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Expert Voices

Do Not Pit Animal Welfare Against Starving Children (Op-Ed)

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Chetana Mirle is the director of Farm Animal Welfare at Humane Society International. She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Simply producing more food doesn't always mean that the people who need the food get it. Who, where and how food is produced make all the difference. 

I learned this well before I began my career protecting chickens, pigs and the other billions of animals raised and killed for food each year. At Tufts University, I studied nutrition and international development, and my dissertation examined the links between food security and agricultural programs in South Asia. My research led me to an important conclusion: It matters who holds the power. 

Food security is not just about food

Food security is more than just adequate food production. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food security requires equitable social and economic systems; healthy communities, including proper health care, child care and sanitation; and ecological sustainability. [What 11 Billion People Mean for Food Security ]

Programs and policies that seek only to increase the quantity of food, or even reduce food prices in the near term, solely by industrializing agriculture — often at the expense of other conditions — may not reduce hunger or malnutrition.

Studies in the journal Food Security and other publications have shown that having sufficient calories available nationally (or globally) does not ensure the equitable distribution of those calories, nor does it ensure that they are nutritionally appropriate. 

In fact, nations with adequate grain reserves — domestic or imported — often have significant populations suffering from food insecurity or malnutrition. This correlation has been highlighted repeatedly in India, where grain surpluses have been reported to rot away while people go hungry

Therefore, an overall increase in meat or egg production is not necessarily an effective food security strategy and may instead contribute to the growing epidemic of diseases relating to obesity, particularly in urban areas of developing nations. Ironically, many of those countries bear the double burden of obesity and hunger.

"People vs. animals" is a false dichotomy

Much work remains to fix the global food system, and experts on different aspects of food production and nutrition need to work together to resolve many complex issues. 

Artificially opposed categories that pit people who care about animals against those who care about people (as if the two were mutually exclusive) — is not just counterproductive but also destructive to efforts to create healthier, more humane, sustainable and equitable food systems. 

And yet, such a narrative has recently gained momentum in India, and is spreading globally with articles like the recent New York Times piece "Saving the Cows, Starving the Children," by Sonia Faleiro, which highlights a recent ban on beef in the state of Maharashtra. 

It is an unfortunate headline to be faced with when one is actually trying to save cows. In reality, those who care about saving cows or other animals for the sake of animal welfare are rarely at the forefront of efforts to ban certain types of meats, as highlighted in another recent article by Indian animal protection advocate N. Surabhi, "I'm vegan, I work for animal rights and I oppose Maharashtra's beef ban." 

In India, such bans on beef or other animal products are linked to the politics of caste and religion. In fact, Indian state bans on beef (a byproduct of the country's massive dairy industry) may actually shift the burden of milk and meat production from the holy cow to the unlucky buffalo, which lacks the same religious protections but harbors an equal capacity to suffer. 

Either way, as there is no corresponding ban on milk consumption and no realistic provisions to guarantee the lifelong welfare of the cows used for milk (or their male offspring), the net benefit to animals is doubtful. However, efforts by legitimate animal protection advocates to improve the welfare of farm animals are repeatedly linked to these politically driven bans. It is an unfair association. 

I have had the privilege of working with animal protection advocates across the world who are equally passionate about human rights, and increasing food security and economic opportunity for marginalized populations. Our circle of compassion also happens to include animals. 

The narrative that pits animal protection advocates against child health advocates emerged prominently this year when the chief minister of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh resisted the procurement of eggs for a government-run school-feeding program, despite the high incidence of malnutrition among the target population. 

Over the past few months, I have had this story recounted to me repeatedly as I have reached out to governments, civil society groups and industry stakeholders about the need to improve the welfare of egg-laying hens in India. The story has created a distraction from the very real suffering endured by hundreds of millions of birds in India, and fails to mention some unsavory truths about the nation's egg industry.

According to statistics published by the FAO, India is the world's third-largest egg producer, and the poultry sector is largely industrialized. According to an article in the World Poultry Review, a few companies already controlled at least 40 percent of the industry by 2006. Egg factories with tens of thousands of birds packed into a single shed are increasingly the norm.

Will animal welfare conditions improve?

The vast majority of egg-laying hens in India suffer extraordinarily, spending virtually their entire lives confined in small, wire, battery cages that are so restrictive that the animals can't freely spread their wings or walk. 

There are higher-welfare, cage-free options for producing eggs. Empowering and procuring from small farmers, who are more likely to practice more animal-welfare-friendly, cage-free egg and meat production could improve outcomes for both animals and people.

Indian agribusiness giants have balked at calls to move to higher-welfare, cage-free housing systems, insisting that such modest improvements in animal welfare would further jeopardize the nutritional well-being of the poor. However, there is no evidence that simply moving from battery-cage egg production to cage-free systems would have any negative impact on the egg or meat intake of malnourished children.

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While some have hypothesized that tougher animal welfare standards would increase the cost of meat, thereby making it less accessible to low-income populations, no studies have explored the impact of modest animal welfare improvements on costs in developing countries, especially for the production costs and incomes of small farmers.

In fact, a large body of research suggests that industrial animal agriculture may actually jeopardize food security by degrading the environment, threatening human health and diminishing income-earning opportunities in rural areas. 

And, like many other emerging economies, India is struggling with the double burden of undernutrition and a burgeoning obesity problem. It is a country marked by huge economic and nutritional disparities, with some in the middle and upper classes consuming too many calories, while the poor are not consuming enough.

A greater emphasis on more animal-welfare-friendly and ecologically sustainable egg and meat production — led by small farmers and accompanied by reduced consumption of animal products like meat and eggs by higher-income populations — could result in a more sensible and equitable distribution of food, while better safeguarding animal welfare. 

Given the environmental costs of farm animal production, particularly industrialized farm animal production, and the threats it poses to long-term food security, nations need to focus more resources on improving access to nutritious, plant-based foods as part of a balanced diet. 

The task of improving the global food system is enormously challenging, and will require commitment from governments, financial institutions, research institutes, advocates in the private sector and a variety of other stakeholders. But success first demands that society rid itself of these injurious false dichotomies about caring for animals versus caring for children. 

Interested parties need to work together to better study and understand the nuances of animal agriculture globally so we can create food systems where both human and animal welfare are valued and protected. Caring for animals does not require us to sacrifice our concern for humans. Indeed, it is simply about widening our circle of compassion, which can only result in a better society for all. 

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