Translating Science into Policy: Animal Welfare and Conservation as Cross-cutting Issues to Accelerate Sustainable Development

Why Animals Matter to Sustainable Development

We envisage a world … in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living creatures are protected.
— Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The seminal Brundtland Report of 1987 defines Sustainable Development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It also established the three pillars of sustainable development that must be balanced: economic growth, social equity and environmental protection.

In 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted. The Agenda’s founding document, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, states, “We envisage a world … in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living creatures are protected.”

While animal welfare and conservation have traditionally been seen as “developed” country concerns, there is increasing scientific evidence and recognition that these issues are intrinsically linked to human well-being. As knowledge of the link between human health and well-being, environmental protection, and animal welfare spreads, policy solutions are beginning to include animal considerations in order to improve the well-being of humans and the protection of the environment.

One Welfare is a multidisciplinary framework which “recognises the interconnections between animal welfare, human wellbeing and the environment,” and “fosters interdisciplinary collaboration to improve human and animal welfare internationally.” One Welfare brings together veterinarians, public health experts, conservationists and others to identify solutions to local, national and global problems by recognizing the links between animal, environmental and human well-being. One Welfare is also complementary to the widely accepted One Health concept which recognizes the interlinkages between human, animal and environmental health.

The One Welfare approach can be beneficial to sustainable development in many ways:

  • Stemming biodiversity loss maintains and improves the essential services that a healthy environment provides to people, including clean air, water, food and climate stability, thereby protecting human health and well-being and improving agricultural production and food security.

  • Strengthening animal health and welfare strengthens the livelihoods and resilience of millions of people across the world who depend on working livestock to support their lives and livelihoods through draught power in agriculture and transport.

  • Humane spay, neuter and vaccination of stray dogs mitigates risk of rabies transmission to humans.

  • Including animals in disaster response and risk reduction legislation improves survival and recovery outcomes for the entire community and can help reduce poverty, hunger and conflict.

Looking more in depth, the intensification of livestock production systems is linked to the spread of zoonoses and antimicrobial resistance, two grave threats to human health. Intensive production systems harm livelihoods by exacerbating low wages, poor working conditions, and decreasing employment opportunities, thereby destabilizing rural economies. Intensive livestock production also harms the environment and accelerates biodiversity loss by forcing a transition to the production of monoculture crop and animal systems which rely heavily on chemical inputs and contribute significantly to climate change; pollution of waterways, air and soil; and is a key driver of deforestation. Transitioning to more humane, environmentally-friendly production systems, as well as shifting towards plant-based diets in regions where meat consumption is excessive, can make a positive contribution to the achievement of a number of SDGs.

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Additionally, as intensive agricultural production and other factors speed the loss of biodiversity and wildlife, human health and environmental resilience are put at risk. Recent scientific studies demonstrate clear links between increased disease emergence and biodiversity loss over the past several decades. Much of this increase is associated with land conversion in highly biodiverse areas of the globe combined with higher human population density. In more urban and developed areas of the world with lower levels of biodiversity, there is an increase in auto-immune diseases. These scenarios demonstrate a definitive link between human health and biodiversity.

The recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that:

Current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80 percent (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 13, 14 and 15). Loss of biodiversity is therefore a developmental, economic, security, social, moral, as well as an environmental issue.

As the expanding global human population places land and wild animal populations under increasing pressure, protecting against biodiversity loss must be incorporated into development plans and strategies. The corollary is also true when incorporating animal welfare into development models: linking animal welfare into development plans and strategies can have a cross-cutting positive effect on human well-being and environmental protection.

Where Are Animals in Relevant Policy?

There are now important international policy streams dealing both with animal welfare and conservation. The 182 Member Countries of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) have agreed to implement the OIE’s animal welfare standards, which cover animals in research, working equids, dog population control, and animals in agriculture and aquaculture. At the same time, there are also several multilateral environmental agreements mandated to consider issues that either directly or indirectly touch upon animal welfare in the context of conservation, trade and development. These include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). There are 196, 128, and 183 countries which have become Parties to these conventions, respectively.

In parallel to the growing body of scientific evidence for One Health and One Welfare, science is increasingly demonstrating that animals are indeed sentient. That is, they share with us the ability to experience pain, suffering, fear, distress and states of well-being. In 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to sign the Cambridge Declaration on Animal Consciousness, stating that “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” This scientific understanding has important ethical and policy implications which are beginning to be reflected at the global, regional and national policy levels:

CMS is breaking new ground by looking at the issue of animal culture, social complexity, social learning and the role of individual and groups of individual animals as repositories of social knowledge. This pioneering work could have fundamental repercussions on how we approach conservation.
— Bradnee Chambers, Former Executive Secretary of CMS
  • The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Global Animal Welfare Strategy states that the use of animals carries with it an “ethical responsibility to ensure any such use is humane, as defined through the OIE’s international standards for animal welfare, in recognition of the sentience of animals.”

  • The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals has established a working group to better understand how animal culture and communication contributes to conservation. Former Executive Secretary of CMS, the late Bradnee Chambers, stated that "CMS is breaking new ground by looking at the issue of animal culture, social complexity, social learning and the role of individual and groups of individual animals as repositories of social knowledge. This pioneering work could have fundamental repercussions on how we approach conservation.”

  • The African Union Animal Welfare Strategy for Africa states that “animals must be treated as sentient beings.”

  • The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) states that “the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals…”

  • Animal sentience has also been recognized in policy by New Zealand, Brussels and Mexico City.

Together, these recent scientific and policy developments indicate a significant change in the understanding of the linkages between humans, animals and the environment. There is now a unique opportunity to harness and build upon these developments in order to accelerate progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Agenda.

What is Needed?

Animal welfare and conservation are cross-cutting issues which, if positively addressed, can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda. This can be accomplished by the incorporation of the care, protection and conservation of animals into global, regional and national sustainable development policies, plans and strategies.