By Simone Baroke, contributing analyst
The ugly matter of animal suffering has become a hot issue in Germany's
Germany's federal election campaign is on its final stretch
Attention is being drawn to the paradox that although the country does seem to
have adequate legislation to protect animals, and which should prevent livestock
being exploited way beyond the pain threshold, these laws are not enforced.
Maybe the 2013 elections will spell a turning point in this lamentable state of
Greens at loggerheads with the German Farmers' Association
Germany's federal election campaign is on its final stretch, with only days to
go until voting day on 22 September. It is certainly nothing new that, in the
run-up to major elections, some thorny issues get dragged into the limelight by
parties desperately vying for votes.
Animal welfare shapes up as the ideal candidate - a highly emotive topic sure to
trigger consumer outrage and flip voting decisions in an instant. Germany's
Green Party, which wields considerable power in German politics, due to its
habitual function as coalition partner of Germany's second-largest party, the
Social Democrats (SPD), seems to be pursuing precisely this strategy. In fact,
the two parties, up against the ruling Merkel-led CDU party, have banded
together on this issue.
In a radio interview in June, for example, a member of the SPD drew attention to
the fact that turkeys reared under intensive conditions in Germany routinely had
their beaks mutilated - a painful procedure that leaves them unable to engage in
some of their most basic instinctive behaviour, such as cleaning their plumage.
Jointly with the Green Party, the SPD put forward a proposal in July to regulate
the rearing of turkeys, for which no legal minimum animal welfare standards
exist in Germany to date.
However, the event that really seems to have upset the apple cart was the
publication of a Green Party-commissioned report in mid-July, researched by
Hochschule Eberswalde (Berlin), with the unambiguous title 'Qualzucht bei
Nutztieren' (Torturous Practices in Animal Husbandry).
The report acknowledges that agriculture has been under immense and
ever-increasing pressure over the past decades to reduce production costs. As a
consequence, livestock productivity has been continually pushed upwards, at the
expense of animals' wellbeing. The report is replete with examples, including
the fact that the useful life of a dairy cow had been halved over the past 40
years, and that breeding sows barely managed to reach the age of three.
Predictably, the German Farmers' Association (Deutscher Bauernverband or DBV)
claimed to be affronted by the publication. It hit back, accusing the Green
Party of deliberately sowing distrust in the run-up to the elections.
Furthermore, the DBV's secretary general, Dr Helmut Born, criticised the details
of the study, saying it was neither based on original nor the most recent data,
but instead relied on outdated research, and that the facts had been reported in
a highly selective fashion. Dr Born quoted numerous statistics in the livestock
industry's defence, including a declining mortality rate for calves and chicks.
A land of price-conscious meat-lovers
Germany is the biggest fresh meat consumer in the EU, at just over 4m tonnes (mt)
in 2012, ahead of France on 3.3mt, according to Euromonitor International. The
country is also the EU's largest consumer of chilled processed meats (total
volumes), and ranks second in terms of per capita consumption, at 15.9kg per
head in 2013.
Furthermore, Germany was the country with the highest total grocery spend
accrued by discounters in 2012 in the EU, and second in per capita terms,
following Denmark. Clearly, German consumers are as notoriously price-conscious
as they are fond of their animal products, and it is easy to see how this would
lead to a strong conflict of interests and priorities for producers and
Existing laws not enforced
The aforementioned 'Qualzucht' report offers numerous suggestions for making
breeding programmes and animal husbandry more animal welfare-friendly - for
example by opting for breeds of chickens where both sexes are suitable for
commercial production purposes (the females for eggs, the males for meat) rather
than to keep using separate breeds for each purpose. However, the report does
concede the point that a voluntary reduction in livestock productivity with the
aim of reducing animal suffering is unrealistic from a cost perspective, and
that more forceful measures are needed, including those of a legislative nature.
Germany does have fairly comprehensive animal protection laws (Tierschutzgesetz),
of which paragraph 11b expressly forbids breeding and keeping practices that
cause pain and suffering to vertebrate animals. But although this law has
existed since 1986, it has only ever been enforced in the protection of
companion animals (pets), while thus far not having been applied to the realm of
food animals. This, precisely, is one of the issues on which the Green Party
would like to effect a sea-change in Germany.
No doubt, the DBV is less than thrilled about this prospect. Dr Born opined that
only animals that were content and happy in their environment would continue to
deliver high-quality foodstuffs like meat, milk and eggs. And as much as
everybody may wish for this 'theory' to be true, there is overwhelming evidence
to the contrary.
Animals in chronic discomfort will still produce foodstuffs, and as long as the
cost-profit balance remains viable, the industry will insist on sticking to
practices that would seem abhorrent to an outside observer. Price competition is
so fierce in Germany (and elsewhere) that little room remains for humaneness,
and maybe it is time for the law to finally grow a set of teeth and go about
levelling the playing field, rather than amounting to little more than fancy
words festering in a file.
At present, the onus is effectively on consumers, who, if they feel strongly
enough about this issue, can opt to purchase meat, dairy products and eggs
produced under higher animal welfare standards - for example, organic. However,
as the 'Qualzucht' report and other organisations active in this field emphasise,
supply cannot currently keep up with demand, and pricing structures remain a
strong deterrent. As much as it may rile the DBV, the imminent elections are a
suitable platform for bringing this issue once again to the attention of German
consumers, who do have the right to vote with their vote, and not just with