What do Irish consumers think about farming and animal welfare?
Analysis: consumers have generally positive views of animal welfare on Irish farms, but there is a growing knowledge gap about farming practices. This article, by Áine Regan and John Hyland, Teagasc was first publsihed recently on RTÉ Brainstorm. You can read it here
Animal welfare is increasingly on the radar of Irish consumers. Public attitudes about how farm animals are taken care of can have a huge impact on food shopping trends. This includes studying food labels in the supermarket aisles, changing dietary habits, or accessing local produce from short food supply chains, such as farmers' markets or farm box delivery subscriptions. The attention that consumers give to animal welfare practices on farms has the power to influence the future of food production in Ireland.
Understanding the public view
To get a better understanding of the public’s knowledge and opinions on this topic, researchers surveyed almost 1,000 members of the public. This revealed generally positive public sentiment about welfare standards on Irish and Northern Irish farms in the dairy, beef, pork and poultry sectors. However, the results showed variation in perceived welfare conditions across sectors: greater concerns arise for welfare in poultry and pork production, whilst lower concerns appear for dairy and beef.
These sectoral differences are explained through a number of factors that consumers tend to use to assess welfare conditions. In Ireland and Northern Ireland, cows and cattle are viewed by the public to be part of a pasture-based, extensive system with high public visibility resulting in positive perceptions of welfare. Conversely, poultry and pig farms are viewed as intensive, having low public visibility with issues relating to housing and outdoor access.
Across all sectors, though, the survey showed that the public feel that welfare conditions have improved over the last ten years. At the same time, both survey and focus groups showed the public feels uninformed about farming practices, and that they don’t have enough information about welfare-friendly foods.
Research shows a gap often exists between the concerns of citizens and the translation into shopping behaviour as a consumer. Advanced analysis of the survey data by the project team shed further light on this citizen-consumer disconnect. Analysing participants based on their responses to various attitudinal questions, three profiles of typical consumers were identified: 'indifferent’, ‘engaged’ and ‘struggling’.
The ‘indifferent’ consumer
The ‘indifferent’ consumer (69.1% of participants) has positive perceptions of farm animal welfare on the island of Ireland. While they feel motivated to buy welfare-friendly produce, this attitude is less likely to translate to frequent purchasing behaviour.
The ‘engaged’ consumer
The ‘engaged’ consumer (16.5% of participants) is highly concerned about welfare standards in farming, and is highly motivated to purchase welfare-friendly produce. Unlike the ‘indifferent’ consumer, this motivation translates to frequent purchasing behaviour.
The ‘struggling’ consumer
The ‘struggling’ consumer (14.4% of participants) is also concerned about welfare standards on farms. But while they’re motivated to purchase welfare-friendly produce, this motivation doesn’t translate to behaviour. A lack of choice, dearth of information, inadequate availability and difficulty using relevant labels represent significant hurdles for this type of consumer. These types of consumers will need to be supported through interventions focused on enablement, such as the establishment of widely accessible and trusted front-of-pack labelling for welfare-friendly produce.
Labelling can serve as an important platform for communicating welfare information and lessening the gap between consumers and farmers. But as the public is more exposed to information through online and social media, there is intense scrutiny of labels: what they say, what they mean and how much they can be trusted. Any labelling scheme must be underpinned by a transparent and evidence-based quality assurance scheme to build public trust.
Furthermore, in order to use labels effectively, the public need to have a good understanding of farming and food production practices. As consumers self-report low knowledge on this subject, it is evident that a vacuum of information exists relating to food production and farm animal welfare.
Looking after cows on Irish Dairy Farms
Following on from the fieldwork with the public, work was carried out to tackle some of the information needs arising. Through a co-design process with veterinarians, animal welfare scientists, policy-makers, communication practitioners, and graphic designers, an animated whiteboard video was produced for the general public.
This uses engaging and public-friendly facts, language and imagery to communicate what good welfare practices look like on Irish dairy farms. This is a sector that holds high economic and rural value for Ireland, but which is also increasingly under public scrutiny due to concerns about sustainability.
The information in the video aims to break the growing disconnect between citizen-consumers and agriculture, by empowering people with knowledge about what good farming practices look like.
By becoming informed about farm animal welfare and what that entails in terms of farming practices, consumers can make more informed choices and be supported to use food labelling as a tool to underpin responsible welfare practices in farming.
This research was funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine under the Research Stimulus Fund (project number: RSF 17/S/230).