Open Philanthropy Project Farm Animal Welfare Newsletter
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How Can We Improve Farm Animal Welfare in India?

For animals, India is a nation of contradictions. It has the world’s second largest number of farmed animals (mainly fish) and its largest number of vegetarians, the most dairy farms (950X more than the U.S.) and the most bans on cow slaughter, some of the least enforced animal cruelty laws and the strongest constitutional protections for animals (including a duty for every citizen “to have compassion for living creatures”).

I just got back from a research trip to India, generously hosted by N. Jayasimha of Humane Society International, and want to share some insights. (I’ll address the newsletter topic I promised next, on factory farm supports, in a few months.)

First, despite a common narrative, Indians aren’t ditching vegetarianism or uniformly eating more meat as they grow richer and move to cities. Indian national census data shows that vegetarianism rates are actually up slightly since 2004 — though even then only one in four Indians was vegetarian — and fairly constant across urban and rural areas. And Indians are eating less red meat — goat, mutton, and beef — than they did two decades ago. But Indians are also eating more chicken, eggs, and fish (USDA statistics show an even bigger shift than the FAO data below: toward per capita consumption of 3.6kg of chicken per capita in 2017, a 5X increase from 1997.) Coupled with India’s rapid population growth, this trend toward eating smaller animals has roughly tripled the number of farm animals in India since 1993.

Total Indian meat consumption per capita has fallen slightly in the last two decades. But animal numbers have increased because of population growth and the switch from red meat to chicken, eggs, and seafood. (Milk consumption, not shown because its volume, inflated by its high water content, is ~20X larger, has also risen.) Source: FAO Stat.

Second, Indian farm animal production already largely resembles US factory farming — it’s too late to stop India adopting factory farming. We visited a dozen egg layer, broiler chicken, farmed fish, dairy cow, and pig operations (photos and videos here), and consistently saw American breeds and confinement systems. Take the battery cage facility pictured below: according to staff there, the hens’ genetics are from Hy-Line, an Iowa company, and the cages are from Big Dutchman, a Michigan company. Consolidation has driven this trend: in 2002, 80% of Indian newborn chicks were sold to backyard farms; by last year, over 90% of broilers were raised by large vertically integrated poultry companies or their contract farmers. These companies have access to the credit needed to finance massive factory farms — the one below contained about 100,000 birds (though even these companies largely haven’t built automated indoor facilities of the sort common in the US, since labor is cheap and electricity unreliable).

Hens at a battery cage facility in Andhra Pradesh, India. We saw dozens of operations like this, each housing anywhere from 50,000 to a million hens, all of whom are raised in these cages to around 60 weeks of age. All the farms we visited were on contract to major vertically integrated poultry producers. Source: personal photo, March 2017.

Third, most Indian animal products are sold by the country’s 12 million independent food sellers, often in live animal markets. “Modern food retail” accounts for just 2% of Indian food retail, while 90% of broiler chickens are sold live at markets, where they’re slaughtered on demand. This is not just an animal welfare problem — it also prevents corporate campaigns from achieving any scale. And it complicates veg advocacy, much of which relies on graphic videos and leaflets, drawing on Sir Paul McCartney’s adage that "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." Indian slaughterhouses typically have no walls, yet plenty of people eat meat, suggesting another approach is needed to advocate for diet change.

Fourth, Indian advocates risk being confused with Hindu nationalists, led by the BJP national government, whose anti-cow slaughter campaign sometimes appropriates the animal welfare label. In reality, cow slaughter bans are likely bad for animal welfare: India’s beef industry has always been dominated by water buffalo, which aren’t covered by the bans, so only unwanted old dairy cows and male calves are affected. But dairy farmers have responded to the bans by either transporting their animals longer distances to Bangladesh or the few states were slaughter remains legal, or dumping them at Gaushalas (overcrowded “sanctuaries” that often resemble factory farms). Most advocates I spoke with have avoided this debate, focusing instead on more numerous chickens or the conditions in crowded urban dairy factory farms.

Indian farm animal product production has risen steadily over the last two decades, driven by increased chicken, egg, and milk consumption rates, and human population growth. Note that the milk figures are tens of millions of tons (since water content inflates these numbers), and that I used tons, not animal numbers, because this is the only consistently measured metric across all species. Source: FAO Stats; FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department.

Fifth, advocates need to not just pass laws, but also to enforce them. For example, India’s 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act prohibits cages that don’t allow “the animal a reasonable opportunity for movement.” The Animal Welfare Board of India, an official advisory body established under the Act, has issued a directive that battery cages violate this provision and called on egg producers to phase out the cages by 2017. And 24 out of 29 Indian states have reportedly agreed that battery cages are illegal. But everywhere we went we saw these cages in use, with no plans to replace them. This is likely due to the political power of the Indian poultry industry; weak penalties (the maximum penalty under the Act for repeat offenses is 100 rupees — roughly $1.50 USD); and a government willingness to ignore the law (after the Supreme Court recently ruled that Jallikattu, a form of bullfighting, violated the Act, Tamil Nadu openly flouted the ruling with the support of the national government).

So how to navigate these cultural, legal, political, and other barriers? I was very heartened to see the multiple approaches that the two dozen farm animal advocates I met with in Delhi are taking. I’m particularly excited about three of those approaches:

  • Litigating and lobbying to secure enforcement of the national battery cage ban, and other farm animal welfare rules. Late last year, their litigation progressed in a positive Supreme Court hearing where top litigators represented the hens’ interests pro bono. But there’s still much work to be done to enforce the law.
  • Expanding the movement through grassroots advocacy and capacity building. Some groups are working to mobilize the many Indians who care deeply about animal welfare, via leafleting, talks, and coalition building with local groups. Others are training those advocates and law enforcement officers to build their capacity to enforce the laws.
  • Pushing for welfare reforms or reductions in animals in the huge dairy industry. I’m generally more excited about focusing on fish or chickens, of which there are 185X as many in the US as dairy cows. But in India, which has ~300M dairy cows and buffalos (compared to just ~9M in the U.S.), I think this priority makes sense.

I hope that this newsletter inspires your own thoughts on how we can help advocates campaigning for farm animals in India. Next month I’ll look at the ongoing U.S. campaigns to improve the treatment of broiler chickens.

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