Malta’s animal welfare commissioner recently urged consumers not to drink milk. But is her stand based on science?

Expertise might be measured by various yardsticks but it is crucial to acknowledge that a subject matter warrants experts that have in-depth understanding of the mechanisms and structures governing it.

Animal welfare is no exception.

Animal welfare has links with animal health, feelings and behaviour and, therefore, gave rise to various definitions of welfare. The Five Freedoms define good welfare as freedom from hunger/thirst, discomfort, pain/injury/disease and fear/distress and the expression of normal behaviour.

Although seemingly clear cut, this gives rise to trade-offs that are difficult to reconcile. As an organic livestock auditor admitted to me some days ago, “I’ve seen multiple feather-less free-range chickens in my experience as an auditor” and this is due to chickens pecking each other when they live in groups.

The auditor continued that “organic livestock production, such as free-range chickens, can lead to animals suffering from significant poor health”. Is a free, sick chicken more desirable in our imaginary collective than a caged, healthy one? Does it make us feel better?

But even this is beyond the point. Such welfare considerations are measurable and any changes in welfare are objective.

Stress levels as measured through hormone fluctuations, for example, can lead to clear results as to whether any changes in an animal’s rearing (conditions) lead to better welfare for that animal.

For all intents and purposes, this is a scientific field that is very deeply investigated by livestock and animal behaviour experts around the world. I am not and don’t pretend to be one, even if I follow this subject very closely. Hence it would be presumptuous of me to pontificate on the science and rearing practices of the sector.

The animal welfare commission decides to blur the line

But I don’t need to be a scholar in the matter to appreciate the efforts of science to improve the welfare of livestock animals and how this differs from animal rights in idea and objective.

The relationship between human and animal has evolved and will continue evolving. As with anything else, such a relationship is embroiled in ethical considerations that have invested philosophers and scientists alike. This gave rise to various schools of thought, with arguments at one end of the spectrum supporting the utilisation of animals for human needs such as food production while arguments at the other end of the spectrum refusing any such use. Needless to say, this is a moral dilemma with various convolutions and facets.

The animal ‘rights’ theory presupposes that animals have rights to protect their interests. Rights are a strong protection because they cannot be infringed even if this would enhance the well-being of somebody else.

The argument for animal rights stems from the fact that humans have rights and the notion that there is no morally relevant difference between humans and animals. Hence, by consequence, animals have rights too.

Obviously, the counterargument to this in philosophical and ethical circles is whether animals are ‘moral’ creatures or not and whether we should impart rights on creatures that do not, generally, behave ‘morally’ and are not capable of ‘moral judgement’. 

As one can imagine, these are keenly debated arguments which, like any other bioethical dilemma, are nowhere near any objective and conclusive outcome.

This debate is an extension of the conveyance of human feelings and thoughts unto animals (cue the ‘what if I put you in a cage?’ argument). Any person is perfectly free to subscribe to any philosophy or put themselves at any point on a spectrum of ethical viewpoints.

But with all this in mind, I hope I am making clear the problem with the obscene position taken by Malta’s animal welfare commissioner urging consumers not to drink milk.

Whereas the commissioner should be proposing objective, science-based ameliorations to enhance livestock welfare, all she could do on World Milk Day was to use her office and position to legitimise a philosophy she subscribes to.

Notwithstanding the milk production facts she got wrong in her post (and that have been debunked in various online blogs and social commentary), she mistook science-based welfare which she should be working towards for an animal rights philosophy which is debated by ethical circles.

I suspect the commissioner knows exactly the difference between the two but she decides to blur the line because of her personal philosophical convictions.

To do this in public office is abhorrent. We deserve better!

Malcolm Borg is deputy director at MCAST’s Institute of Applied Sciences, in charge of the Centre for Agriculture, Aquatics and Animal Sciences.

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