I felt compelled to write to The Guardian newspaper recently following an article by Julian Baggini, which questioned whether organic standards mean higher welfare. I wanted to make it clear that, in my view, there are good reasons to believe they are. I’m pleased to see that my comments were published in today’s paper, and thought it worth posting here too.
So, in the UK and Europe at least, what are those reasons to suggest that organic means higher welfare?
Firstly, the welfare requirements are higher. For example, the rules of the Soil Association, a leading organic standards setter in the UK, require pasture access for cows and buying organic milk is one way of ensuring that dairy products are free-range. Laying hens are kept free-range throughout their lives. Soil Association eggs come from hens which haven’t been beak trimmed. Britain’s organic pigs are not subject to mutilations such as tail docking or teeth clipping. EU organic rules require piglets to stay with their mothers longer, reducing health problems and the need for antibiotics. These are just a few examples.
A healthy animal should need few if any antibiotics. In the UK, antibiotics are used by organic farmers to treat sick animals. The important difference in organic farming is that antibiotics are not used routinely, unlike intensive farming where they are often used to prop up a fundamentally unhealthy system. The basis of good farming, including organic farming, is to keep antibiotics as a back-up, not a routine part of an armoury aimed at controlling disease in animals whose immune systems are weakened by the stress of intensive farming.
In addition to good welfare rules, the Soil Association, the RSPCA and leading researchers are pioneering practical ways to measure welfare outcomes such as lameness in cows and feather pecking in chickens. This will help give further assurance that higher welfare systems are actually delivering better lives for the animals in practice too.
For all of these reasons, Soil Association organic standards recently came out top in Compassion in World Farming’s analysis of welfare standards. Of course there are non-organic schemes and systems with good welfare – conventional free range or Freedom Food for example. Shoppers looking for higher welfare food choices should certainly consider organic to be amongst them.