What do Irish consumers think of agriculture and animal welfare?

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Analysis: Consumers generally have a positive view of animal welfare on Irish farms, but there is a growing lack of knowledge about farming practices

By Aine Regan and John Hyland, Teagasc

Animal welfare is increasingly on the radar of Irish consumers. Public attitudes towards the way farm animals are cared for can have a significant impact on food purchasing trends. This includes studying food labels in supermarket aisles, changing eating habits or accessing local produce from short food circuits, such as farmers’ markets or farm box delivery subscriptions. Consumer attention to animal welfare practices on farms has the power to influence the future of food production in Ireland.

In order to better understand public knowledge and opinions on this topic, researchers interrogates nearly 1,000 members of the public. This revealed generally positive public sentiment towards welfare standards on Irish and Northern Irish farms in the dairy, beef, pig and poultry sectors. However, the results showed variations in perceived welfare conditions across sectors: greater concerns arise for welfare in poultry and pork production, while lesser concerns appear for dairy products and beef.

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In RTÉ Radio 1’s 2020 Drivetime, Philip Boucher-Hayes reports on an EU inquiry into animal welfare standards in the live animal export trade

These sectoral differences are explained by a number of factors that consumers tend to use to assess well-being conditions. In Ireland and Northern Ireland, cows and cattle are viewed by the public as part of an extensive grazing-based system with high public visibility, resulting in a positive perception of welfare. Conversely, poultry and pig farms are perceived as intensive, not very visible to the public with problems of housing and access to the outside.

Across all sectors, however, the survey showed that the public feels that wellbeing conditions have improved over the past ten years. At the same time, the survey and focus groups showed that the public feels uninformed about farming practices and does not have enough information about health-friendly foods.

Research shows that there is often a gap between the concerns of citizens and the translation into buying behavior as a consumer. Advanced analysis of the survey data by the project team shed light on this citizen-consumer disconnect. By analyzing the participants according to their answers to various attitude questions, three typical consumer profiles were identified: “indifferent”, “engaged” and “in difficulty”.

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From RTÉ News in 2016, animal welfare groups express their anger over the shooting of five cattle at Monaghan farm

The ‘indifferent’ consumer (69.1% of participants) has a positive perception of farm animal welfare on the island of Ireland. Although they feel motivated to buy wellness-friendly products, this attitude is less likely to translate into frequent buying behavior.

The ‘engaged’ consumer (16.5% of participants) is very concerned about welfare standards in agriculture and is highly motivated to buy welfare-friendly products. Unlike the “indifferent” consumer, this motivation translates into frequent buying behavior.

The “struggling” consumer (14.4% of respondents) is also concerned about on-farm welfare standards. But if they’re motivated to buy wellness-friendly products, that motivation doesn’t translate into behavior. The lack of choice, the lack of information, the insufficient availability and the difficulty of using relevant labels represent significant obstacles for this type of consumer. These types of consumers will need to be supported through empowerment-focused interventions, such as implementing widely accessible and trusted front-of-package labeling for wellness-friendly products.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Countrywide in 2020, Monaghan poultry farmer Mick McKenna on the impact of bird flu on his farm and flock

Labeling can serve as an important platform to communicate welfare information and reduce the gap between consumers and farmers. But as more audiences are exposed to information via online and social media, labels are under intense scrutiny: what they say, what they mean, and how much they can be trusted. Any labeling system must be underpinned by a transparent and evidence-based quality assurance system to build public confidence.

Additionally, in order to use labels effectively, the public must have a good understanding of agricultural and food production practices. Given that consumers themselves claim to have little knowledge on this subject, it is clear that there is a vacuum of information regarding food production and the welfare of farmed animals.

As an extension of the fieldwork with the public, work was carried out to meet some of the information needs that arose. 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 user-friendly facts, language and images to communicate what good welfare practice looks like on Irish dairy farms. This is an area of ​​great economic and rural value to Ireland, but which is also increasingly coming under public scrutiny due to concerns about sustainability.

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The information in the video aims to break the growing disconnect between citizen-consumers and agriculture, by giving people the knowledge they need about what good agricultural practices look like. By learning about farm animal welfare and what this means in terms of farming practices, consumers can make more informed choices and be encouraged to use food labeling as a tool to support responsible welfare practices in agriculture.

This research was funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Navy under the Research Stimulus Fund (Project Number: RSF 17/S/230).

Dr. Aine Regan is a behavioral scientist with Teagasc working on national and European projects on animal health and welfare, the use of digital technologies in agriculture and sustainable food systems. Dr John Hyland is a social science technologist with Teagasc with an interest in food systems and sustainability as well as farmer and consumer decision-making.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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