Brexit poses substantial threats to animal protection, argues animal welfare expert

26 Mar 2019

Brexit poses substantial threats to weaken animal protection in the UK, EU and internationally, argues a new analysis applying animal welfare impact assessment to the threats presented by the UK's departure from the EU.

EU laws have had a substantial impact on UK animal protection policy and the UK government's stance on animal health and welfare has had a major impact on EU policy. This means that Brexit has enormous potential to impact animal protection both negatively and positively.

"A major threat of Brexit is the import of meat and dairy products to the UK raised in lower welfare standards from nations such as the United States," said report author Dr Steven McCulloch, veterinary surgeon and Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Studies at the University of Winchester.

The import of lower welfare agricultural products would undermine UK farmers who are likely to oppose welfare improvements and may then press the government to lower existing welfare standards to enable British farmers to compete with imports on a level playing field.

Whilst the EU has the most progressive animal welfare laws in the world, the US, a large exporter and potential trade partner, has some of the lowest standards in the developed world.

Dr McCulloch said: "If the UK government were to permit the import of lower welfare products, it is difficult to see how Brexit could have a net positive impact for animals. A proportion of British consumers would purchase, for example, US produced chicken, eggs or beef, which would mean a shift towards the consumption of lower welfare products. The import of cheaper lower welfare products would disincentivise British farmers from improving animal welfare going forwards, and they may even lobby government to relax current UK regulations."

The development of Brexit policy suggests there is a significant risk that this threat will materialise, he added.

"The loss of political influence of the UK within the EU and its resultant impact on animal protection in the EU and internationally may be the most substantial threat to animal protection," said Dr McCulloch.

The UK has leveraged its political and economic power in the EU to improve animal protection in a far larger market of 510 million consumers. Brexit will result in a reduced political lobby within the EU for progressive animal protection reform, with the UK having less power to exert this influence to improve animal welfare outside of the EU. Despite the UK having a history as a leader in animal protection, it will be weaker outside of the EU and will be negotiating trade deals alone with far more powerful nations such as the US.

In the analysis, Dr McCulloch discusses impacts on animal welfare in the political context of Brexit. This is a weak minority Conservative Government with a politically powerful right wing of the Parliamentary Conservative Party supporting a hard Brexit.

"It seems problematic to claim that a Brexit motivated and delivered by the political right in the current context is likely to reap benefits for the many animals that will be affected by it," said Dr McCulloch.

In addition, the modern Conservative Party has a mixed relationship with animal protection, evidenced by the recent media furore over the issue of animal sentience.

In the government's earlier Bill on sentience, the duty of the state to pay 'full regard' to animals has been watered down to ministers alone paying 'regard'. With [S1]further consultation on the Bill proposed, there is a major risk that the UK will enter trade negotiations with nations such as the US, without the government having the firm duty to pay full regard to animal welfare, previously conferred by Article 13 of the Treaty of Lisbon.

The paper 'Brexit and Animal Welfare Impact Assessment: Analysis of the Threats Brexit Poses to Animal Protection in the UK, EU and internationally' is published today in the journal Animals. It is available online at this link.

Press Office  |  +44 (0) 1962 827678  |  |

Back to media centre