The European Citizens’ Initiative process is a fairly new innovation in the EU which was introduced in order to increase democracy and direct participation in the European Union. During the 10 years in which ECIs have been used in the EU, there have only been 6 successful initiatives – of which End the Cage Age is included. The End the Cage Age initiative also has the distinction of being the ECI with the third highest number of signatures and is the only ECI regarding farmed animal welfare. These numbers provide quantitative proof that EU citizens are concerned about animal welfare and invested in advocating for improved conditions for farmed animals.
The EU has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, but that has previously not been extended to species which are typically confined to cages. The End the Cage Age initiative will prohibit the use of cages for laying hens, pullets, broiler breeders, layer breeders, quail, ducks, geese and rabbits. Farrowing crates for sows, sow stalls, and individual calf pens will also be prohibited under the initiative.
Every year in the EU, 300 million animals spend most or all of their lives in cages. Laying hens and rabbits currently spend their lives in cages that are roughly the size of an A4 piece of paper. Sows spend at least half of their adult lives confined in cages which are so cramped that the pigs cannot even turn around in their pens and other caged animals such as quail, ducks and geese are kept in small cages that prevent them from expressing normal behaviours.
Following this first success in the EU, End the Cage Age will not be disbanding but instead will be monitoring the legislative development as the initiative is passed through the EU law-making process. The EU Commission responded positively to the ECI and committed to putting forward a proposal on banning cages for farmed animals. The Commission’s proposal is expected to be released at the end of 2023 and will be incorporated in the EU’s larger revision of existing animal welfare legislation. A transitionary period will be included in the proposal, but it is expected that the resulting legislation will enter force in 2027.
Working with local communities
The EU is providing support throughout the transition so that no one is left behind by this agricultural upgrade. Farmers will be able to receive subsidies from the EU to help them transition away from cages and upgrade to newer and better farming practices and EU countries can also apply for additional funding to smooth the transition. Caging animals is unnecessary now that there are viable, widely used cage-free farming methods.
Although the End the Cage Age initiative is a historic success in terms of farmed animal welfare, the fight for animal welfare is really just beginning. Politicians both in the EU and at home in Ireland can no longer deny that the public is interested in animal welfare and rights. The overwhelming success of the End the Cage Age ECI however has arguably emboldened some EU Parliamentarians who are now also fighting to ban cruel fois gras farming practices.
A larger transition on the horizon
While improvements to animal welfare are to be encouraged – and celebrated when they are successful – animal agriculture involves the exploitation of animals, no matter how high the animal welfare standards are. Vegan Sustainability Magazine recognises the environmental impact, the cruelty, and the exploitation inherent in animal agriculture and we advocate for the full abolition of animal agriculture.
In addition to the cruelty and exploitation involved, animal agriculture is extremely resource-intensive and is a major driver of climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation. The numbers of animals farmed in order to meet the demands of current consumption levels is unsustainable and the cause of significant environmental damage.
High levels of meat consumption in the Global North has also had a devastating impact on developing countries around the world. A Lancet Commission report in 2019 found that “more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to a substantial rise in the incidence of diet-related obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes”. Additionally, countries in the Global South are bearing the brunt of climate change even though developed countries in the Global North are responsible for a vast amount of the greenhouse gases produced every year.
Change is urgently needed and there are signs that a few members of the EU Commission recognise this. The EU Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy proposes tentative steps to start addressing how unsustainable animal consumption levels are in the EU. The End the Cage Age initiative is also putting pressure on the EU to act on its commitment to push for plant-based diets and adopt legislation which encourages EU countries to reduce animal agriculture in favour of plant-based foods. But for now, as is demonstrated in the new CAP and EMFAF, plant based diets are still very much a part of political greenwashing for Europe’s politicians.