Humans as custodians of animal well-being

20 September 2021

“Humans have always tried to domesticate and control animals. But we should now try to do the opposite, and let animals educate us, teach us and tell us their needs and preferences.”

These are the words Jacopo Goracci, farmer and collaborator of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, used to kick start the opening conference of Cheese 2021: “The Animals and Us”, on September 16.

The time has indeed come for a radical rethink of the social, environmental and health implications of the relationship between the human and animal worlds. It’s time to ask ourselves what existence we afford the animals, and what that says about us. Three experts from very different backgrounds joined the panel to discuss this transition and give insights about how to reshape the ancestral bonds that tie us to animals.

Restoring Animals’ Freedom of Choice

Fred Provenza, Emeritus Professor of Behavioral Ecology at the Wildland Resources Department at the Utah State University (USA) opened the discussion by diving into the connections between plant diversity, animal wellbeing and human health. “Plant diversity and chemistry enables animals to select their diets, which is good for their health and wellbeing, which in turns gives a good quality of milk, cheese and meat”, he pointed out. Long story short: we are all connected! Freedom of food choice is beneficial for animals who are happier, less sick thus more productive, which is also good for those who raise them.

Nothing is more important for health through nutrition than landscapes with a variety of plants for herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores above and below ground. While making a comparison with monocultures, Provenza showed that animals’ health is much improved if animals are free to choose from a mixture of plants; they can select the plants they need for nutrition and medicine, while monocultural systems allow them only one type of food which causes a lot of stress, as well as diseases and antibiotic resistance. “Give animals their freedom back!”, he concluded.

A Slow Change of Mentality in Europe

The awareness of animals’ needs and feelings has not always been a given in Europe. Simone Pollo, Professor of Moral Philosophy at La Sapienza University in Rome, identified two key events that marked the beginnings of a slow change of mentality in our societies. In 1789, in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, English philosopher and economist Jeremy Bentham wrote about animals: “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”  Bentham was the first Western thinker to grant animals equal consideration and was a fierce defender of animal welfare laws.

Half a century later, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859), in which he argued that humans and animals are not ontologically different, that they are part of the same line of continuity. Of course the genetics are different, but the feelings are the same. For Pollo, these two major events have laid the ground for animals’ feelings to be relevant to us, humans. Yet, he introduces a nuance: “Nowadays, we are in an intermediate situation: we have acknowledged animals’ feelings, but we still have many traditions in which animals are used like objects.”

The EU and Animal Welfare: Still a Long Way to Go

Yet, as Pollo rightly said, the European treaties declare that animals deserve wellbeing and welfare, acknowledging that since they are living beings, they have rights too. But what is the EU currently doing to improve their living conditions?

“Twenty years ago, when we decided that we needed rules for animal welfare and wellbeing in Europe, national governments were still discussing useful and useless suffering in animal farming”, remarked Andrea Gavinelli, head of unit on animal welfare at the EU Commission. “Of course, many things have changed since then. Today, we have the EU Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy, and the EU is working towards sustainable food supply chains.”

Commission goals

According to the EU representative, the EU Commission’s goal is to integrate animal welfare within the elaboration of these sustainable food supply chains. One example regards the reduction of antibiotics in animal farming. European societies do not want animals to be mistreated and miserable in farms anymore, and the European Commission cannot ignore them any further. Before summer, they committed to address the demands of the European Citizens Initiative “End the Cage Age”, supported by many organizations across Europe, Slow Food included, and signed by over a million EU citizens, demanding a ban of caged-animal farming in Europe. “We will do it, at least for some types of animals. It will take time because we need to consider the economic impact it can have. The analysis will be conducted over the next two years, and presented in 2023.”


And what about animal welfare labelling? “We are studying the possibility of harmonizing existing labels across Europe to bring clarity to the consumers. At the moment, we only have one label focused on production methods for eggs, which has brought about significant change in people’s eating habits. But for other products, especially compound processed products, animal welfare labelling could have the opposite effect. These certifications are so expensive that farmers get discouraged. So, the EU needs to invest efficiently in order to avoid negative social and economic impact on farms”, concluded Gavinelli.

Animals are Essential to Sustainable Agriculture

Ten minutes before the end of the conference, moderator Jacopo Goracci put a thorny question on the table: “Is sustainable agriculture without animals possible?” A complex and controversial question, that received a straight answer from Fred Provenza. For him, sustainability without animals is not possible, as animals are essential for ecological systems. “The key point to remember is that all life is sacred. We are members of nature’s community; what we do to them, we ultimately do to ourselves. Only by declaring love and respect on them, will we get to sustainability.”

A great note of hope and love to conclude a very enriching conference! Watch it again here:

by Alice Poiron,