Animal sentience workshop

Jim Webster

Meeting the different expectations of producers and consumers – implications of sentience for research (14:28)

Jim leads the Animal Welfare Team at AgResearch Ltd, Ruakura.

The team plays a significant role in supporting New Zealand's animal welfare framework through research relevant to animal welfare within our animal-based industries. Jim's academic background is in agricultural science, in combination with a PhD in Zoology.

He has a wide range of interests and expertise covering animal production, animal welfare research, assurance programs and animals used in research testing and teaching. In his spare time, he looks after a small flock of Gotland pelt sheep and a Belgian Shepherd on a lifestyle block near Cambridge, and enjoys cycling and drinking IPAs.

[This video was filmed during a workshop in front of an audience. The speaker stands at a speaker’s podium and talks into a microphone. Sometimes, he looks or points to a screen with slides containing information to support his talk. The slides aren't shown in the video.] Jim Webster: Thank you, pleasure to be here and I'm going to talk about research with a particular focus on our farming animals, which is my area. I acknowledge that's not the whole area of research in New Zealand but it is one that's very important to us and our economy. And I'm going to talk about research as guided by society and meets the needs of society, and it probably has a major role in helping us understand what sentience is and what our obligations are. But you can divide society up into producers and consumers and they come at things from quite different perspectives and we have to bear in mind so that's the theme of the talk. It is important for us to meet societal expectations in New Zealand for animal use. We have to maintain our industry's license to operate, to farm is very important for New Zealand, has to be socially acceptable, and it has to be acceptable to overseas markets as well. So we're meeting the needs but quite a broad spectrum of stakeholders. And there's implications for research in incorporating sentience, or an adapted version of of sentience, highlighting it a little bit more. Does this recognition change the expectations people have on the Act? Will the gap between what we know and what we need to know, in terms of sentience, do we understand it? Will that widen? And is this going to put more pressure on researchers to provide those answers and can we do it? So as I mentioned, research is supported by society. We provide knowledge about animal welfare for our farming systems in New Zealand. We provide information for industries to address areas that they're concerned about. We provide solutions to enable producers to meet expectations of society. The science input gets published and goes into the public arena, so it also shapes expectations of the public about what should be happening on farm. And the final thing is it provides the sort of science platform, the science background, which supports the controlled and credible change in our laws that we have in New Zealand. So it's an essential part of that legal process.  This is a very nice study I thought which illustrates that difference in perceptions between producers and consumers, and it was a study where they showed a series of photos of different stages of production of meat chickens, and they showed these to consumers. But only that photo there, was perceived positively by the consumers. And that illustrates a nice point; that we can think we're making progress in terms of metric standards and allowing a bit more space for animals, and that could be a considerable economic cost for a producer, but it may not be conceived as an advantage at all by a consumer because it's not addressing the actual attributes they're looking for. So this thing about perceptions can actually trump research itself, and we have to bear that in mind. So, particularly for species that we know very little about, you know whether it would - Mark's talked about that in terms of insects and fish and things like that - you know we don't know much about their experiences. And also for animals in different contexts the, context is very important, are they a pet or are we going to eat them? Are we doing research on them? So these types of perceptions and the context can cause some of the biggest differences in opinion about what's required. Now the differences in values between producers and consumers are quite clear and a number of studies have looked at this and they've shown one of the areas where there's the biggest contrast between what's expected is in natural behaviour. So natural behaviour always comes out as being a high concern for consumers, but lower for farmers. And one recent study looked at chickens, and actually proved that point by showing  that natural behaviour of chickens was, came out, as a very important attribute by consumers and that's leading to the increase in free-range production. But it wasn't as much a high criteria for producers and veterinarians. We're also in an era of decreasing trust of our farming industries and this was a German study but I think it's still relevant, the proportion of consumers that report that farm animal welfare needs to be improved is going up, and the proportion that agree with the statement 'the farmers take good care of their animals' has declined so there's something happening there where there's a bit of a suspicion and a distrust of farming. We tend to call that an urban-rural divide, and that's acting to increase expectations on animals and provide tension between what consumers expect and what farmers are providing. Interestingly, pet ownership played an important role in guiding expectations about food animals and there was a high correlation between that. And this increased interest in protecting food animals may stem from people's understanding about how they interact with their pets, or Belgian Shepherds. So there's another factor there that popular science is also playing a role in here, and it's providing this knowledge about animal capacities that are really quite staggering and right from information about emotions in bees, complex social emotions in dogs, to ravens and even chickens can do maths, simple maths. So you know when you are confronted with that type of information how do you then regard what was required for animals that you are going to eat. One another point is that consumers are not all equal, and some of our work has shown that women and young people in particular are more likely to think that cows are intelligent, have distinct personalities, and feel pain in the same way humans do. So we can't just lump all consumers together either, there's differences there. So it's quite a complicated situation. Now incorporating sentience is also going to change then what matters on farm. So I think there's three key things here; if we accept that animals are sentient and have positive experiences, then the animal's experiences are the key. So the animals experiences matter more than its performance for farming, individuals matter more than groups, so it's about the individual. And the quality of life that the animal has matters more than the duration of its life. So those are three areas that our current research program is focusing on. So first of these is about experiences taking precedence, and it means that our approach to what we need to provide for animals and the needs and requirements, must actually start with a consideration of the animal's experience and work from there back to what we need to do to allow it to have those experiences. And Mark's already talked about and quoted Ian Duncan and I think he's very relevant here. He's talking about sentience as being the most important integrator of the animal's environment. And it's what matters the most is what animal feels about its situation, And I think there's an interesting question here then if we're going to talk about experiences and feelings, is anthropomorphism going to become more acceptable in scientific terms? And I'd have to argue that it probably is. I think we do need to use terms like happy or sad, particularly if it gives us a common language to talk about animal experiences. So individuals take precedence - I think this is a very important area when you're talking about sentence, it is all about the individual not the herd or flock. So we've started to think that we have to look at different individual animal personalities when designing farming systems. So there's good evidence that animals in a group do vary in their behaviour, and how they cope in farming systems. Some animals will be hiding underneath platforms for example and some will be on top, so they they're very different than their personalities so we have to include that assessment of personalities in designing how we farm systems. And interestingly on the fact that individuals take precedence, unfortunately a lot of our welfare assistance schemes currently don't take into account that individual differences or include the individual in an equal weighting. And Peter Sandøe pointed this out at a recent conference when he asked the question should the contribution of one more lame cow depend on how many other cows in the farm are lame, and in terms of welfare quality it's a nonlinear function. So as you get more lame cows the additional count does not matter so much in terms of your welfare assessment but for the cow it does. So I think we have to give equal credence to each individual there. Quality of life. As I mentioned that also now takes precedence and that's an interesting concept I think that allows us to integrate these positive and negative aspects of sentience over an animal's life and I think it's an area that we can use to demonstrate the quality of life of that animal in a farming system. James Yates from the RSPCA in England pointed out that one of the most important aspects of quality of life is their experiences themselves. So are they having a positive experience or a negative one? So individual experiences are important and we need to know about them, but can we measure them? And that's the challenge for research and obviously we're trying very hard to answer some of these questions. We do have some tools at the moment, behaviour and physiology, and in detail we can look at what animals prefer to do, and how motivated they are. We can look at whether they're looking at a glass half full or a glass half empty, the cognitive bias, or we can look at how much they pay attention to a threat. We can even look at which side of the brain they're using to look at things of interest. And qualitative behavioural assessment allows us to use their own terms to describe animal's behaviour. We know that sentience is underpinned by some very clear neuroscience evidence. So we've got a lot of tools but in practical situations on farms, we can't do it very well. A lot of these take specific training of animals, they require specific testing arenas and the like, so it's not very easy to measure sentience positive and negative experiences in farming situations. However, sentience is changing what matters on farm. And here's an example here for body condition, which is the relative degree of fat that cows carry, and you can see how an increased focus on sentience is going to shift how we have to regard that. So currently with a producer focus it might be on the herd level with regard to the health of the cows, herd production, fertility and longevity. However, with this focus on individuals we have to now understand how does an individual cow experience being thin? How does that impact its quality of life? Sentience makes the answer quite complex. For example, if the cow is hungry, cold or fearful of animals in the herd, or lethargic, a thin cow might feel bad. However if food is plentiful, if the temperature's warm and there's plenty of space a thin cow might feel perfectly good. So this makes it challenging then to assess it. If you don't feel hungry does being thinner matter? If you don't know that your hormone levels have changed, do they matter? So it emphasises how we have to put that emphasis on the experience of the cow. And sentience even modulates the nature of hunger. So if you're hungry if a cow is hungry and it can graze that might be really pleasurable and it might be a very positive experience, but if it's hungry and it can't graze then it may have become frustrated or be uncomfortable, so it can get very complex. So finishing off, beyond ethical consumption, you know we can adapt farming systems so they better address sentience, however, what's going to happen from there? We've got this situation of increasing guilt when we understand that animals have positive and negative feelings. Wilful ignorance is now accepted as being a distinct factor in consumer behaviour, and a recent paper showed that a third of people surveyed prefer to look at a blank screen, than look at a screen that informed them about how sows were raised. So that they made a distinct decision to be ignorant and they didn't want to know and that's based on this fact of guilt, guilty consumption. We are seeing decreasing consumption of animal products and there's talk about interest in synthetic alternatives, that's gonna be a real challenge. So, are we ready and what research is needed to answer all those questions? Thank you. [Video ends]

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Last reviewed: 22 Nov 2021