Thank you, Mr. Chair.
My name is Tina Widowski and I'm a professor of animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Guelph.
I know that this week you've heard quite a bit about science-based codes and science-based standards, so today I'd like to give you a little bit about the scientist's perspective and how we go about this process.
For the last 20 years, I've been focusing primarily on the welfare of pigs and poultry. More recently, my research program has focused on the laying hen. I've had the opportunity to sit on three of the scientist committees for the codes of practice. That includes codes for pigs and also poultry—meat birds. Also, I'm chairing the committee for laying hens, which is in progress right now. I'm also on the steering committee for the animal care assessment model. This is the model that's being developed to do on-farm assurances based on the codes of practice.
The concern for farm animal welfare is not new. This has been going on for over 50 years, beginning in the U.K. Today, animal care concerns and farm animal welfare are shaping the way that eggs, meat, and milk are being produced and marketed around the world. I've provided some details on historical development. I'm not going to go through it now, but if you want to look over it, you can get some perspective on how this has been sweeping across the world.
The interest in this issue in Canada is at an all-time high, and I would not expect it to go down anytime soon. Canadian livestock and poultry producers are facing a number of challenges. They have invested, and will continue to invest, in new housing systems, new practices, and standards of care that will address the concerns of consumers and the broader community.
If we look at the various livestock and poultry sectors, we can identify some of the main areas of concern that people have about modern animal agriculture. The issue that is probably most visible to the general public is that of housing animals in ways that restrict their movement or their behaviour. The close confinement systems that you're probably most familiar with are sow stalls and the conventional battery cages for laying hens. This would include tie stalls for dairy cows and systems in which dairy cows don't have opportunities to graze.
Another issue comes to light once we move into group housing systems—the amount of space we allow them. This concerns many of the livestock sectors. Mr. Dungate referred to this while talking about the standards that the CFC use.
A third issue concerns management practices routinely done on farms that cause pain and distress to animals. These practices occur in a number of livestock sectors and include surgical procedures done without anesthesia or analgesia, as well as transfer and slaughter procedures. These procedures pretty much affect all the livestock and poultry sectors.
All of these are very emotional issues, and all of these are issues that people have different perspectives about. The task for animal welfare scientists like myself is to try to introduce objective measures that will inform ethical decisions about the quality of life for Canada's farm animals. To do this, we use a variety of validated scientific techniques, which I will go over very briefly right now.
One approach is to evaluate the basic health and functioning of animals. We look at their health, disease, and mortality rates. In laboratories, we can look at their stress physiology, which tells you how they are responding to different environments or procedures. We also evaluate the subjective experiences or feelings of animals. We now know from our studies of neurobiology in animals that they share some of the same basic emotions as humans. Some emotions help us survive. We study states of distress like fear, frustration, and pain, as well as states of pleasure like contentment and comfort. We combine behavioural, physiological, and neurobiological measures in order to gauge if, and to what degree, animals experience these states in different housings or when they are subjected to different procedures.
Finally, we identify specific behaviour patterns that animals may be highly motivated to engage in. We identify these, and then we determine how their housing system might affect their behaviour and what we can do to improve conditions.
Some of the most contentious issues, for the general public at least, involve housing systems like conventional cages and sow stalls. We have to remember that these systems were initially developed to provide benefits to the animals, including health and hygiene, to reduce aggression, and to promote individual feeding. They also have economic benefits for producers and consumers.
Research into the subjective experiences and behaviour of the animals does suggest these systems can have some improvements. However, when we get into alternative systems, the behaviour and health of the animal...there are some welfare trade-offs in those systems. By allowing more space and freedom of movement, we also increase opportunities for aggression, injury, and disease. So switching from one system to another is a very complex matter.
Alternative housing systems also require greater capital investment, incur increased costs of production, and can have a higher environmental footprint. It's a very complicated equation.
Canadian animal welfare scientists are working on next-generation group housing systems for sows and enriched housing systems for laying hens. We're working on those that involve real improvements for animal welfare, are ethically acceptable to consumers and the broader community, and are economically feasible for both producers and consumers.
We are also assessing the amount of pain that animals experience—for example, castration of piglets—and working on developing ways to mitigate that pain. A number of workers across Canada are also looking at transportation issues of poultry, pigs, and beef. We are assessing the transport times and distances that Canadian animals experience—they are the longest in the world—and we're also investigating how we can modify trucks and change ventilation systems to improve the comfort of the animals on those trucks.
The work of Canadian animal welfare scientists directly informs public policy. The current process for developing codes, as you've learned, involves scientists. First, we do a very rigorous review of our own work and the work that goes on around the world. We provide the information to the co-development committee. We don't make recommendations; we provide what we know. Then the multi-stakeholder committee takes that scientific information and weighs it against the economic, practical, and all other factors that come into play, to determine the level of the standards that are considered to be acceptable in Canada. It's a public process.
Canada has always been a leader in animal welfare science. We have a strong reputation in this area, and we have some world-class experts working on very tough issues, serving on both national and international policy advisory committees. This includes Agriculture Canada scientists, NSERC, and industrial research chairs. We also have a Canada research chair in animal welfare as well.
Our work is supported by industry grants that are leveraged through both provincial and federal funding programs. The recent cut in AFC has resulted in a loss of some of Canada's top animal welfare scientists, both very established scientists and those that are up and coming. They've contributed significantly to policy development, and this is at a time when there is an increasing demand for science-based animal welfare standards.
Animal welfare research is key to informing the development of evidence-based animal care standards. It's key to informing the evolution of housing systems that actually benefit the animals. Therefore, it's critical that research, industry, and animal welfare policies continue to be supported at both the provincial and federal levels, to keep Canadian producers competitive but also to ensure a balanced approach to setting animal welfare standards for Canada's farm animals.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to address your committee. I look forward to your questions.