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Farmers´ views on the Welfare Quality® assessment system

The main objective of the farmers’ juries is to understand farmers’ perceptions of the Welfare Quality® assessment system. It is important to determine how farmers perceive the tool, because they will be confronted with the system when applied and they will also be important users of the information.
The basis of our work is the expectation that running juries with a selection of farmers will provide insights into how farmers more generally might react to the final tool and how their opinions develop. We therefore used a method that allows us to witness how a group of respondents (the ‘jury’) develop their opinions over time and in response to information input and in exchange with others.

The farmers’ juries took place in the Netherlands, Norway and Italy in the autumn of 2008. We invited pig farmers of different ages and gender, whose farms varied in terms of specialization (breeding, fattening, integrated), production method (organic, conventional), region and size. All juries met for six sessions, in which we discussed the definition of animal welfare and the ´Principles and Criteria of Good Animal Welfare´ of the Welfare Quality® assessment tool as well as its implementation in practice. The same protocol was followed in all three countries using the same expert presentations. Differences in the findings are therefore likely to reflect differences between the three countries and farming communities.

     Farmers juries, © Jacobsen     

Briefly summarized, we can conclude that farmers are concerned about animal welfare, because treating animals well is part of their professional ethic and pride. In general, the farmers’ definition of animal welfare is similar to the way it is defined in Welfare Quality® and measured in the Welfare Quality® assessment tool. They accept the relevance of the principles and criteria and in most cases agree with the measurements. We found differences in the importance they attached to certain principles and criteria - for example, farmers considered ‘appropriate other behaviour’, ‘human-animal relationship’ and ‘absence of fear’ to be of little importance. Neither were they easily convinced that these criteria can be objectively and reliably measured. Farmers were most concerned about the evaluation and scoring of farms. They expressed their worries about the quality of the assessment, the reliability and validity of the results, how representative the sample might be, the perceived subjectivity of assessment and evaluation, the frequency of assessments, and the integration of factors such as climate and management and timing of the assessment. They were also very concerned about the impact that incidental measurements may have on the overall farm score. In principle, they liked animal-based measurements as it resembles their own judgement of the welfare of their animals, but they worried about the unpredictability of the monitoring results. Resource-based measurements enable them to predict more easily the results beforehand and also to know how to improve measurements.

The results also clearly show that Dutch farmers are more concerned than farmers in Italy and Norway about how the assessment tool might be used in the public arena and how results might be used against them. Dutch farmers also felt offended by the implicit suggestion that external assessors need to control such basic issues as absence of prolonged hunger, which in their view were only compromised in exceptional cases. Their reactions may reflect the political situation in the Netherlands and the high level of public concern for and media attention to animal welfare.
This is far less the case in Norway and Italy. Norwegian farmers were not so much concerned about the terms of the measurements but rather worried about the operational feasibility of the assessment. They wanted some resource-based standards to be maintained in legislation to ensure that every farmer keeps up a certain standard. Italian farmers also worried about the perceived subjectivity, representativeness and context-dependency of measurements. Moreover, they were concerned that implementation would limit their entrepreneurial freedom. They would prefer the tool to be used for voluntary quality certification.

Relevance of the results for Welfare Quality®
Although these are preliminary results, we believe there are some important lessons to be learned.
• Language is very important. We have to be very careful which words to use when defining principles, criteria and measurements, because they can inadvertently lead to ambiguity and concern. It also means that we have to be careful how to translate terms into the various languages and about the significance of certain words. They may seem neutral to us but not necessarily to farmers or citizens.
• We need to be aware that farmers can be concerned that some media and NGOs, which are very active in some European countries, may “try to use the assessment results for their own cause”, and of the “use of ‘catchy terms’ like injuries”. The jury felt that even a result like ‘zero injuries’ may not be interpreted as especially animal friendly by many consumers. In their view, an absence of injuries should be the norm and not something to be evaluated in terms of above the average and extraordinary. Acceptability of the assessment tool to farmers might be increased by the use of more neutral terms in certain circumstances. Conversely, it may be argued that all stakeholders should have the opportunity to form their own opinions based on actual findings.
• We need to provide sufficient and transparent information about the assessment and evaluation procedures, their objectivity and timing.
• We have to be very clear about the possibility of ‘redoing’ the assessment in some circumstances.
• Finally, it is important to acknowledge and build on the professional pride of farmers and their professional ethics, in which taking good care of animals has a central position.

Bettina Bock, Bettina.Bock@wur.nl , Paolo Ferrari, p.ferrari@crpa.it
and Eivind Jacobsen,
eivind.jacobsen@sifo.no