Integrating Animal Welfare in the Sustainable Development Agenda

A polar bear waving

Animal welfare (AW) as a concept has been widely ignored or sidelined in the Anthropocene. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of animal welfare for global health and wellbeing. The interconnection between animal and human welfare is intrinsic by nature. The world’s ecosystem intertwines different species in such a way that the sustainability of one highly depends on the success and well-being of the other.

This interrelationship between animals and human welfare is what makes the former highly important when it comes to the success of sustainable development goals (SDGs). Moreover, animal welfare is an environmental, social and ecological justice concern that needs to be included in the sustainability agenda.

Despite the significance of animals for human welfare and the planet’s health, the concept of animal welfare is not explicitly mentioned in the sustainable development goals. Only recently has the UN acknowledged that animal welfare should become a part of the sustainable development (SD) agenda. In the first Global Sustainable Development Report, it has been mentioned 43 times that animal welfare is not but should be an integral part of the SD agenda (Bergmann, 2020).  

The association between SD and AW remains fundamentally underexplored, and legal literature examining the interdependence between the two concepts is almost non-existent (Verniers, 2021). Although there is a significant interdependence between sustainability and animal welfare, both academic literature and policy debate on these issues has remained highly disengaged. There are only a very few studies that have studied the interlinkages between the two concepts.

The concept of animal welfare, though distinct, is oftentimes used interchangeably with animal rights. Animal welfare and animal rights are two distinct concepts. The latter advocates for ending all sorts of animal exploitation and promotes equal rights to animals as those given to humans by law. Animal welfare, on the other hand, advances the welfare of animals but also sees some form of animal exploitation as necessary for scientific advancement, food production and biodiversity conservation (Harrop, 2011).

Animal welfare is often operationalized in terms of the OIE’s “five freedoms” . These include freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; freedom from fear and distress; freedom from discomfort and exposure; freedom from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal behaviour (Visseren-Hamakers, 2020).

Animal rights theorists and movements who advocate for animal welfare mostly do so on the basis of animals’ sentience and ability to feel pain. Therefore, the concept of animal welfare is broader than just the physical health of the animal. It stresses the moral commitment to reduce “unnecessary” animal suffering that goes beyond health concerns (Verniers, 2021).

The significance of animal welfare is highlighted by a growing body of scientific evidence that proves that animals are sentient beings and share feelings, emotions and perceptions. They can suffer from pain and experience a state of well-being like humans, therefore, they must be taken into consideration in justice, welfare and SD concerns (Cox & Bridgers, 2019).

The concept of justice is predominantly human-centric. Nature and non-humans have been largely neglected in some of the major justice frames like social justice and environmental justice. Although some scholars have tried to reconcile social and environmental justice with justice for nature, the dominant concept of justice remains mostly anthropocentric.

Anthropocentrism views all of nature as a resource for human use. It is a ‘human supremacy’ approach that privileges human welfare over that of non-humans (Crist & Cafaro, 2012). It outrightly denies ecological justice or “Rights of Nature” (Strang, 2017). Therefore, for decades, animal welfare has created ruptures with anthropocentric notions of justice.

To move away from a strong anthropocentric bias in justice frames, some scholars have tried to push justice for nature into justice frames (Washington et al., 2018). Ecological justice (ecojustice) calls for justice for nature and non-humans to be foregrounded to ensure effective conservation. This frame has been largely ignored by academia and policymakers for many decades, seeing it as an anti-human frame (Washington et al., 2018).

However, proponents of ecocentrism claim not to be anti-human as they are advocating for the rights of nature, not taking rights away from humans (Curry, 2011). In this sense, ecological justice is more inclusive than environmental justice as it extends beyond human beings. It acknowledges the harm that human activities have induced on non-humans for years and hence, tries to extend justice beyond the human community.

On the other hand, environmental justice is an offshoot of social justice, both rather anthropocentric concepts call for justice for only humans (Cafaro et al., 2017). Hence, they cannot be equated to ecological justice. Environmental justice (EJ) advocates for environmental laws to protect all humans equally. In simple words, EJ is justice for humans regarding environmental issues (Washington et al., 2018).

However, environmental justice (EJ) scholarship, though largely human-focused, has some consideration for non-human justice. This is largely based on the interdependence of all species and the vitality of nature for human survival. Some EJ movements are based on the crucial ties between humans and the non-human environment and humans such as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests (Whyte, 2017).

Although environmental justice mostly focuses on human constructs like racism, the link between justice for non-humans and sustainable development is also central to EJ scholarships (Celermajer et al., 2021). If one looks at animal concerns from the environmental and social justice frames, the interconnection between animal welfare and sustainable development becomes obvious.

For instance, at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or meat processing plants, the living conditions of people in surrounding areas are being challenged by the amount of animal waste generated (Hall et al., 2021). Since these plants mostly tend to be located in low-wealth, minority areas, they pose high environmental and social justice concerns as they disproportionally impact the health of disadvantaged people (linked with SDG 3). Apart from this, many people are dependent on animals for their livelihoods which again makes animal welfare a concern for both justice frames.

The sustainability and sustainable development discourse is missing the true essence of animal welfare. There are three main pillars on which the concept of sustainability rests. These include environmental protection, social justice and economic development. All three pillars of SD are anthropocentric. Social justice and economic development only address human problems and interests. Although the environmental protection pillar focuses on ecosystems and species, it neglects the interests of individual animals and only stresses species conservation from a collective point of view (Verniers, 2021). Therefore, the concept of sustainability is somewhat oblivious to individual animal welfare concerns.

Sustainable development and animal welfare seem to have become somewhat of an oxymoron. Animals are used as mere means to attain sustainability rather than as agents who as per various justice frames should be amongst the beneficiaries of the sustainability transition (Bergmann, 2021).

Moreover, some of the greatest social and environmental injustices in the Anthropocene are being carried out under the cloak of SD. For instance, for meeting the growing demand for food, animals are subjected to biotechnological alterations and treated as commodities rather than as sentient beings. This does not only have implications for animal welfare but is also highly harmful for humans. The level of steroids injected into animals for greater production is linked with some of the deadliest human diseases. The SD discourse is, therefore, criticized by various justice positions (Bergmann, 2020).

The most common definition of SD is the one mentioned in the UN’s report titled “Our Common Future” (Brundtland Report). The definition reads: “Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN, 1987). The anthropocentric conceptualization of sustainable development as per the Brundtland Report has some major loopholes from an animal welfare perspective. The report addresses animals only at the species level and does not take into account the plight of individual animals, rather sees them merely as “living natural resources’ which are imperative for human wellbeing and sustainable development (Verniers, 2021).

Sustainable development was operationalized in the form of the United Nations' 17 Sustainable development goals (SDGs) goals in 2015 (See Fig 4). However, except for SDG 14 (Life below water) and SDG 15 (Life on Land), animals are hardly mentioned in the SDGs. SDG 15: Life on land fails to consider individual animal interests and focuses exclusively on biodiversity conservation.

It is important to understand that there is a clear dichotomy between species conservation and animal welfare. The former is a more anthropocentric view that looks at animal species conservation as vital for the survival of human beings. Animal welfare, on the other hand, is ecocentric that considers individual animal interests. Therefore, individual interests of animals currently fall outside the scope of the SDGs.

Most of the challenges hindering sustainable development are interlinked with animals like food security, poverty, climate change, disease outbreak and environmental degradation (Bergmann, 2020). In a study by Olmos Antillón et al. (2021), the relationship between advancing animal welfare (AW) and achieving SDGs was evaluated. The findings suggested a mutually beneficial relationship between the two concerns and supported the positive role of AW in the achievement of the SDGs. In another study by Verniers (2021), the association between AW and SD was analysed. It was found that integrating AW into SD discourse is not only conducive to global animal welfare but also beneficial for sustainable development itself.

Most of the work linking animal welfare and sustainability has been largely focused on animal agriculture and food production. The UN Committee on World Food Security mentions animal welfare as a way to achieve sustainable food agriculture and ensure food security. The Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock also talks about integrating animal welfare into sustainable livestock production to achieve the SDGs.

However, the concept of sustainability goes beyond just food production and human consumption. The Agenda 2030 itself acknowledges that the well-being of all human beings depends greatly on the health of the global ecosystem, the sustainability of which in turn depends on the welfare of all animals. (Bergmann, 2020).

Moreover, despite the recognition of biodiversity conservation for sustainable development, the ecological footprint of humans in land-use change (LUC) and illegal wildlife trading has led to biodiversity loss at an alarming rate (Carrington, 2014). About 559 domesticated breeds of mammals were recorded as extinct by 2016 while an additional 1940 local breeds are on the brink of extinction (FAO, 2015). The biggest cause of declining wildlife is exploitation which can be reduced if animal welfare concerns are incorporated into the SD agenda.  

Assessing the interlinkages between SDGs and animal welfare

The SDGs were developed to resolve the world’s most pressing issues like poverty, hunger, climate change and gender equality. However, the SDGs have blatantly ignored animal concerns and apart from a few SDGs, most SDGs have not taken animal welfare and rights into consideration. Although SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 15 (life on land) mention animal welfare, other SDGs seem somewhat detached from this key concept. Owing to the crucial role animals play in sustainable socio-economic development, many climate policymakers view animals as being central to sustainability.

Keeling et al. (2019) evaluated the compatibility between improving AW and achieving UN SDGs. The results showed that all SDGs were positively linked with animal welfare. The SDGs for which the strongest mutual reinforcing results were found included: SDG 2: Zero hunger; SDG 12: Responsible production and consumption; and SDG 14: life below water. Olmos Antillón et al. (2021) tried to investigate further the results of Keeling et al (2019) study and found similar results. Animal welfare was most strongly linked with the following SDGs: SDG 1: No poverty, SDG 2: Zero hunger, SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing, SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production, SDG 13: Climate action, SDG 14: Life below water, and SDG 15: Life on land.

Similarly, a study by Bergmann (2021) highlighted the intersection of animal welfare and global sustainability. He argued that interspecies sustainability needs to be developed as a critical theory that depicts the convergence of sustainability and animal studies to protect animal welfare concerns and address sustainability crises.

Furthermore, livestock production is inextricably linked with climate change (SDG 13), the livelihood of rural communities (SDG 1, 2, 5, 8, 10) and the health of consumers worldwide (SDG 3). However, the sector is concomitant with many issues like environmental degradation, GHG emissions, water and soil pollution, deforestation, animal abuse, and human health (Bergmann, 2021). The sector is estimated to account for 14.5% of the total GHG emissions, making it one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Although mitigation strategies are being applied in this sector, they are criticized for not adequately considering animal welfare (Olmos Antillón et al., 2021). The implementation of animal welfare standards can help reduce the environmental impacts of intensive farming. This will help achieve SDGs especially, SDG 13 on climate change and SDG 12 on responsible consumption and production.

Agriculture, especially intensive animal agriculture is inextricably linked with global health. Modern farming not only has ethical and welfare implications but also puts global human health at high risk through the spread of zoonotic diseases (CIWF, 2013). According to the WHO, over the past decades, multiple instances of zoonotic influenza have been reported across the globe (WHO, 2022). Many human diseases originate in animals and almost all new human infections have an animal source. 60% of pathogens that cause human diseases come from animals while 75% of emerging human pathogens originate from animals (OIE, 2021).

Moreover, the spread of zoonotic diseases exerts a high burden on human health. Most of these infectious diseases like avian influenza viruses and coronaviruses spread through wet markets, particularly those dealing with the illegal trading of wild animals (Naguib et al., 2021). The most recent example of this is the SARS- CoV-2 virus that has so far taken the lives of more than 5 million people globally (WHO, 2022). The virus is suspected to have originated in the wet market of Wuhan, China, particularly from bats and pangolins (Macdonald, 2021; Vilcek, 2020).

In addition, animal welfare is vital for many communities across the globe. Globally, 850 million people are malnourished, and most of these, particularly in rural communities, highly depend on animals for their livelihoods (FAO, 2014). Furthermore, about 1 in 5 people in the world depend on animals for income (OIE, 2021). However, animal welfare and health are often neglected in animal farming practices. It is estimated that more than 20% of global animal production losses are connected to animal diseases (OIE, 2021).

Although not all animal diseases impact human health, they pose a significant socio-economic impact on communities dependent on animals for their income (FAO, 2014). This implies that AW is strongly linked with the livelihood of many people worldwide and safeguarding it would help in achieving SDGs, particularly SDG 1, SDG 2, SDG 3, SDG 8 and SDG 10.

How to Incorporate Animal Welfare Concerns in the Sustainable Development Agenda? 

  1. Expanding the Definition of Sustainable Development  

The traditional notion of sustainable development as drafted in the Brundtland Report needs reconceptualization. The current anthropocentric view of treating animals as mere economic resources for human wellbeing needs to be altered. According to Verniers (2021), one way to reconceptualise SD is through adopting an ecocentric view of sustainable development whereby humans and animals are both treated on equal footing and the concept of human supremacy is completely abandoned. Another way to broaden the definition of SD is by framing the issue of animal welfare in light of societal human problems, stressing the importance of AW for human wellbeing and survival. One example of this is the “one health” and “one welfare” solution which directly links animal welfare to human welfare.

The original 1987 Brundtland definition of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is now being challenged by the changing relationships between humans and non-humans. The definition of SD, therefore, needs to be broadened to incorporate AW concerns in it. A more inclusive definition as suggested by Verniers (2021) could be “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future – both human and non-human – generations to meet their own needs”. This definition is more ecocentric and established a non-hierarchical relationship between human and non-human animals which highlights the significant interdependence between the two constituents.

Moreover, another way to include animal welfare into the SDG agenda is by introducing a new goal specific to animal welfare (See Fig 10). Some people, who oppose this solution, argue that although animal welfare is not clearly mentioned in the SDGs, the achievement of these goals is compatible with improving AW. However, explicitly highlighting the role of AW with regard to SDG attainment would help highlight the significance of AW when implementing these goals in practice (Bergmann, 2021). This solution was advocated by Visseren-Hamakers (2020), according to whom, the best way to incorporate animal welfare into the SD agenda is by introducing the 18th SDG on animal welfare, rights and conservation. This will help develop an integrative governance system in which the complex yet highly interconnected relation of AW and SD is taken into consideration to avoid trade-offs. Moreover, the creation of a separate goal for animals will assist in bringing animal concerns at par with human concerns and remove the anthropocentric bias in the SDGs.

  1. Opting for a One Welfare Approach

One welfare concept is an extension of one health approach which links human health with animal health (Tarazona et al., 2020). This approach highlights the strong linkage between animal welfare, human wellbeing and environmental sustainability. Integrating one welfare approach into the SDGs could help accomplish global objectives such as reducing poverty and eliminating hunger by increasing productivity within the farming sector with high welfare standards (Colonius & Earley, 2013). One welfare approach recognizes that human activities like agriculture, illegal wildlife trade, and forest degradation directly harm trillions of animals. It advances for an integrative governance framework in which non-human animals are also taken into consideration in the sustainable development discourse.

We can analyse one welfare approach by applying it to the livestock sector. Not only is animal farming a serious justice concern but also it is one of the biggest contributors to climate change (Bozzo et al., 2021). One welfare approach calls for sustainable farming practices to incorporate animal welfare concerns by highlighting the negative impacts of intensive farming on human wellbeing and environmental degradation. It demands global debates over food security and sustainability to incorporate AW concerns by shifting the focus on the significance of animal welfare for global livestock production (Buller et al., 2018).

Many international treaties and agreements are now trying to incorporate the one health, one welfare approach to ensure that no non-human animal is neglected in the policy arena. However, there is still a long way to develop a legally binding international declaration that places one welfare solution at the heart of sustainability. According to Allgood (2019), “the achievement of SD cannot be fully realized without taking animals and our shared ecosystems into full consideration”. Therefore, one welfare and one health solution must be incorporated into the SD agenda to ensure the protection of animal welfare concerns (See Fig 11).

  1. Reconciling Justice Frames

The idea that human beings exist as isolated and unattached components within the wider ecosystem has given rise to anthropocentric justice theories. There is a need to rectify false assumptions and longstanding misconceptions in justice theories. Because human beings largely depend on non-human entities for survival, human justice cannot be divorced from ecojustice. We, therefore, need to rethink the concept of justice. Instead of trying to push ecojustice into the periphery of social justice, attempts must be made to place ecojustice on centre stage. Since ecological integrity is a crucial prerequisite for human existence, achieving a holistic SD strategy requires a more viable concept of justice that encompasses both humans and non-humans (Washington et al., 2018).

  1. Including Animal Welfare in Climate Litigations

An effective global protection regime for animals is non-existent at the moment (White, 2013). Although animal welfare is now being promoted by wide-ranging internationally accepted treaties and agreements, currently, there is no single, comprehensive international law that regulates AW. There is a need to develop a universal declaration for animal rights that is internationally binding like the human rights declaration. Animal sentience and welfare should be mentioned in animal-specific laws as well as other trade-related laws (Broom, 2017). Furthermore, animal welfare should be made an indispensable part of national environmental and climate policies for all UN countries.

To conclude, animal welfare is an environmental, social and ecological justice concern that has been widely ignored in the sustainable development agenda. Some of the world’s biggest sustainability issues like climate change, poverty, hunger, and global health are intertwined with animal welfare. Therefore, it is essential to incorporate animal welfare concerns into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Animals are one of the most important components of our ecosystem and our existence is highly dependent on their welfare. It is high time that we recognize this interdependency and give animals their due rights and voice in the sustainable development arena.



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Diagrams below courtesy of the United Nations and the Food and Agriculture Organization

Cover photo courtesy of Hans Jurgen via Unsplash

The UN Sustainable Development Goals
The UN Sustainable Development Goals
SDGs and animal welfare

About the author

Fatima Farooq Murawat is a first year student at the Willy Brandt School. Her interests and areas of research include the sustainable development goals, gender equality, animal welfare and climate change.


~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~