The European Citizens’ Initiative on ending the use of cages for farmed animals received wide-spread support at a hearing on Thursday in the European Parliament and is expected to result in a legislative proposal by the European Commission to update the EU directive from 1998 on the protection of animals.
The initiative, “End the Cage Age”, was formally submitted in October last year to the European Commission after it had collected ca 1.4 million signatories across all EU member states, well above the minimum number of at least 1 million signatories in at least seven member states. Most signatories were collected in Germany (474,000), followed by the Netherlands (154,000)
It is the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on farmed animals and only the sixth initiative so far to have been successful in collecting the required number of signatories, out of the 76 Initiatives registered since the instrument for participatory democracy entered into force in 2012.
The hearing was organised by the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development in association with the Committee on Petitions. German MEP Norbert Lins (EPP), Chair of the Agri Committee, concluded that "most speakers welcomed this initiative" and noted that "the ball is now in the Commission's court."
After the hearing, the Commission will have three months to reply in the form of a communication whether it will follow up with a legislative proposal to ban the use of cages for farmed animals. A proposal is tentatively scheduled in early June 2021, Janusz Wojciechowski, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, tweeted after the hearing.
He expressed “the full support from the European Commission to implement this transformation” from cages and said that EU farm subsidies and recovery funds “can also be used in part to phase out caged farming and implement alternative methods.”
Whatever changes that will be ultimately decided will have to provide for appropriate transition periods which give sufficient time to farmers to adapt but also incentives to change, he added in a tweet.
Since 2018, Compassion in World Farming has been leading a coalition of over 170 organisations from across Europe in support of the initiative. The initiative is supported by scientists and food companies in the EU.
Věra Jourovà, Commission Vice-President responsible for Values and Transparency, congratulated the organisers of the ECI for their achievement so far and ensured that the Commission attaches the highest importance to their initiative.
Stella Kyriakides, Health and Food Safety Commissioner, added her support at the hearing. “We are very much aware that we need to do more, and we need to strive for better. And we are absolutely determined to do so. The European Citizens’ Initiative is a timely reminder of that. It’s a heartful example also at democracy at its best.”
The initiative has also the backing of a cage-free working group in the Animal Welfare Intergroup at the European Parliament. “Hundreds of millions of animals in Europe are locked up in cages for farming purposes,” said Dutch MEP Anja Hazekamp (GUE/NGL), president of the Intergroup.
“These animals have no chance to exercise their natural behaviours and the conditions in which these animals are kept are so bad that their lives become one big agony. Cages are cruel, but also outdated and unnecessary. A legislative proposal to ban the use of cages in agriculture must be put forward without delay.”
In November 2020, the European Parliament’s research department issued a report on alternatives to caged farming, confirming that a cage-free future is possible, in particular for sows and laying hens. It summarized that cage-free farming has a positive effect on the behavioural freedom and welfare of animals and that the shift may be achieved by legislation and financial measures.
Animals are sentient beings
Bo Algers, professor emeritus at the Department of Animal Environment and Health at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, participated in the hearing. He told The Brussels Times that he was surprised that the Commissioners and so many MEPs at the hearing were more than positive to the initiative and prepared to handle it in a constructive way.
The initiative draws the attention to the plight of laying hens in cages, stalls and farrowing crates for sows, cages for farmed rabbits, quail, ducks and geese, and individual pens for calves. In each case commercially viable alternatives, such as barns, organic, free-range or free farrowing, exist that provide better welfare, according to the organisers of the initiative.
The cages allow each hen the space of about an A4 sheet of paper, preventing them from dustbathing or flapping their wings. Rabbits have a similarly tiny space, and some are unable to stretch up or out fully and generally do not have enough space to perform a single hop. Ducks and geese for foie gras are caged for two weeks during force-feeding.
Almost all sows spend about half of every year inside farrowing crates and sow stalls, in which they cannot even turn around. Calves are housed in individual pens until 8 weeks of age, severely restricting natural behavior, including close physical contact, social interaction, play and exercise.
Which animals suffer most in the cages? “It’s difficult to assess but not crucial for the adoption of the initiative,” Professor Algers replied. He underlines the ethological reasons for adapting farming of animals to their natural behaviours and instincts. ”This should have been considered from the very beginning in view of the fact that animals are sentient beings.”
The EU law for farmed animals is incredibly outdated, according to Algers. “Since 1998, when the EU adopted its directive on the protection of farmed animals, the output from the animal welfare science has on average been tenfold. Today, we have a much better understanding of how physical, physiological and psychological factors relate to animal welfare.”
“A wide range of species-specific ethological needs are not, or cannot be, provided in a cage, whether enriched or not. It’s now crystal clear that cages, due to their inherent physical and behavioural restriction, cannot provide good welfare, no matter how good the management.”
Figures on the transition costs from cages to alternative farming methods seem to be missing but he thinks that the economic potential in marketing food offering added values is underestimated. “Selling and paying more for non-toxic food, produced ecologically without antibiotics and respecting decent animal welfare standards, will become a survival strategy for food producing companies.”
Several EU member states, including Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Germany, Slovakia and Sweden, have already taken steps to phase out and ban cages for some categories of animals, though with different deadlines.
Professor Algers mentions Sweden as a model country as regards farming pigs without putting them in cages and docking their tails. The Netherlands is advanced as regards farming laying hens.
”In fact, it’s not a national issue. There are plenty of farmers in many EU countries who are very good in farming animals. We need to highlight all these farmers as models and good examples for their colleagues, irrespective of country.”
The “End the Cage Age” initiative calls on the EU to revise the 1998 Council Directive 98/58/EC on the protection of animals and phase out all cages in EU animal farming by 2027. This is earlier than some EU member states already are planning to do. To facilitate the transition, farmers should be provided financial support. EU should also require that imports meet its enhanced animal welfare standards.
The Brussels Times