Animals Are Critical For All Life On Earth

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Credit: Duong Thinh on Unsplash

Why urgently reshaping our relationship with sentient animals is not just a moral and ethical question, it is imperative for the sake of the planet

Our Extinction or Regeneration conference is just around the corner – bringing together some of the world’s greatest thinkers from animal welfare to environmental policy, climate activism to regenerative farming – to discuss solutions for fixing our global food system, before it’s too late.

One of these experts is John Webster, a great friend of Compassion and one of our ‘Visionaries’. John was Chair of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University where he established the centre for study of animal welfare and behaviour. A founder member of the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council, he is also former president of the British Society of Animal Science.

Here John shares some of his reflections on the ethical and moral case for the way we consider our relationship with sentient animals, coupled with the scientific argument around shifting our focus away from diets that are heavy in animal-sourced foods.

Credit: Jinen Shah on Unsplash

For most of my working life I have sought to examine our relations with sentient animals in ways that are loving without being sentimental, scientific without being arcane. My approach rests on two central pillars of good sense; one moral, one scientific.

The moral case lies with Albert Schweitzer: ’The great fault of all ethics hitherto has been that they believed themselves to have to deal only with the relations of man to man. In reality, the question is’ what is his attitude to the world and all that comes within his reach?’ The scientific case is based on the irrefutable Darwinian principle that ‘it is not the most intellectual of species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives. It is the one that is able best to adapt to the changing environment.  Successful adaptation of any species to the environment is achieved by maintaining its genetic inheritance as a stable contributor within a sustainable ecosystem.

According to this strict Darwinian classification, the human species has, until recently, managed reasonably well, but over the last 80 years, thanks, to a large extent to our exploitation of fossil fuels, we have broken free from the rules and constraints of ecology.  We are now experiencing the consequences of our failure in the form of climate change, deterioration of soils and extinction of animal species through loss of habitat.  Our insatiable appetite for food of animal origin and its consequences for livestock farming must carry much of the blame. One core message from this complex story is that farmed animals were stable contributors to a sustainable system when their needs for food and sustenance were complementary to, rather than in competition with ours.  Ruminants grazed food we could not digest, mostly on land we did not own; pigs lived on food we discarded, poultry contributed to our nutrition, health and hygiene by scavenging for scraps and insects.

Intensively farmed pig in farrowing crate | Credit: Compassion in World Farming

This is not simply an emotional appeal to go back to ‘the good old days’. I have shown, for example, that the modern dairy cow (by virtue of much hard work) can produce more food energy and protein for human consumption than she eats in the form of food suitable for human diets. We could sustain a substantial pig industry on the discards of food from our supermarkets.

We cannot go on as we are. If we do, the most disastrous consequences in the short term will be to other life forms, as we progressively destroy them to promote our own interests. However, in the longer term, it is we who will be destroyed by the inescapable rules of Darwinian logic. This states that while it is in the primitive interests of all species to convert all matter into themselves, those that survive, consciously or otherwise, are those that achieve a stable position within the ecosystem.  If we humans can achieve this, we too shall survive. If we fail, the planet will manage without us.

In May, Compassion in World Farming, with a number of partners, will host an international conference on the topic ‘Extinction or Regeneration’. This will, of course, seek to match the need to avoid extinction with the need to offer farm animals ‘a life worth living’. In the interests of their welfare, our health and that of the living planet, we need to add value to food from farmed animals. It is obscene to record that frozen chicken can be cheaper than four tins of baked beans.

Longhorn cattle at Knepp Wildland estate, England | Credit: Philip Lymbery

We also need to recognise that, in a sustainable system, plants (and the soil) need animals just as much as animals need plants.  The destruction of soils on arable land ‘supported’  by inorganic fertilisers  is becoming critical. The adage ‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants’ is incontestable. However, ‘only plants’ is an ecological no-no.  While most current systems of livestock production for the last 80 years have been unsustainable, with factory farming much to blame, I cannot cry havoc  on all. When I travel through classic cow country in South Somerset and Devon and observe the Ruby Red cows relaxing with their calves in 12-month green pastures, this seems to me to about as idyllic a life as any domesticated animal could ever wish for.

For further thoughts on these matters, visit my website

John will be delving deeper into these issues at our conference in May as part of a plenary session which considers what happens if we put the wellbeing of animals and the planet at the centre of our food system design. For further information about Extinction or Regeneration, and to register please go to 

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