Animals farmed investigates: the huge global trade in live animals

Bibi van der Zee

Over the next week the Guardian’s Animals farmed series will focus on the global live animal export trade, which, despite welfare and disease concerns, has been growing at a pretty steady pace over the past 50 years.

It’s not an industry that most of us think about very often, though meat consumption has become one of the big discussions of our time. But most of us struggle to grasp the full complexity of the modern farming system, where an animal may be born in one location before being transported to another for most of its life, to a third – if it is a beef cow – for fattening, and at last to a final place for its death.

Nearly 2 billion animals a year are loaded onto trucks or ships and sent off to new countries in journeys that can take weeks. Every day, at least 5 million creatures are in transit, as part of the secretive global trade in live farm animals. (And those numbers are just the cross-border journeys; they do not include long journeys within a country, as slaughterhouses close down.)

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This trade is making money and creating jobs for farmers, operators and companies – and its defenders argue that the vast majority of transport is carried out in a humane, thoughtful way, overseen by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

But it also raises a number of key issues – to which we are still seeking satisfactory answers:

1) Why are animals being transported long distances live, rather than slaughtered, and then transported as refrigerated meat? Are economics trumping animal welfare?

2) Is the animal disease notification system really working? Currently, countries monitor their own diseases, and notify OIE when they spot one. A ban then may be placed on the regions where the disease is present, or on the whole country. But least one expert told us this leads to perverse incentives – and many pointed to the peculiar pattern of China’s notifications on African swine fever as evidence that the disease had been in the country for some time before China submitted a notification. Is there a better way?

3) Why has the EU become such a key player in this global trade? EU countries figure heavily in the top exporters of live animals, according to the ITC – and exports from the EU28 as a whole to the rest of the world have trebled to around $3bn a year since 2000 (that figure doesn’t include the huge trade in live animals within EU borders). Yet the EU prides itself on having one of the most progressive animal welfare policies in the world. Are the two things compatible?

Over the next week we’ll be examining a number of aspects of the global trade. Today we look how this trade has grown and the implications. We also look at the situation in Ireland, where farmers are at a loss over how to deal with a potential “calf tsunami”.

On Tuesday we look at the disease implications, speaking to international vets about the threats posed by the international animal trade. On Wednesday we look at some of the countries that have vigorous live animal industries – and the economic impacts.

On Thursday we’ll look at why the trade has risen so steeply in Europe, and examine whether the shipping fleet is fit for purpose. On Friday we’ll look at the countries where the animals are consumed – and see how consumer preferences are playing a role in the global trade. And on Saturday we’ll delve into the welfare implications.

If you have some expertise in this field and would like to contribute to our investigation, please get in touch via animalsfarmed@theguardiancom.