When will the government recognise animal sentience in UK law?

What is animal sentience, why has the government so far refused to enshrine its recognition in law, and what are the likely consequences?

In the 1990s, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and other animal welfare organisations campaigned for the recognition of animal sentience by the EU. A petition containing over 1 million signatures was presented to the European parliament in support of the campaign. I myself caught a bus in Leeds and travelled to Amsterdam to join a CIWF demonstration outside the prime minister’s conference building demanding the recognition of animal sentience. Within a few days, animal sentience was recognised by EU law and written into the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 via an amendment referred to as ‘Article 13 of the TFEU’ (the Treaty and Functioning of the European Union).

In 2017, Michael Gove, then secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said the government was “committed to the very highest standards of animal welfare” and would make the UK a world leader in “the care and protection of animals”. But the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 did not transfer an explicit recognition of animal sentience from the Lisbon Treaty into UK law, and in October 2020 MPs voted narrowly to uphold this decision.

According to CWIF, animals are sentient beings; in other words, they are aware of a whole range of feelings and emotions. Scientific research is uncovering increasing evidence of this, including in farm animals. Sheep, for example, can recognise the faces of up to 50 other sheep and remember them for two years. It is believed that these skills are in fact an essential requirement of evolution and survival.

The RSPCA agrees that animals show clear evidence of sentience. For example, when animals experience wellbeing, they play and explore, whereas if frightened they will attack, freeze or try to escape. The fact that animals learn from experience and improve their responses to need or danger is another clear sign of sentience.

Carl Safina, author and ecologist, suggests that science may previously have avoided questioning whether animals think and feel because of a belief that “people are special and different”. However, education has helped to change human attitudes towards animals, leading to the consideration that human emotions may also be shared by animals because “we are all animals”.

Reasons given by Michael Gove in 2017 for declining to carry over Article 13 of the TFEU into UK law were firstly that the amendment seeking to oblige the government to do this (introduced by Caroline Lucas MP) was faulty, and secondly that Article 13 was in itself unsatisfactory and the UK government would pass its own better version of appropriate legislation. However, as pointed out by James West of CIWF, there is still no sign of a bill specifically covering animal sentience.

One reason may be that the government intends to support the creation of more factory farms in the UK. We know these farms are increasing and that animals contained in them live short painful lives in crowded, unnatural and unhygienic conditions. They also present a danger to human health from increased risks of pollution, over use of antibiotics and the threat of further zoonotic disease, the origins of which are linked to factory farming. Legal recognition of animal sentience poses awkward questions for animal husbandry of this kind.

A further likely reason for the reluctance and delay may be connected to the pressures of the post-Brexit situation. Because we’ve left the EU, the government must now seek free trade agreements with countries such as the USA, Japan and Australia. As CIWF points out, the government has two choices: to demand that agricultural products imported into the UK meet our environment, farming and food standards; or to allow the import of agricultural products with lower standards. The suspicion, as voiced by Tim Farron MP, is that “as we seek new deals with countries that perhaps have much lower animal welfare standards, there will be an economic temptation to lower our standards”.

The fear that the government might allow our high standards to be compromised caused an outcry: 1 million people signed a petition organised by the NFU demanding that government should not undermine the UK’s food, animal welfare and environmental standards in trade deals.

Responding to pressure to some extent, the government established the trade and agriculture Commission, originally for six months but now extended to enable the commission to provide MPs with a report on the impact of each trade deal on animal welfare, food and agriculture, allowing 21-days scrutiny before taking a vote in parliament. But according to Sustain, the vote taken by MPs is after a deal is done, albeit before ratification, so although MPs will have more information, it may be too late in the negotiation process for MPs to influence the deal.

People in this country care about issues of food safety and animal welfare. Driven largely by the concerns of young people, sales of plant-based foods are on the increase and  both the Vegan and Vegetarian societies claim to have an increased membership, largely driven by the concern of young people. It may be that, given these concerns and also our increasing awareness of the environmental impact of meat production, it is only by ensuring the highest standards that the industry will survive at all.

In terms of standards of animal welfare, recognition of sentience is key. Different methods of food production may well be equally safe, but it is the legal requirement to acknowledge that animals are sentient creatures that will go furthest towards guarding against the importing of meat from cruelly raised animals and against the consequent pressure on our own farmers to degrade their practices in line with this or go out of business.

As CIWF says, the sentience of animals means that “What happens to them matters to them”; it must matter to us as well.

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