This opinion piece by Animal Policy International’s Co-Executive Director Rainer Kravets was first published in The Post (Wellington) and The Press (Christchurch) on August 23, 2023.
As recently reported, the pork industry, facing the imminent ban on farrowing crates, is feeling the heat from low-cost low-welfare imports - and is not getting support from the Government.
But if politicians are hesitant to support farmers when it comes to imports, they should consider the opinion of the average Kiwi. New Zealand has often been regarded as a country with some of the highest farmed animal welfare standards in the world. However, the status is not carved into stone and it is necessary to keep advancing the field to maintain important international recognition, support farmers, and to respect the views of Kiwis who demand better for animals. A recent poll shows 83% of people agree that imported products from outside New Zealand should respect the same animal welfare standards as those applied in New Zealand. The support is consistently high across regions, income levels, and party vote.
Importing lower standard products perpetuates, fuels, and in some cases effectively outsources, cruel practices overseas, including confining pigs in sow stall cages for months (banned in Aotearoa), and performing mulesing - removing parts of the skin from live sheep without anaesthetic. In New Zealand this could result in a criminal conviction. Many of the imported animal products are coming from countries that have some of the lowest rankings in World Animal Protection’s index, such as China, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the US.
New Zealanders have serious concerns about the welfare of farmed animals - 90% believe it is important to protect their welfare - and they want real and effective change for them. In the longer term it is unsustainable not to apply welfare standards to all products placed on the market. Otherwise, instead of truly improving the welfare of animals, as demanded by citizens, the production is simply taking place in countries where there are little or no standards - and harming New Zealand industry to boot. We are currently seeing this undesired effect with the pork industry where local producers are increasingly outcompeted by low-welfare imports, negatively affecting both consumers’ expectations and local farmers. Already now around two thirds of pork consumed in New Zealand is imported.
The EU as a global leader in animal welfare that is about to phase out cages in animal farming by 2027 has understood the implications of allowing low-welfare products on its market and is currently carrying out an impact assessment of applying the same standards on all products placed on their market, including imports. Another example is California’s Proposition 12 passed in 2018 protecting cows, pigs and chickens by banning some types of confinement. The law applies to all products sold in California, regardless of origin.
Applying animal welfare to imports unilaterally is the most effective way to have the desired impact of better care for animals. Free trade agreements occasionally include animal welfare chapters, but they typically agree on cooperation rather than commitments to specific standards. Labelling does not solve the problem either as it requires significant research from consumers who want good choices made easy to make.
A commitment to free trade cannot justify ignoring society's demands for better treatment of animals. Free trade has its benefits, but also negative externalities and it is the government’s responsibility to reduce those. World Trade Organisation case law shows that animal welfare concerns fall under a public morals exemption in GATT Article XX, meaning that New Zealand can restrict the sale of low-welfare animal products. Exemptions are made specifically for situations like this to reduce unwanted externalities from trade and to live up to the values and morals that are important for a country's residents.
As the Minister of Agriculture and Trade and Export Growth, Damien O’Connor said announcing the live export ban, reputation is important. Continuing on the current trajectory of double standards poses a threat to New Zealand’s.
As a country with higher animal welfare standards, New Zealand is expected to take leading steps in protecting animal welfare both domestically and internationally. In an increasingly globalised world, it is not only domestic production that forms a country’s animal welfare reputation, but also what it is doing internationally, especially around products made for its market. Exporting countries are profiting from the access to New Zealand’s market and should be held to the same standards. It is time to acknowledge the inefficiencies of these double standards, stand up for Kiwi values and make New Zealand a leader in animal welfare again.