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Muhammad, M.;  Stokes, J.E.;  Morgans, L.;  Manning, L. Animal Welfare Discourse and Debate. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/31105 (accessed on 19 June 2024).
Muhammad M,  Stokes JE,  Morgans L,  Manning L. Animal Welfare Discourse and Debate. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/31105. Accessed June 19, 2024.
Muhammad, Mukhtar, Jessica E. Stokes, Lisa Morgans, Louise Manning. "Animal Welfare Discourse and Debate" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/31105 (accessed June 19, 2024).
Muhammad, M.,  Stokes, J.E.,  Morgans, L., & Manning, L. (2022, October 25). Animal Welfare Discourse and Debate. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/31105
Muhammad, Mukhtar, et al. "Animal Welfare Discourse and Debate." Encyclopedia. Web. 25 October, 2022.
Animal Welfare Discourse and Debate
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Animal welfare is a public good that is extremely important to stakeholders, who can hold conflicting values and viewpoints, on what animal welfare is, and how a good life is achieved. Various stakeholder groups tend to signal different problems, or problematize specific aspects of farm animal welfare, and propose different actions or interventions within food supply chains.

animal welfare argument dialogue stakeholder sheep discourse narrative

1. Introduction

A discourse is simply, communication in either the written or spoken word about a specific topic, i.e., the word as a single unit lies at the heart of the discourse and how the words are arranged or structured in a given sequence forms language. A discourse is developed from a constructed arrangement of language, and can include a monologue, i.e., a one-way, report, statement or commentary and dialogues which are multiple-way communication or conversations. Discourse can be considered for its linguistic content, the subject matter and its linguistic form, namely its cohesion and structuring, as well as the socially framed meanings. These are often positioned in the discourse through rhetoric devices in the argumentative organization of the text [1].
The term “dialogue” derives from two words in classical Greek, “dia” meaning “through” and “logos” meaning “word” [2]. The direct interpretation of the term implies that engaging in dialogue creates communication, harmony and understanding. Dialogues are “key to our inspiration and to our capacities to sort out ethical dilemmas and the multiple meanings that confront us as we continue our inquiries into human experience” [3] (p. 51). Dialogues between stakeholders in this context have been described alternatively as intensified [4]; institutionalized [5]; collaborative, cogenerative, consensus driven [6][7][8]; mutually beneficial [9]; constructive [8]; pluralistic [10]; persuasive [11]; synchronous or asynchronous [11]; internal or external [12]; and surface or deep [13]. These descriptions of dialogue demonstrate the multifaceted aspects of engaging in dialogue (Table 1).
Table 1. Characteristics of dialogues.
Characteristic Source
Collaborative, cogenerative, consensus driven [6][7][8]
Constructive [8]
Internal or external [12]
Intensified [4]
Institutionalised [5]
Mutually beneficial [9]
Persuasive [11]
Pluralistic [10]
Surface/deep [13]
Synchronous/asynchronous [11]
Dialogue may take many forms, such as persuasion, deliberation, eristic, negotiation, inquiry (scientific), and inquiry (philosophical). Indeed, based on the extant literature, citizens’ and consumers’ dialogue can be classified from a philosophical and ethical stance [14][15]; and driven by cognitive appraisal of what individuals believe is right or wrong, which may, or may not be scientifically supported. Persuasion uses rhetoric strategies to influence others and is an element of overall communication with both analytical approaches (focusing on logic), and dialectic (debating a point or issue) elements [16].
Dialogue may be primary or secondary dialogue. Primary (or direct) dialogue forms the ‘visible’ argument and or communications of an organization and is embedded in external corporate documents such as annual reports and websites [16][17]. Primary dialogue is the actual words or language that are used in a conversation between two or more individuals. Secondary dialogue represents the “silent” or “shadow” internalized discourses which may not be visible but are perceived to be embedded or inferred in primary dialogues [16]. Simply put, primary dialogue is what researchers say (the words and structured content of the language), while the secondary dialogue is not what is said ‘but implied’ in the language which is used or not used. Considering this statement, ‘this sheep flock has a very high level of lameness’ could through the secondary dialogue be taken to have the inferred meaning that “you are a bad farmer”. This interaction between primary and secondary dialogue through discourse can operate at the discussion level between individual farmers, advisors, certification bodies, standard owners, and service providers and in the written communication. However, investigations into this research area in terms of the social construction of discourse and its meaning(s) are currently lacking.
Animal welfare is a public good that is extremely important to multiple stakeholders. Stakeholders can concur or alternatively hold conflicting values and viewpoints, on what animal welfare is, and how good welfare, in particular, is achieved. Various stakeholder groups tend to signal different problems and/or problematize specific aspects of animal welfare and propose alternative solutions [14][18]. Their conceptualizations of animal welfare are based on specific and various frames of reference [18][19]. These often reductionist framings help to make sense of complex realities: providing a perspective to structure knowledge, position experiences, and to judge and respond to issues [18][20].
Within the framing processes, and through social construction, different groups compete against each other to provide the primary discourse, as well as engender public recognition and support [21], through articulating a range of argumentative positions within the given discourse [22]. Peoples’ adoption of a specific animal welfare frame, discourse or given perception, depends on the role an individual has, or the organization they represent, and as a result, this framing may vary over time and place, i.e., the situation and the environment [23] for example, where and to whom they are speaking to about animal welfare [24]. An example of how this can be seen in practice is when a farmer is at work with their livestock compared to their pets at home; their perceptions of acceptable standards of welfare in these two situations may vary. For this reason, among others, recurring aspects in the collective animal welfare discourse, such as what good welfare practice is and what it entails, remain contested due to different stakeholders’ frames and understanding.
There are many studies examining stakeholders’ framing and perceptions of animal welfare [24][25][26][27][28]. Gender and extended society, it is suggested, has an impact on different perceptions of welfare issues and welfare indicators, as women and the public show more concern for animal welfare and painful husbandry practices compared to others [26]. Furthermore, in their multi-stakeholder research, Ref. [18] found that pig farmers show preference for a biological functioning approach to framing animal welfare, which emphasizes animals’ health, fertility, and productivity. In contrast, both animal scientists and urban citizens see pigs as natural living beings, which emphasizes the need for good mental welfare and the need for them to live in environments where they can behave naturally. Similarly, surveys in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) found that consumers view better living conditions for farm animals as very important for good animal welfare [29]. All these findings are relevant, but they are primarily attitude-based responses, and therefore do not explain the socio-constructive mechanisms through which these attitudes and perceptions are formed, and reformed.

2. Arguments and Narratives in Support of Good Animal Welfare

2.1. The Farming as a Business Narrative

The utilitarian approach implies that animals’ intrinsic, innate value is hard to observe; thus, their care and protection rest entirely on the vested interests of humans [30]. Considering this assumption, farmers often engage in discourse related to agro-industrial production to achieve economic gains or mitigate potential losses. Farmers have been found to link “good welfare” with productivity and profitability in their arguments [22]. Therefore, statements such as “producing more with fewer resources” is common language at the farm level, derived from discussions centered around farm efficiency and sustainability (economic, environmental and social aspects). Such established narratives and arguments may focus on intensifying animal and food production, with animals perceived in terms of utility as a production unit to deliver broader socio-economic outcomes.
To meet global food demand for a rising human population, animal production and its intensification are positioned in narratives as being essential, contributing significantly to ensuring food security [31]. Management strategies such as genetics and selective breeding to produce the most optimal, efficient animals can be seen within this intensification narrative. These strategies provide an opportunity to reduce economic costs per production unit, which can be passed through the supply chain and to the consumer. The farming as a business narrative also focuses on how such management practices improve animal performance and the economic efficiencies of farming operations. However, the “producing more with fewer resources” argument in livestock farming may not consider the health, welfare, or sentience of farm animals. Moreover, increased livestock production may result in more greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs), e.g., carbon dioxide or ammonia, that could promote climate change and harm farm animals’ welfare in the future. In this situation, efforts to estimate the level of GHGEs of a variety of economic activities associated with farm animals, as well as investigating sustainable mitigation strategies including promoting farm animal welfare is important [32][33].
For animals to perform productively and profitably for the farmer, they need to stay fit and healthy. In this regard, farmers tend to give priority to the prevention of disease and injury, as well as ensuring access to food, water, shelter, and other necessities of life, concerns that could be summed up as being focused on the essential health and functioning of the animals [24][34][35]. Specifically, however, the narrative herein is one of cost-utility and cost-effectiveness, especially around the management of zoonoses, which impact on both animal and public health [36].

2.2. The Religion-Based Narrative

In philosophy, the major world views believed to have influenced animal welfare, especially in texts and writings, are the classical Greek thoughts and Judeo-Christian perspectives. These views are believed to have contributed to inequalities regarding human and animal rights, paving the way for a long history of human privilege over animals [37][38]. Judeo-Christian perspectives incline towards the notion that humans have dominion over animals, and this view remains one of the most populous beliefs among many [39][40]. According to biblical sources, man’s superiority over animals comes with a moral obligation to the animal [39][40]. These moral obligations interface with the Five Freedoms’ principle (for example, freedom from hunger and thirst (see [41]) as well as underpinning an ethics focused argument.
In Islam, there is a strong emphasis placed on the importance of balancing the narratives of utility, ethics, and power. From the Islamic perspective, animals were created for humankind’s benefit and use. Humans are prohibited from using farm animals in ways that are not prescribed. In the Quran, it states, “And the grazing livestock He has created for you; in them is warmth and [numerous] benefits, and from them you eat. And for you in them is [the enjoyment of] beauty when you bring them in [for the evening] and when you send them out [to pasture]. And they carry your loads to a land you could not have reached except with difficulty to yourselves. Indeed, your Lord is Kind and Merciful. And [He created] the horses, mules, and donkeys for you to ride and [as] adornment. And He creates that which you do not know.” (Quran 16: verse 5–8). It can be drawn from this textual evidence that naturalness plays a key part in the perception of farm animals’ lives in the Quran. This aligns with the naturalness definition of animal welfare, which plays an essential role in facilitating the behavior of farmed animals, such as sheep, as they graze in open environments, i.e., the freedom to express normal behavior, as well as the importance of protection and shelter at night. Existing research in the literature links the Quran to animal welfare [42][43]. These narratives frame notions of compassion, naturalness, and freedom from pain and cruelty within Islamic teaching which demonstrate the arguments of reaching good welfare states through minimizing negative welfare. However, practice may not always reflect the religious narrative, and research advocates for the sensitization of religious followers to the teachings of animal welfare in the Quran and the Hadiths [44]. Religion-based narratives can therefore influence how animals are socially, culturally, and politically viewed and ideally treated in human society. These religion-based narratives can be formalized into industry standards and codes for example the halal certification standards implemented by the Malaysian organization Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM) [45].

2.3. The Research, Legislative and Political Narrative

Political narratives on animal welfare can be traced back to the 1960s where the perspective was to consider welfare predominantly from the angle of animal cruelty and suffering [46]. The then UK Government assembled an expert committee to investigate cruelty concerns raised about animals in intensive confinement systems. The Committee, compiled the Brambell Report, which criticized the state and health of farm animals confined in intensive systems [47]. The report maintained that farm animals produced in such systems demonstrated signs of frustration, distress, and pain, as well as being capable of emotional states such as fear, pleasure, and happiness [36][47][48]. The Brambell Committee therefore recognized farm animals as sentient beings, the concept of which was enshrined in animal welfare as a key consideration for husbandry management systems [47].
The Brambell Committee report was also instrumental in developing the Five Freedoms model, which emphasizes the importance of eradicating negatives through good husbandry practices. Historically, the Five Freedoms has been used to assess animal welfare; however, it has been positioned as having some significant limitations. For example, the importance of physical and functional aspects of animal welfare (malnutrition, disease, and injury) are not distinguished from the affective aspects (thirst, hunger, discomfort, pain, fear, and distress) [49]. Moreover, Ref. [50] highlighted that the Five Freedoms were primarily concerned with eradicating negative welfare aspects of behavior, while only freedom to expressing natural behavior promoted positive states of being. As a result, there has been a shift in animal welfare science thinking, and it became increasingly important to consider positive experiences when providing a holistic understanding of animal welfare. In 2015, the Five Domains based on physiological aspects to account for the positive states of the animal were introduced [51]. Adding the ‘mental experience’ element of animal welfare emphasized the importance of providing animals with positive experiences in the Five Domains, such as comfort, pleasure, confidence, and enjoyment [51]. As part of further revision of the Five Domains, stockmanship skills and qualities have been included, emphasizing the importance of human intervention in ensuring positive outcomes [52].
The work of [53] also unifies aspects of subjective feelings, health and diseases, and natural behavior in outdoor environments (naturalness) as being complementary, not antagonistic, concepts. Affective states and biological functioning are now incorporated into animal science assessments since they both take a physiological approach and complement one another in welfare assessments [54]. For instance, a highly managed animal may suffer poor welfare if environmental challenges overwhelm its evolved coping strategies for example, in high temperatures if behavioral and physiological adaptations fail to dissipate heat sufficiently [55]. The concept of naturalness captures common behaviors that are either reflecting approval or disapproval, but naturalness is not easily compatible with concern for animals’ affective elements, suggesting that they remain antagonistic to some extent [56]. So far, naturalness has only been used as a baseline for positive welfare assessment [51].
The Brambell Report drove the legislative narrative for the protection and enhancement of animal welfare. Legislation such as the UK Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act in 1968 was one of the first regulatory Acts which banned livestock managers from subjecting farm animals to a traumatic experience [47][48]. Under this Act, the Codes of Recommendation for Animal Welfare, produced for the major livestock species, including cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry birds were formed [47][57]. These welfare codes explicitly contain policies recommended from the Brambell Report on safeguarding the welfare of farm animals under various management practices. The ‘Codes’ are developed as guidelines for how farmers apply the law but have no legal authority on their own, but noncompliance is seen as evidence of poor welfare standards [57] and can be used as evidence for prosecution. The ‘Codes’ are also embedded in major UK farm assurance schemes, such as Red Tractor [58], Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) Assured [59] and Soil Association (organic) standards [60]. These standards within farm assurance schemes are often set at a higher level than regulatory standards, especially if scheme membership is used as a market access tool for entry to specific retail or foodservice markets. Key UK legislation enacting the rules and regulations of safeguarding animal welfare includes the Animal Welfare Act (2006). Other examples include the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines [61], and the World Organization for Animal Health Codes and Manuals formerly the Office International des Epizooties or OIE [62]. In summary, the regulatory and policy driven narrative positions that legislation is designed to safeguard the health and welfare of farm animals and to minimize negative welfare aspects, but in recent years, policy is moving in the direction of incentivizing positive welfare towards providing a good life [63].

2.4. Higher Welfare Narrative

The utility concept considers that animal production systems are unproductive, uneconomic, or unviable if the consumer is not willing to pay more for non-utility aspects of animal welfare. The literature suggests that this utility narrative has driven commodification of animals [64][65]. Market segmentation means many retailers work with suppliers and set farm animal welfare standards within their contracts and conduct regular audits or inspections of suppliers’ premises and practices based on these standards [66]. Nevertheless, most of these standards and measures are understood to be primarily aimed at delivering good welfare through minimizing negative welfare rather than promoting positive welfare towards achieving a ‘good’ life.
For example, the utility attributes of standard and higher welfare eggs have been examined, and how they relate to the willingness to pay for them. Additional information was found to significantly increase intention to purchase higher welfare rather than conventional welfare products [67]. Examples of higher welfare standards include the New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) certified standards [68] derived from the Five Domains of Animal Welfare and from France, the Label Rouge standards [69]. Providing information and not just promoting heuristic processing enables consumers to better align their values or concerns with their purchasing intentions [70]. Public concerns about farm animal production methods do not always correspond to purchasing and consumption patterns, with sales of higher welfare products reported to be far lower than levels of reported concern [26]. This has widely been associated with cognitive dissonance, where an individual’s actions contradict their beliefs or values, and as a result discrepancies occur between an individual’s perceived role as a citizen and their actions as a consumer [28][71][72].
According to the Food Ethics Council [73], citizens can positively influence how food is produced, distributed, and consumed. Citizens are vocal in their opinions on animal welfare and look to legislation, government and other stakeholders to improve and raise standards [35]. People can cause a significant shift when they act as citizens rather than consumers but acting as consumers rather than citizens creates cognitive dissonance between prosocial attitudes and non-prosocial behaviors. Therefore, the consumers’ role can be confined to choosing between products and services and not necessarily involve emotional participation and influencing food systems through purchasing behavior. Consumers in this context are affected by what they can afford, and their income can inform their preferences [74][75][76]. Bansback [76] (p. 6) argues that:
Price factors are still the most important determinants of meat consumption … the ability of the industry to reduce its costs relative to other competitors is getting more limited. Income effects … are also of less importance in influencing demand (however) consumer attitude/preference issues are growing in importance.
Therefore, not all consumers may consider, or be able to financially consider, animal welfare at the point of purchase. A survey conducted as part of the Welfare Quality Project in the UK and six other countries supports this argument [28][77]. According to the survey, 73% of respondents are interested in animal welfare. However, only 39% of respondents consider welfare when purchasing meat, others adopting dissonance strategies to enable their guilt-free meat consumption [26][78]. Considering this apparent disconnect, and “unwillingness to pay” mediating between citizens’ concerns, preferences, and consumers’ consumption, it becomes imperative to understand the unresolved issues emanating from often contested, even undisclosed animal welfare related narratives. It is researchers' understanding that there have been less studies examining the influence of expressive or descriptive language (whether positive or negative) within narratives in the dissemination of information about animal welfare. It is possible that further exploration of this topic will contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics of consumer choices, and the impact that words, language and the monologue/dialogue within a specific narrative may have on those choices.

2.5. The Animal Rights/Power-Based Narrative

Animal rights groups raise concerns with specific farm practices and systems, detailing the consequences for the animals’ welfare [79]. These stakeholders focus on inducing negative emotions using words like pain, fear or stress, to describe outcomes which can be caused by certain husbandry practices, justifying ethical claims against these practices. Animal rights groups focus on animals as sentient beings and will contest any practice that would subject farm animals to negative experiences. An example of a campaign that has utilized this narrative is the Plofkip campaign with chickens in the Netherlands in 2012 [80] which focused on ‘fast growing’ broilers. Thus, through their narrative animal rights groups challenge and reject the commodification of animals in society, condemning animal products such as meat, wool or fur because the animal may experience pain and other negative experiences during the production process. These organizations draw upon a combination of scientific, emotional, and ethical perspectives to criticize animal farming and farming practices, seeking to influence and change consumer acceptance that perpetuates these systems. In summary, the underlying argument of animal rights groups are that good quality of life is not afforded to farm animals, when sentience is violated by farming practices that subject animals to predominantly negative welfare experiences.
The negative narrative of cruelty, abuse, trauma, or torture is powerful in terms of the descriptiveness or expressiveness of the language, leading to feelings of disbelief, sympathy, concern and even condemnation in the people (recipients) who interact with it. Thus, the language can be considered as powerful in terms of either its expressiveness (words used) and/or the narrative can express notions of being empowered (the human) versus unempowered (the animal) and as a result imply a power imbalance and notions of abuse of that power within the human–animal relationship [81]. Jennings et al., [82] describe this as ‘the power of talk’, i.e., the power of communication, or ‘the power in talk’, i.e., the power/powerlessness dynamics embodied in the language used in communication. Deetz et al., [83] (p. 32) position the power of talk:
“we conceive of power neither as simply a possession of individuals nor a relationship between individuals, but rather as a structural quality of institutional life, which is chronically reproduced by the day to day communicative practices of its members”.
and the power in talk,
“Power is conceived as involving a relationship of autonomy and dependence between social actors or groups, then power is exercised in the context of a struggle between domination and resistance…… is conceived as the process through which competing interests exist interdependently, simultaneously vying for a privileged status in the whole constellation of interests that characterize institutional life”.
These explanatory passages demonstrate how stakeholders compete for control and content of narratives and arguments adopted and based on power. Thus, societal processing of the narratives and arguments depends on the situational aspect (what it is about) and the level of cognitive engagement with the discourse (deriving what it means). These two elements are influenced by the properties of the communication and the contextual cognitive assessment by the recipient. Media culture “helps shape everyday life, influencing how people think and behave, how they see themselves and other people, and how they construct their identities” [84] (p. 2). There are many public spaces where images of animal cruelty are placed, debated, and reproduced [85]. In these spaces, the media coverage typically describes cruel, animal-related food production, or ‘factory farming’, using the utility narrative describing animals as economically exploitable production units and commodities [76]. Power-based media narratives typically focus on ethical issues in agricultural production, particularly farm animal welfare [86]. Constructed arguments were used to question the activities and motives of the wool industry in countries like Australia, especially practices such as mulesing, leading to a decrease in sales of lamb and wool due to activism driving lower consumer demand [78]. Media representations of farm animal welfare issues are important because the media is a significant source of information for consumers/citizens, and the way that issues are represented, or framed suggests causes, solutions, or provides moral evaluations [86].
In summary, the typology of five narratives on farm animal welfare presented here reflect the social construction of varying perspectives on the purpose and treatment of animals in society. The social construction process enacted by different stakeholders is influenced by experience, background knowledge and cultural values [14][34][87]. This entry has positioned language, narrative and arguments in the contested discourse of animal welfare. These narratives can be seen along a spectrum, from positioning animals as production commodities (farming as a business narrative), to humans having a moral obligation to protect animals and prevent cruelty (religious based narratives), welfare optimized within and through new farming systems (higher welfare narrative), to consideration of animals as sentient beings, capable of positive welfare experiences (research, legislative and political narrative), to reflecting how a good life can be achieved and rejecting the utility based concept of animals as units of food production (animal rights/power narrative). According to [22], these differences in the articulation of animal welfare stem from varied ideological positioning affecting the social construction and framing of these debated issues and presenting a barrier to effective communication and resolution of conflicts, particularly as livestock producers face increasing scrutiny by society. It is therefore important to bring actors together from across the ideological spectrum, to provide mutually beneficially insight and understanding, as a means of building and collaborating around common ground. The next section considers how dialogue can be used to resolve such contested positioning on animal welfare.

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