”

Partnership working between non-governmental organisations and supermarkets has helped to improve awareness of farm animal welfare over the last 25 years.  But Dr Lever states that the recent intensification of this process means that many global food companies are struggling to catch up and understand the connections between the welfare of farmed animals and wider sustainability issues.

His forthcoming publications include a book on halal and kosher meat markets.  He has also developed links with The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare, which is designed to help drive higher farm animal welfare standards through the provision of an annual review of how the world’s leading food businesses are managing and reporting their FAW policies and practices.

Dr Lever himself has a special interest in how non-governmental organisations (NGOs) form partnerships with big corporations to improve farm animal welfare.  He has embarked on a series of interviews with a number of NGOs as part of his current research.

“Farm animal welfare is a big area, covering subjects such as politics, sustainability and business responsibility, so it is a good topic for teaching,” added Dr Lever, who has introduced it into various undergraduate and postgraduate modules.  His new book chapter was partly conceived as a valuable teaching aid.

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