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Neglect of farm animals is also a social problem

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Danish agriculture has undergone radical transformation in which the number of farms has declined while the production of farm animals has increased rapidly. Farmers today are under immense pressure to increase their animal production. A new SFI research project has analysed the association between neglect of farm animals and social problems amongst Danish farming families.

The project Living conditions in Danish agriculture investigates the social consequences of the developments in Danish agriculture in a long-term historical perspective using both qualitative and quantitative data. The report shows that social problems in the farming family, such as economic problems, sickness in the family or psychiatric problems, coincide with an increased risk of being convicted for neglect of farm animals.

As studies have shown that the wellbeing of members of the farming family is closely associated with the working conditions at the farm, problems in animal production can have severe consequences for both animals and humans. The aim of the project is to identify and explain farmers who are not able to adapt to the demanding conditions in contemporary agriculture.

Since the Second World War, Danish agricultural production has undergone a transformation in terms of scale, intensity and specialisation. While the number of people employed in Danish agriculture is decreasing, the total farm production output is increasing every year. These changes in the production process have affected the social conditions for farmers, since those remaining in the industry are faced with constant pressure to increase their production in order to be able to keep up with the competition. Along with growing industrialisation, third-party inspections of animal welfare have become common within the EU and many other countries. Famers are experiencing pressure from governmental control and legislation due to the increased political focus on animal welfare in general. Today, farmers have to work harder just to maintain the status quo.

We investigate the living conditions of the Danish farmers using both administrative registers and interviews with farmers involved in cases of neglect. The administrative registers are drawn from Statistics Denmark and the Danish Health and Medicines Authority. This combination of registers enables us to follow the population of Danish farmers from 2000 to 2008 in terms of working conditions, family life, financial aspects, somatic and psychiatric sickness, injuries, and animal welfare. In explaining the farm neglect, we use sophisticated statistical methods to identify risk groups of farmers and determine the causal factors. Knowledge from the interviews provides us with insight into how the farmers themselves experienced the incidents.

The main conclusions of the report based on the quantitative analysis are that especially farmers in pig production have a high risk of being convicted of animal neglect. This risk increases if the farmer has a large-scale production. Moreover the quantitative analysis finds that farmers convicted of animal neglect are more likely than other farmers to be struggling with economic debt, psychiatric problems or severe sickness amongst family members.

The analysis also shows that convictions of animal neglect do not necessarily cause farmers to leave the occupation. However, farmers who already have been convicted in the previous five years are almost five-times more likely to be convicted again compared to other farmers. Most farmers continue to work until they receive more severe convictions or experience problems at the farm (such as economic failures or sickness) which force them out of the occupation.

The interviews with the farmers involved in cases of neglect bring forward themes of pressure related to financial troubles, technological break down, family problems, stress and a growing concern among the farmers regarding the governmental control in farm animal production. Similar to the quantitative analysis, the qualitative analysis finds that problems in animal welfare evolve around the downward spiral of problems in the farming family.

Because farmers express a pride in an occupation in which the farmer has traditionally dealt with his problems by himself, farmers have difficulty in involving other people in their troubles. We identify a cultural barrier between farmers and the rest of society, in which farmers have a fundamental different notion of animal welfare compared to the notion of animal welfare expressed by animal inspectors. As we also find that convicted farmers feel stigmatised both by the general public and by other farmers, the report concludes that in order to help farmers the most, it is necessary to recognise the specific norms and cultures that exist in agriculture. Despite the industrial and technological revolution, farmers are still proudly bound to the past.

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