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There is no grass on the other side: What will Brexit mean for animal welfare?

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Brexit… remember it? It seems like a fever dream to think of the time when Brexit was the issue at the forefront of our minds.

However, like it or not, Britain will be formally leaving the EU at the beginning of next year and much is still undecided. Among the things that hang in the balance is the legislation that will be put in place to protect animal rights, as well as the British Farmers.

So, what laws are in place currently to protect animal welfare and what will the animals of Britain and around the world stand to lose if the right legislation is not put in place?

Naturally, the issue is complicated and as such the consequences of Brexit to the animal kingdom of the UK, the EU and more widely is equally as complicated. The relationship between the EU and the UK on the topic of animal welfare has been mutualistic for decades; the EU both being a major regulator but also the UK government’s role in lobbying the EU to recognise the sentiency of animals, as well as the prohibition of veal crates in 2007, hen’s barren battery cages in 2012 and the regulation of sow stalls in 2013.

The EU has some of the most progressive laws around the world for the protection of animals and, so, leaving the EU and the single market means the protection that has been put in place will now be up to the UK government to reinstate themselves.

The Lisbon Treaty in 2009 states, ‘in formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the EU countries relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.’

I would like to think that Britain will have similar legislation to come into place straight away but animal rights have been a subject of contention for the Conservatives before, such as with fox hunting. However, the conservation of animal welfare should not be a subject up for debate.

Free trade will also present problems, especially with the keenness the UK seems to have to establish an agreement with the US which has nowhere near the same legislation as the UK.

Robert Wood Johnson wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph suggesting that the UK ought to embrace more of the US methods: these practices include chlorine washing chickens and hormone implants for cows. Robert Wood Johnson further states that the EU was a ‘museum of agriculture’ and needs to evolve. This not only highlights the abominable state of animal rights in the US but also the difference in the standards between the UK and US. 

If trade agreements with the US do go ahead then it is not only the animals that will suffer. It would be detrimental to British farmers who will have to compete with the cheaper prices that lower standards can provide. How will British farmers survive this without the EU’s farmer subsidies?

A verbal commitment has been made to farmers to uphold standards but with the House of Commons rejecting the amendment made by Lords that would force any future trade deals to meet the UK’s standards, the chief executive of the National Sheep Association remains concerned. ‘With [the Agriculture Bill] being rejected by MPs last night there is now the very real risk, despite government’s assurances, that the UK’s standards that our nation’s farmers are proud to work to, could be undermined by lower standard imports.’

I fear that, without adequate and basic legislation, the fight that should be taken internationally will instead return once more to our shores. It will be difficult to regain the moral high ground and to begin establishing meaningful change around the world if we fail to conserve animal welfare in Britain.

On their website, gov.uk establishes the following: ‘anyone who is cruel to an animal, or does not provide for its welfare needs, may be banned from owning animals, fined up to £20,000 and/or sent to prison. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 contains the general laws relating to animal welfare. It is an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal. Unlike previous legislation, the Act applies to all animals on common land. The Act contains a Duty of Care to animals […] a person has to look after an animal’s welfare as well as ensure that it does not suffer and apply to all animals.’

This means that there will be a huge discrepancy between the expectations of meat coming into the country versus the standards that British farmers should conform to.

So, will this legislation impact animal welfare more widely?

The government hasn’t made any announcement to say that they are no longer committed to maintaining general animal welfare standards within the UK but I fear that, if there is this failure to secure a mutual expectation of welfare standards, this is the beginning of a backwards trend on the progression of animal rights.

We must remember that Britain is a leading country in terms of animal rights. We should continue in this vein and must remain in the position to educate and inform others. Acknowledging the sentience of animals is an ongoing global issue, ranging from the fur trade, factory farming, the impact of hunting, and climate destabilisation. Surely, the least we can do is safeguard the animals that are directly in our care and from there, expand outward into the rest of the world.

Like with most things, the solution is to remain aware and up to date with the ever-changing and evolving political situation. However, Brexit as a topic has been neglected: information over the past few months has been sparse in light of COVID-19. While this is understandable, it is terrifying how little we know about the implications and conditions of Brexit especially with the deadline looming closer. It may take a while to adapt but this cannot be at the cost of animal wellbeing.

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