The animal protection campaigner Jordi Casamitjana summarises the current situation regarding the issue of “Live Exports” of farmed animals.

I vaguely remember it.

When I emigrated from Catalonia in the early 1990s, I did not come straight to the UK, where I have been living for almost 30 years now. For a brief period, I tried different countries, to see if they appealed to me — and if I appealed to them. Naturally, I started with France, the first country I found when I crossed the border. It did not work out, so I moved to Belgium. Being chased by a gang of Neo-Nazis on the streets of Antwerp put me off the country, so I moved to the Netherlands.

Then is when I visited it, but I hardly remember it. After leaving The Hague, I stayed a couple of days in the city of Haarlem, the capital of the province of North Holland, and part of the Amsterdam metropolitan area. What I remember from it is that I visited a very beautiful national park called Kennemerduinen just by the sea and that a very nice doctor unblocked one of my ears that had left me half deaf for the previous weeks. But that’s it. 

I wish I had remembered more because a couple of days ago I wrote a small article reporting that Haarlem had become the first city in the world to ban meat advertising in public places. This ban, which will be enacted in 2024, was motivated by trying to reduce activities that substantially contribute to the current climate crisis, so in addition to meat products, the advertising ban will also cover holiday flights, fossil fuels, and cars that run on fossil fuels. 

What I found most interesting about this ban was that it covers meat consumption and holiday flights, two very different activities united for contributing much more than others to the climate crisis — on account of a very high Carbon footprint. For me, it makes total sense to ban the advertising of both.

Researching this story made me discover that the average consumption of meat in the Netherlands is 75.8kg per person per year, and this country is the EU’s biggest meat exporter. The fact that one city in the country that exports most meat has banned the advertising of meat is very significant. And the fact that has banned the advertising of “unnecessary” long-distance travelling (i.e. holiday flights) in the same breath has made me think of one animal protection issue I have never written about. 

What do you get when you mix exporting meat, travelling long distances, and animal protection? You get the campaigning issue of “Live Exports”, the controversial practice of the commercial transportation of live farmed animals across national borders — which is one part of the meat industry, one part of the transport industry, and one part of the animal agricultural industry. And Life Exports is something that many people, including me, want to see banned.

This article will be a short recap of where we are on this issue around the world.

Who Is Exported Where

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Live farmed animals are being transported to other countries mainly for slaughter (euphemistically called “finishing”), fattening (to make the animals fatter before killing them), or breeding (to “improve” the genetic makeup of farms) — three components of the animal agriculture industry that, for having an international dimension, often exploits the animals it has bred into existence in different countries. The need to improve the genetics of farmed animals, trading surplus animals (for instance, unwanted males), seasonal imbalances, cheaper animal feeding methods, and changes in the local demand for fresh meat, could be the triggers that lead to the export of meat overseas. And the cost of refrigeration during transport may be the main reason that the industry prefers to transport the meat when still attached to the live animal (who will keep it “fresh” without refrigeration) — for the farmers, this is how they see it, as for them animals are just mobile meat factories they can exploit for profit.

Sometimes such exports start with the aim to create a new animal exploitation industry in countries that do not have it. For instance, in the 19th century, British breeds of bovines like the Hereford and Aberdeen Angus were exported from Britain to overseas colonies, to cross bulls with indigenous breeds and expand bovine exploitation. After the Second World War, exports from Britain were increasingly for fattening and slaughter, rather than breeding, especially young surplus bull calves intended for veal production. 

Today, at least 2 billion live animals are exported each year globally, believed to be worth $22 billion. Every day, at least 5 million live calves, cows, bulls, sheeps, pigs, goats and horses are routinely transported by sea, rail, air, or road across continents. And many more chickens and other farmed birds. According to data from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the number of live farmed animals being exported has grown dramatically over the past half a century. Almost 2 billion live chickens were transported around the world in 2017 (compared with 950 million ten years earlier).

The top importer is the US, which mostly imports pigs from Canada and bovines from Mexico. The Middle East follows, importing mainly sheeps (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan are some of the major importers in that region). Poland, Italy, Hong Kong and Turkey are also major importers. 

Some countries, such as Canada, Sudan, Spain and Australia, export many live animals. Australia has been the world’s largest live exporter of animals for slaughter for many years. It mostly exports live sheeps and bovines. According to Meat and Livestock Australia, 2.44 million sheeps were exported to markets in Asia and the Middle East in 2012. Most of the animals transported are for human consumption but there is also an active trade in breeding animals, including dairy cows. Even purpose-built ships which carry large numbers of animals have been created for this purpose. 

In 2005, New Zealand exported NZ$217 million worth of live animals, mainly for breeding purposes. These included bovines, sheeps, horses, goats and chickens. Since 2005, the country’s exports of these animals have been mainly shipped to China, Mexico, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. China is the largest buyer of live cows from New Zealand, and 94% of the shipments to China are dairy cows or breeding animals. A total of 113,000 cows were exported in 2020.

If we look at several countries together, the EU is the biggest exporter, accounting for more than 80% of global trade in live animals. According to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the EU exported 1.46 billion animals in 2020. The Netherlands is the top exporter, followed by Germany, Belgium, Czechia, and Hungry, mainly because of the number of chickens they export. If we do not count birds, then Denmark takes the first place, almost all its exports being of pigs. France has been exporting more than a million live bovines a year since the 1970s, mostly to Italy, Spain, Morocco, Lebanon, and Algeria. Between 2014 and 2018 the UK exported £1.6 billion of live animals to the EU, most of which were pigs and chickens. 

The Problem with “Livestock” 

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If you are a meat-eater against animal rights, the chances are that you will look at a bull, a pig, or a lamb as a biological factory of meat. Unless reminded by animal protection activists, you will forget that these are sentient beings with emotions, aspirations, goals, and opinions. And in the same way you will use terms like “stock” to describe piles of meat ready to be sold or traded, you will use the term “livestock” to describe piles of walking meat that is still attached to functioning eyes, ears, and brains. Your indoctrination into carnism since childhood, constantly reinforced by advertisement, government regulation, and social tradition, has made you blind to their personhood, and you only see them as meat or fibre to stock and consume.

On the other side, we, vegans, see all animals as individuals just like us, not as commodities or goods. Individuals who are still individuals when in groups or by themselves. This is why many of us defy grammatical rules and use the terms ‘fishes’, ‘sheeps’, or ‘minks’ as the plural names for these animals because the costume of treating them as goods that can be measured by weight is what created the grammatical anomaly in these of having the same form both in singular and plural. We do not find this anomaly in other animals who are not farmed (yes, minks are also farmed, but for fur), or not measured by weight. But this is also why many vegans will avoid using the term “livestock” because we found it equally demeaning when applied to any group of non-human animals and any group of humans. No group of sentient beings, alive or dead, should ever be treated as “stock”.

What we know as “Life Exports”, is officially defined using this term (“the commercial transportation of livestock across national borders”). And it is precisely this definition that reveals why the practice should be abolished. It is based on treating animals as stock, as piles of trading goods, that can be transported from one place to another, even overseas. Anything that treats non-human animals as “stock” should be banned, because such treatment is morally wrong.  

Why “Live Exports” Should Be Abolished

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Many practices treat sentient beings as commercial commodities (factory farming, shooting, horse racing, etc.) and they all should be abolished. And practices that have the term “livestock” in their official definition cannot hide that they are one of these. But not all practices that deserve to be banned cause the same amount of suffering. As banning all animal exploitation at once is unlikely to happen, we may be forced to choose which practices that treat animals as livestock we should try to ban first. Those that affect more animals or cause them more severe suffering, and which most people (not just vegans) are already opposed to, would be good candidates. Are ‘Live Exports’ one of these? I believe there are.

Here are some of the reasons I think this is the case:

Suffering during transport. Transporting animals against their will when treated as if they are goods is bound to create a lot of suffering. And when it is done as part of commercial operations aimed to maximise profits and minimise costs, the animals will pay the price. For instance, overcrowding (animals crammed into vehicles) may cause injuries or deaths when some animals trampled over others, or fall because of the vehicle movement they are not used to. Exhaustion and dehydration may be very common, and get worse if the distances for travelling are long (which they tend to be in we are talking about international travel). The animals can be in transit for days, suffering extremes of temperature and often without sufficient food, water or rest. Those who survive may suffer a great deal of stress and even pain, and they may become ill and spread diseases between countries. In Europe, many of these journeys take over 30 hours, some even 70 hours. Many people find this inhumane and unacceptable.  

Adding hours of suffering before execution. There may be several reasons why farmed animals are transported to other countries alive, but one of the most common is exporting them for meat. They will be slaughtered on arrival and sold as food to meat-eaters, presumably because this is either cheaper or more convenient than to kill them where they were raised and export their flesh when separated from their lifeless bodies (which may rot by the time it arrives if not transported under expensive refrigeration). This means that the suffering caused by travelling long distances in crowded conditions is additional suffering added to the suffering for the way they were raised (often in terrible factory farms) and for the way they will be killed (often without stunning). If animal welfare regulations of the countries that export the animals try to minimise the time they spend in the slaughterhouses before they are killed, it makes no sense to add days or weeks in the process in the form of long-distance travelling. Even those non-vegans who advocate for good animal welfare would agree about that.

Bypassing local animal protection legislation. As during transport animals go from one jurisdiction to another, any animal protection law designed to reduce animal suffering in the country of origin may no longer be applied in the country of destination, which may have weaker animal protection laws. Exporters ignore this and “abandon” their animals to their fate, as they do not care what happens to them after they crossed their border. For instance, some countries may have laws that prohibit slaughtering animals without first rendering them unconscious, but they may be exported to other countries where these limitations do not exist. The EU exports over 3.4 million animals a year to non-EU countries (mostly to Africa and the Middle East).

Even when there are international regulations that should be applied in both the exporting and importing countries (as exports within the EU), they often are not applied. For instance, reports by the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) of the European Commission showed that many Member States failed to enforce EU Council Regulation 1/2005 on the protection of animals during transport, which lays down how official controls should be carried out. Compassion in World Farming analysed 19 reports regarding 14 Member States published in 2009-2010 by the FVO and found failures to detect deficiencies in journey logs, failures to require transporters to rectify deficient journey logs, approvals of unrealistically short estimated journey times with the result that the rest stops that are obligatory for long journeys were neither planned nor carried out, or failure to enforce the requirement that animals must be given food, water and rest during long journeys.

Disease spreading/pandemics. Now that the world has awakened to the reality of how animal agriculture can cause devastating pandemics that affect both non-human animals and humans, it should be abundantly clear that transporting live animals from one country to another increases the risk of spreading diseases. In addition, the overcrowded conditions the animals have to experience during transport are ideal for the spreading of infectious diseases, even for the creation of new emergent zoonotic diseases. The stress caused by the transport may deplete the immune response that many animals might have had to combat infection, which would be exploited by the pathogens trying to infect them. And although many pandemics gradually cross nations’ borders, the live exports between continents may accelerate their spreading, transforming local epidemics into pandemics much quicker. 

Accidents during transport. Animals transported to other countries may die in horrible ways in transport when accidents occur, or normal transport routes are disrupted. For instance, in 2019, 14,000 sheeps drowned after a ship sank close to Romania. In 2020, about 1,800 bulls starved to death or were eventually put down after a ship that left Spain became stuck at sea for months amid Covid-related disruptions. Also, thousands of animals were left in overcrowding conditions for a long time on ships when the Suez Canal was blocked in 2021. 

Higher Carbon footprint. Apart from pandemics, the other current global crisis is the climate crisis. We know that animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of global heating due to the very high Carbon footprint caused by their CO2 and methane emissions, and we also know that the transport sector is another of the leading causes. Combining both sectors in the form of transporting meat from country to country adds the combined negative effects of both industries, but if you transport the animals alive, still breathing out CO2 and emitting methane, even more. Many non-vegans concerned about the climate crisis may understand that. 

Breeding more animals. We know that the vegan world will not happen overnight, but on the way there, fewer exploited animals will be gradually bred into existence, because of the decrease in demand, the development of more affordable alternatives to animal products, and the passing of laws motivated by compassion rather than greed. Anything that decreases the breeding abilities of exploited animals is a good step towards the abolition of such exploitation. On the other hand, anything that does the opposite is taking us backwards. Many of the animals used in live exports are transported for breeding purposes — to increase the genetic variability of local populations and being able to combat inbreeding and spread genetic modifications that change the animals in such a way that can be more easily exploited. If there were no live exports perhaps some local populations of farmed animals would get so inbred that would no longer be profitable to exploit them, but, unfortunately, exporting animals from breeding may stop this natural decline.

Banning Live Exports

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We know where we are on this issue. Many countries export live-farmed animals, which causes a lot of unnecessary animal suffering, damages the planet more, spreads diseases, and increases the exploitation of animals worldwide. It takes us away from the solution (the vegan world). We should therefore ban live exports everywhere. 

This has become the objective of many animal protection organisations, and as many animal rights and animal welfare organisations seem united in achieving this goal, substantial advances have been made in several countries.  

Some of these campaigns are working well. New Zealand banned live sheeps exports in 2003. When Saudi Arabia rejected a shipment of 57,000 sheeps that year, resulting in a living nightmare for these animals, public opinion shifted. In 2007, the live export of bovines for slaughter was also banned but exporting them for breeding purposes was still allowed (this created a loophole farmers have been exploiting). Now, New Zealand has said it will phase all live exports by sea by 2023. On 16th July 2021, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) advised the animal protection organisation SAFE (leading the campaign against live exports in the country) that the export of live animals by sea would be allowed to continue only until 30th April 2023. However, campaigners were angry when they discovered that the single largest export of cows and bulls from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay set out to China happened on Sunday 21st November 2021 — in which 14,000 animals travelled for many days on Al Kuwait, the world’s largest purpose-built farmed animal carrier. 

After many years of campaigning by British animal welfare organisations such as Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA, the UK government has pledged to ban some live exports now that it is not bound to EU regulations. The Government said that the end of live animal exports from Great Britain for fattening and slaughter will be part of the Kept Animals Bill (which means that other types of exports, such as for breeding, will continue, and the ban will not affect Northern Ireland). But remains to be seen if this will happen as the current conservative government is known to make promises on animal protection issues that later does not keep (as in the case of banning trophy hunting).

In Australia, one of the top exporters, many exposés have challenged live exports. Investigators from  Animals Australia obtained footage showing Australian bovines being slaughtered at 11 abattoirs in Indonesia with practices that infringed upon OIE standards for animal welfare. Animals Australia and RSPCA Australia jointly complained to the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, calling for a ban on live exports. As a consequence, live exports to Indonesia were suspended by the Australian Minister for Agriculture for a few months. In November 2012, another widely reported investigation by Animals Australia on the slaughter of 22,000 Australian sheeps in Pakistan showed animals being dragged, beaten, and having their throats sawn at with blunt knives and thrown into mass graves. In May 2013, footage of cruelty to Australian bovines in at least one Egyptian abattoir was made public, which led to a suspension of live trade to Egypt. In 2020, new footage taken inside Indonesian abattoirs showed Australian bovines being tied up by the mouth, dragged around a slaughterhouse by rope while alive, and slaughtered while fully conscious. 

Although all these exposés have not achieved a total ban yet, they have achieved a ban on Northern Summer Shipments (meaning sheeps cannot be exported during the three most dangerous months of the year in terms of high temperatures), and the Australian Labour Party committed itself to phase out live sheep exports. In addition to this, the Australian Senate passed a bill to end live exports, titled Live Animal Export Prohibition (Ending Cruelty) Bill 2020, but this did not progress further in the House of Representatives. 

In 2020, the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, and several Federal States in Germany, stopped the export of animals to third countries beyond the EU requiring a 24-hr stop. However, the German Federal Council decided to continue with all the other cruel live transport. Iris Baumgärtner, live transport project manager at Animal Welfare Foundation, reacted by saying “The EU live transport regulation calls for the protection of animals up to their destination. The decision of the Federal Council is oblivious to these facts. A German ban on live transports to 17 third countries would be a sign of the consistent implementation of Germany’s animal welfare objective. The fact that no majority was found in the Federal Council today is shameful and means that we will continue with torturous live transports and the cruel slaughtering of animals.” 

A petition calling for an EU ban on the live export to third countries (outside the EU) of farmed animals with 900,000 signatures was submitted to the European Parliament in January 2022 by the animal welfare organisations FOUR PAWS, Compassion in World Farming, WeMove Europe, and Animals International

Where Should We Be

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Although there has been progress in the campaigns against Live Exports, the progress seems very slow and, in many places, very small. This may be caused by campaigns led by animal welfare organisations that are comfortable with reform rather than only seeking abolition, but it is quite possible that without them, there might have not been any advance at all, so we should not dismiss their work or undervalue their achievements. The animal agricultural industry is still too powerful, and the public is not yet responsive enough to the plight of farm animals to consider changing their consumption patterns and pressuring politicians. 

Any abolitionist campaign that manages to abolish any type of animal exploitation, or an essential component of animal exploitation, no matter if led by vegan animal rights organisations or non-vegan animal welfare ones, helps us to move toward the vegan world. This is because although we often think that we will get to that world by changing consumer’s behaviour and people’s lifestyles, it will take far too long, and we need to accelerate the process by banning different types of animal exploitation one at a time — which would change behaviour even if people don’t want to change it. 

The term “banning” is crucial, and the more laws are passed that ban aspects of animal exploitation, the easier would be to ban more. Progressive politicians must stop being afraid to “ban” activities that involved causing suffering to others and realise that this is what those who vote for them expect them to do (very few historical abolitions were achieved without laws that banned something). Completely abolishing practices must become more politically popular than just reforming them, and they should not be seen as too radical or unrealistic. Even small bans, like the Haarlem ban on meat adverts, help. And it is advisable to reach beyond our own communities and try to engage others who may also agree in stopping some activities, even if for different reasons. 

I am an abolitionist, so I do not like campaigning for reformist animal protection policies. But campaigning for banning all live exports, especially a ban on transporting animals for breeding purposes — because that may have a stronger effect in the long term — is something I support, as I do think abolitionist single-issue campaigning is not incompatible with veganism. 

But in the end, the problem will only be completely solved when the distance of transport becomes irrelevant and a ban on any transport of animals treated as goods becomes the final objective of all these campaigns. The distances make the problems worse, but they do not create the problems. All the issues I highlighted in the “problems” chapter above apply to both international and national transport, to both long distances and short distances. It’s mostly about the transport, not where is the destination. It’s all about why people want to transport animals in the first place, and why they do it in the way they do it. 

Live transport will stop when the exploitation of farmed animals will stop. Live exports will be abolished when live transport anywhere will be abolished, and this will happen when people stop seeing animals as livestock. Only the vegan approach would make that collective public conscience shift possible. That is what we should be aiming for. That is where we should be. 

Notwithstanding all the progress that has been made, we need to be honest. Only the vegan world will solve these problems completely, as opposed to just reducing them.

It’s worth remembering that. 

Jordi Casamitjana
“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.