Acta Biotheoretica

, Volume 59, Issue 2, pp 173–183

The Concept of Animal Welfare at the Interface between Producers and Scientists: The Example of Organic Pig Farming


    • University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences
Regular Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10441-011-9135-z

Cite this article as:
Leeb, C. Acta Biotheor (2011) 59: 173. doi:10.1007/s10441-011-9135-z


In organic farming animal welfare is one important aspect included in the internationally agreed organic principles of health, ecology, fairness and care (IFOAM 2006), reflecting expectation of consumers and farmers. The definition of organic animal welfare includes—besides traditional terms of animal welfare—‘regeneration’ and ‘naturalness’. Organic animal welfare assessment needs to reflect this and use complex parameters, include natural behaviour and a systemic view. Furthermore, various parties with seemingly conflicting interests are involved, causing ethical dilemmas, such as the use of nose rings for outdoor sows (impaired animal welfare vs. destruction of humus). Solutions can only be found when foundational concepts are translated and applied to practical situations. On-farm animal welfare assessment and implementation of improvement strategies are increasingly relevant scientific areas. They combine on-farm welfare assessment, identification of key problem areas and connected risk factors. Constant communication between all parties is crucial for success. Animal health and welfare planning is one application of this approach, which was carried out on Austrian organic pig farms as well as organic dairy farms in seven European countries. The projects included welfare assessment, feedback and benchmarking as a tool for communication between farmers, advisors and scientists. Finally goals were set by the farmer and improvement strategies applicable to organic farming were implemented. This included prevention of disease by management strategies instead of routine treatment with pharmaceutical products. It appeared that next to problem structuring, multidisciplinary problem solving demands good communications skills to relate animal welfare science to value reflections.


Animal welfareEthicsImprovementNaturalnessOrganicTransdisciplinarity

1 Background

Animal welfare is increasingly used as marketing claim and brands, such as “Freedom Food Scheme” established by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Main et al. 2003; RSPCA 2008), the “American Humane Certified” farm animal programme (American Humane Association 2009) and organic labels (EC No.834/2007 and 889/2008). The standards of those include improved husbandry, e.g. increased space or provision of straw. However, the challenge remains to develop systems allowing real welfare improvement, to deal with potential welfare threats, to communicate the benefits of those systems to farmers and at the same time to fulfill expectations of consumers. A transdisciplinary scientific approach is necessary to understand ethical frameworks, establish reliable standards for those labels, parameters to assess the welfare outcomes and strategies to intervene, if animal welfare is impaired. This includes also new ways of research—rather than in laboratories, animal welfare has to be assessed on-farm and additionally to welfare assessment, welfare improvement becomes a research focus (Whay and Main 2010). This requires expertise not only regarding welfare science, but needs to include social science and economy (Whay 2007). This paper will explore in some detail, how science and philosophy can support farmers to fulfill expectations of consumers, work economically and ensure the welfare of their animals.

2 Animal Welfare Assessment in Organic Farming

2.1 Definition of Organic Animal Welfare

The case of organic animal welfare is used in this paper as one example to illustrate the interplay of ethical principles, practical challenges and potential solution. People buying organic products expect quite high levels of animal welfare—’happy, fit and whole animals’, e.g. content looking pigs on pasture with intact tails. This reflects three commonly analyzed aspects of animal welfare: mental welfare (Duncan 1993), physical welfare (Broom 1991) and naturalness (Rollin 1993). A slightly different view was proposed by the Swedish organic movement, claiming that ‘organic animals ought to have at least as good a life as if they lived in the wild’ (Lund 1996). Additionally three ‘Core Values’ were stated as relevant for an organic animal welfare concept by Lund and Röcklingsberg (2001): The aim for a holistic approach, for sustainability and respect for nature. This was considered during a participatory consultation process including farmers, when a definition of organic farming and a generally agreed framework, published as four organic principles were developed (Alrøe et al. 2005) and published by IFOAM (2006). Organic farming, as a farming practice, is defined as a system to ‘promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved’ (IFOAM 2006). This positions the focus on the process, e.g. quality of life or fair relationship as the goal, rather than purely on the outcome, such as a good prize for a healthy pig. The four IFOAM principles of health, ecology, fairness and care specify this even further:

The first IFOAMprinciple of health integrates the holistic view in the way ‘that the health of individuals and communities cannot be separated from the health of ecosystems.’ Also a definition of health is provided, which goes beyond the traditional use of this term: ‘Health is the wholeness and integrity of living systems. It is not simply the absence of illness, but the maintenance of physical, mental, social and ecological well-being. Immunity, resilience and regeneration are key characteristics of health.’ In this way, the concept of health is expanded, allowing fluctuations and adding positive terms such as regeneration. Additionally new terms such as ‘ecological well-being’ are used, provoking new discussions amongst scientist and philosophers.

The second IFOAM principle of ecology deals with the way to manage organic farming systems. It stresses the importance of working within natural cycles, which are specific to each farm. ‘Well-being is achieved through the ecology of the specific production environment, which is in the case of animals the farm ecosystem’ (IFOAM 2006). Regarding the welfare of animals this means that welfare is closely related to the farm system, a pig is a part of the farm rather than centre of it. The aim is to achieve an optimal rotation of fields and optimal grass cover. This allows not only low Nitrogen leakage but provides sufficient opportunity for grazing and at the same time reduces the risk for parasite infections. This principle also stresses the responsibility of the caretaker to work within these situations and to respect the individuality of each farm and is therefore very relevant for potential improvement strategies.

The third IFOAMprincipleof fairness insists, that ‘animals should be provided with the conditions and opportunities of life that accord with their physiology, natural behavior and well-being’ (IFOAM 2006). Most interestingly the term ‘provided with’ focuses on ‘proper’ management, centers on how to deal with the animals and nature and places the responsibility on the human caretaker. However, here lies some tension: Nowadays uncommon views of animal welfare are an essential part of organic farming–animals are e.g. not kept in ‘warm and safe’ housing conditions protected with antiparasitic treatment and vaccinations against all harms, but left outdoors with limited treatment. This allows not only natural behaviour, the inclusion of animals as a part of rotation of fields but also selection for hardiness over several generations. Often this is perceived as taking impaired animal welfare into account as a part of natural life, e.g. animals affected by parasites. However, the task of the farmer is not only to ‘provide conditions and opportunities of life that accord with their natural behaviour`, but also with their ‘physiology and well-being’. This means, that he has the responsibility to intervene early enough to prevent suffering. The skill is to find a balance between building immunity and suffering, for example to treat against parasites not as a preventive routine, but only targeted at animals, which are severely affected. At the same time preventive strategies need to be considered, including rotation of fields and breeding goals. Professional knowledge, good observational skills and empathy towards animals are necessary and advisory strategies to support farmers during this process.

Very similar to the second principle, the fourth IFOAM principle of care deals with management of farming systems going even beyond the present situation, when stating, that ‘Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment’(IFOAM 2006). Animal welfare is important, but at the same time sustainability of the system needs to be included. Sustainable development is defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (UN 1987). As an example the quality of the soil needs to be considered, when keeping outdoor pigs and when designing housing systems the use of renewable energy needs to be considered, e.g. using natural ventilation instead of electrical vans.

2.2 How is this Translated into Practical on-Farm Situations and Research?

The challenge remains to translate ethical frameworks which are reflected in the organic principles into the reality of research and work on (organic) farms. To achieve this, two main steps are necessary:

Firstly, animal welfare researchers need to be aware of the normative character of organic farming and reflect on the ethical concepts. This is in many cases the main challenge, as there are limited opportunities to learn about ethical theories and lack of understanding of each others’ language. Secondly, these concepts need to be applied, e.g. when developing housing standards for organic animals, assessment protocols for research or certification.

One way to apply ethical concepts on farm level is to consider more criteria relevant to the holistic approach: additionally to classical animal welfare parameters (Whay et al. 2003) such as body condition score, lameness and lesions, aspects of ‘mental welfare’, e.g. positive emotions need to be integrated. The integrity concept (Baars 1999; Röcklinsberg and Lund 2000) can be applied in relation to both individual level, e.g. the absence of mutilations and species level, e.g. the use of stress resistant pig breeds. Furthermore, new and more holistic methods can be applied, such as using qualitative aspects next to quantitative assessment of animal behaviour (Wemelsfelder et al. 2001). The term ‘natural living’ included in the third principle of fairness refers to the possibility to perform natural behavior, feed adapted to the animal’s physiology and a natural environment. In order to translate this into practical welfare assessment, ways need to be found to classify housing systems according to their potential to allow natural behaviour. Another—even more accurate-method is to actually observe animals performing natural behaviours. Finally, additionally to animal welfare the ‘system’, as included in the second principle needs to be considered, e.g. assessing the impact of outdoor pigs onto the vegetation or including further indicators of sustainability, such as CO2 emissions. Halberg et al. (2010) used such indicators and found, that a system with pig fattening indoors and concrete-covered outdoor runs seems to be the best solution from an environmental point of view. This reflects the challenge of combining the interests of all parties involved and to develop management practices to allow normal behaviour, e.g. rooting behaviour and improve nitrogen cycling, e.g. by increased grass-clover area.

The project Welfare Quality® (2009) was developed for all kinds of farming systems, including aspects of natural behaviour, e.g. social behaviour and integrity, e.g. farm management regarding mutilations such as tail docking. The assessment protocol was applied during the European research project ‘CORE Organic ANIPLAN’ (Vaarst et al. 2010). The aim was to reduce the use of allopathic medicine on 147 organic dairy farms in seven European countries through ‘Animal health and welfare planning’. The animal centered assessment was well received by farmers and was accepted as a basis for communication about improvements. However, besides some practical challenges (time constraints when assessing large dairy herds), some need for adaptations for organic farms was identified, such as developing behavioural indicators for social behaviour in horned herds. A similar project, the ‘Bristol welfare assurance programme’ (BWAP) incorporated existing animal welfare assessment techniques into organic certification and farming (Leeb et al. 2004; Main et al. 2007). After many discussions with stakeholders involved it was decided to describe aspects of mental welfare qualitatively, such as the mood of animals and to integrate a description of the suitability of animals for the farm/system in the assessment protocol. This protocol was taken on board by the Soil Association during certification of organic farms. However, mainly physical welfare indicators, as body condition score or lesions are used at the moment (Neale 2008).

3 Challenges and Ethical Dilemmas on Organic Farms

The question whether organic animals are actually healthier and happier cannot be easily answered: Even when EU organic regulations prescribe important aspects of animal health and welfare, such as the provision of roughage, additional space and outdoor access, those alone do not assure the actual outcome. Still, several challenges regarding the welfare of European organic animals remain and are reported by various authors in different countries:

One typical welfare issue of dairy cows, the prevalence of lameness, is very similar in conventional farms, e.g. in Austria reported by Dippel et al. (2009) to be 31% and in organic farms 26% (Gratzer 2011). The reason seems to be the very similar conditions of both farming types, such as similar breeds and housing of animals. Lund and Algers (2003) reviewed 22 papers, mainly studies of dairy cows and found, that health and welfare was the same or better in organic farms except the situation regarding parasites, which was worse.

During the last decade, a variety of on farm studies, where trained observers assessed health and welfare of various species on organic and conventional farms. However, the challenge remains not only to identify problems, but to understand their causes and to improve them (Leach et al. 2010). One main reason for this difficulty is the fact that farms are very complex systems where small changes can have huge consequences. Furthermore, researchers do have very deep and specialized knowledge on e.g. animal behaviour, but not sufficiently broad understanding to grasp the system aspects, e.g. veterinarians have limited knowledge on environmental impact assessment. On the other hand, farmers do have broad knowledge; however, this is sometimes not very deep and typically limited to few farms. One example is the issue of tail biting in (organic) pigs–even when access to straw is provided, a mean prevalence of 2.4% injured tails and 22% short tails (Leeb et al. 2010) was found in 40 organic pig farms in Austria. In order to identify related risk factors a broad variety of feed, housing and behavioural indicators need to be looked at in order to find reasons for outbreaks on individual farms or to prevent the problem in general.

3.1 Practical Constraints for Improvement

Once a problem is identified, the challenge remains to communicate it in order to raise awareness and to encourage improvement. Several constraints to this do exist in practice:
  • ‘Translation problems’: As farmers, researchers, philosophers do speak different languages, it is crucial to find a common language or people who are able to communicate across several groups.

  • Trust: In order to communicate and to achieve change, trust between all involved parties is crucial. Optimally, farmers participate not only voluntarily, but actively approach advisory bodies. Sometimes several visits are needed to build a good atmosphere and understanding, which is not possible during the common practice of yearly visits. Optimally a series of at least three visits is necessary. However, this requires new types of advisory structures to allow coverage of costs.

  • Habituation: In some cases existing problems are not perceived by the farmer anymore. Whay et al. (2002) found a huge difference between farmers’ estimation of their lameness prevalence (5.7%) and the actual situation as assessed by the researcher (22.1%).

The implementation of agreed measures for improvement is further hampered by:
  • Social constraints: In order to ensure actual implementation of agreed measures, all family members and staff need to be considered.

  • Financial constraints: In some cases solutions involve major changes, including building work, new equipment or more staff, which can be a major constraint for implementation

3.2 Examples of Ethical Dilemmas in Organic Farming

As there are various parties involved in (organic) farming, many occasions arise where conflicting interests result in ethical dilemmas. The following examples demonstrate the diversity of problems:
  • Consumer interests/environmental impact versus animal welfare: The EU Regulation (EC) No 889/2008 bans the routine use of antibiotics and de-worming. However, some veterinarians are worried about high mortality rates of piglets when no antibiotics are used around the weaning process.

  • Farmer’s interest to be protected from lactating sows versus animal welfare: Lactating sows in free farrowing systems can be dangerous when protecting their piglets, therefore some farmers would prefer to use crate systems.

  • Environmental impact versus animal welfare: normal behaviour of pigs includes rooting, which can result in the destruction of the grass cover. Therefore some countries allow nose-ringing of organic pigs to prevent them from rooting.

4 How can These Challenges and Dilemmas be Solved?

Often it is claimed that such dilemmas and challenges can only be solved across disciplines, and research is increasingly considering different disciplines (Barth and Brinkmann 2009). Since there are numerous definitions and variants of the term ‘interdisciplinary’ that sometimes are used interchangeably, it is actually a challenge to communicate what this label refers to. Rosenfield (1992) defined three levels of interaction among researchers working to address a common problem:
  • Multidisciplinary—parallel or sequential work from disciplinary-specific base;

  • Interdisciplinary—joint work adding disciplinary-specific input;

  • Transdisciplinary—joint work using a shared conceptual framework drawing together disciplinary-specific theories, concepts and approaches. Problems are identified in the practical situation and formulated as scientific questions. Methodical process that combines scientific knowledge and practical experience.

4.1 Improvement Strategies—a Transdisciplinary Approach!

In order to solve problems, researchers need to communicate not only within a research community but also with farmers and consumers. This is also included in the fourth IFOAM principle of care dealing with the way of developing and applying new technologies and the role of science: ‘is … practical experiences are important and transparent and participatory processes should be used, when implementing changes’ (IFOAM 2006).

4.2 Promising Examples for Improvement—Health and Welfare Planning—ANIPLAN and BEPBioschwein

One approach to implement this into practice is Health and welfare planning (Gray and Hovi 2001; Sibley 2000). This concept was developed in the UK, where in 2000 it became obligatory for organic and many conventional quality assurance systems to use such a plan on each farm. In the meanwhile the experiences from UK have been applied in Germany (Brinkmann and March 2011), on Austrian organic pig farms (Leeb et al. 2010) and organic dairy farms in seven European countries (Gratzer 2011; Vaarst et al. 2010).

This approach includes on farm health and welfare assessment, which is reported as ‘benchmarking’ comparing farm specific health and welfare data with those of similar farms. This allows identification of key problem areas and provides a tool for communication between farmers, advisors and scientists.

A main focus lies on the type of communication, providing facilitation rather than advice in traditional terms. This was based on either one-to-one facilitation or on the concept of stable schools (Vaarst et al. 2007). As an outcome, each farmer set his/her goals and measures to achieve those. During ANIPLAN nine principles were described (Atkinson and Neale 2007; Vaarst et al. 2010), which are crucial for successful planning: The nine principles are:
  1. 1.

    Continuous development of the system

  2. 2.

    The plan and the agreed measures need to be farm specific

  3. 3.

    The farmer needs to take ownership of the process

  4. 4.

    Involvement of external persons

  5. 5.

    Use of External knowledge

  6. 6.

    Work within the organic principle framework, e.g. increased frequency of cleaning instead of routine treatment with antibiotics

  7. 7.

    The plans should be written to create a common memory

  8. 8.

    Acknowledge good aspects, e.g. low piglet mortality or a new, well working calf shed

  9. 9.

    Involvement of all relevant people


Recently it has been repeatedly documented that actual improvement is possible to achieve, even within relatively short periods of time: On dairy farms with the aim to reduce medicines by improving health and welfare, such as ‘ProQ’ in Switzerland (Ivemeyer et al. 2009), the stable schools concept in Denmark (Bennedsgaard et al. 2010) the continuous work with farmers has lead to improvements. Also organic pig health on 60 farms was improved during the project ‘BEPBioschwein’ in Austria (Leeb et al. 2010) when individual goals, such as reducing injured tails (12.7% vs. 0.5%), improving body condition (mean prevalence of lean sows reduced from 23.9 to 11.6%), or respiratory disease in fattening pigs (21.6% vs. 10.3%) were achieved. The challenge of such projects lies in the complexity of farms, the wide range of on farm situations and problems and the wide range of potential solutions. Also the researcher acts not only as a scientist, but needs to either understand advisory activities or to perform them himself. Consideration of all parties involved is crucial, as the opinion of the person actually doing the work e.g. the grandmother supervising farrowing is the key e.g. to reduce the use of hormones to induce birth. Other advisors and veterinarians need to be taken into account, when e.g. suggesting to implement new strategies for parasite control (eradication of ectoparasites such as sarcoptic mites), because they may be the ones who actually implement the new procedure.

5 Conclusions

Lund (2002) stated, that ‘both approaches are necessary to get a full understanding of problems and allow for optimal solutions: good and applicable ethics needs to be based on good science including relevant and accurate facts and good science leading to valuable results needs to recognize the value dimensions involved’. Additionally, theoretical ethical and scientific concepts need to be translated and transferred into practical farming systems in order to achieve change. Therefore, the skill to communicate across disciplines is necessary and the interests of all parties involved need to be considered. Enthusiasm, much practical knowledge, ability to listen and encouraging farmers to take ownership of improvements can support change. The approach to evaluate success by animal based parameters is promising, as the actual outcome regarding welfare is reflected. To allow evaluation of improvements onto the whole farming system parameters of sustainability and economy are increasingly used in addition. However, further qualitative parameters, such as job satisfaction, good family life and happiness are still missing. In order to consider those, further transdisciplinary work is necessary and should include social sciences.

The systemic view offers possibilities for new approaches to solve animal welfare problems, making for example breeding and management strategies, or changes in consumer attitudes and purchasing patterns, important tools for improvements. The optimal solution is when animal welfare can be integrated into the production system resulting as a win–win situation.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011