COLUMBUS – Ohioans say they care about the welfare of farm animals, but what does that really mean?
And what’s the implications, long-term, for the state’s $1.6 billion livestock industry?
Important. According to a recent Ohio State University survey of more than 1,800 Ohioans, 92 percent said they agreed or strongly agreed it is important that farm animals are well-cared for, and 85 percent said the quality of life for farm animals is important even when they are used for meat.
In addition, 81 percent agreed that “the well-being of farm animals is just as important as the well-being of pets,” and 75 percent agreed that “farm animals should be protected from feeling physical pain.”
“Nearly everyone says animals should be treated well,” said Jeff Sharp, an Ohio State rural sociologist. “But there’s a question of how you define that.”
Indecision. Despite strong support for animal welfare in general, respondents were divided on how they felt about using animals for some purposes.
Survey results showed that 57 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that “Humans should be able to use animals for any purpose,” with 22 percent agreeing with that statement and 21 percent undecided.
Medical transplants. Respondents were even more ambivalent when asked specifically about using animals to grow organs for human transplants.
Forty percent were undecided on whether “it is acceptable to use animals to grow organs for humans,” while 33 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement and 27 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Currently, heart valves from pigs are routinely used in human heart surgeries. But the technology to allow full organ transplants from animals, such as livers from genetically modified pigs, is beginning to make headway.
“This is such a new concept, people haven’t been able to determine how they feel about it,” said Holli Kendall, who is also a rural sociologist at Ohio State.
Sharp said that a majority (54 percent) of Ohioans are very concerned about the genetic modification of animals. This is in contrast to only a third of Ohioans expressing a strong concern about the genetic modification of plants.
Rural vs. urban. Not surprisingly, the extent of respondents’ experience in rural areas – whether it involved contact with farmers or simply going hunting or fishing – influenced how they responded to animal welfare questions, Kendall said.
The researchers found this in the 2002 survey, too – that respondents with a more rural background were more utilitarian in their view of animals, weighing costs and benefits, while others gave more weight to emotional, moral and ethical concerns.
“It appears that people from more urban areas tend to have a more emotional connection with animals in general,” Kendall said.
Because larger proportions of Ohioans now live in urban areas, this finding could have consequences for the meat production industry, the researchers said.
Veil of ignorance. But, it is important to note that two-thirds of the respondents (67 percent) were either undecided or indicated they were not interested in learning more about farm animals.
“Perhaps people prefer to a veil of ignorance regarding how their food is produced,” Sharp said.
“On the face of it, everyone is sympathetic toward animals, but people are not necessarily aware of the details of how the food production system is organized.”
Activist angle. However, Kendall said that some consumers are becoming more aware.
“Animal welfare and rights groups are growing, and they are going to continue to bring this issue to the public,” Kendall said. “Industry needs to pay attention.”
If animal welfare and rights groups attract more mainstream support, it could result in changes to the meat production system, the researchers said.
It’s something the livestock sector needs to think about, Sharp said.
“The bottom line is that we may have a ways to go before we’ve figured out how to optimally balance consumer concerns and production demands to meet everyone’s needs.”
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