National / Media | MEDIA MIX

2020 Tokyo Olympics puts spotlight on animal welfare

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The International Olympic Committee sets procurement standards for materials used in conjunction with the games. One of these standards is sustainability, which was first established for the 2012 London Olympics. In terms of meals supplied to athletes and others, ingredients must be produced and harvested using methods that have no negative environmental impact. Seafood should be caught within legal quotas. Fruit and vegetables must not be grown on deforested land.

In this regard, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was called out last summer when, according to the magazine Shukan Asahi, athletes and rights groups wrote to local organizers complaining that livestock farming in Japan does not adhere to practices that guarantee animal welfare. In Japan, most meat, eggs and dairy items are produced using factory farm methods, which stress productivity at the expense of the animals’ comfort and well-being. In particular, they pointed out that the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens and stalls for pregnant and nursing sows in pork production are prohibited in many countries. The athletes asked to meet with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike to discuss the matter, but no meeting took place.

In addition, animal welfare organizations demanded that standards for livestock production be revised to reflect this global trend toward humane treatment but, on Nov. 2, the organizing committee of the 2020 Games notified these groups that they were unlikely to satisfy the demands. Something similar happened before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and more humane standards were implemented by the time the games began. That, apparently, won’t be the case for Tokyo. There is no incentive to crack down on relevant industries because, as professor emeritus Yoichi Matsuki of the Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University told the Shukan Asahi, Japan exports very little of its livestock products overseas, so there is no economic pressure to change their methods.

In Western countries, high-yield livestock farming is considered deleterious to animal welfare and food safety, but in Japan it’s usually only connected to food safety. The Shukan Asahi included shocking photos of animals in distress, but in the text the main benefits of allowing chickens to roam free and cattle to graze is that the animals don’t consume the amount of drugs required to address the infirmities that arise when they are kept in close quarters. A kilogram of meat produced in Japan contains twice as much pharmaceuticals as that produced in the United States. Fifty-nine percent of Japanese chicken contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Such revelations could indirectly promote more humane livestock husbandry, but without attendant explanations of how animals suffer in high-productivity environments the matter will always center on the consumer rather than the animal, which is deemed a resource rather than a sentient being.

This perception gap was illuminated last spring during the early weeks of NHK’s current morning serial, “Natsuzora” (“Summer Sky”), which takes place partly on a Hokkaido dairy farm just after World War II. The agriculture ministry cooperated with NHK to provide notes on the show on its own homepage, elucidating the dairy farming methods depicted on the show. The ministry’s overall goal is to promote Hokkaido’s dairy industry. In the explanations, it mentions animal welfare infrequently and only in positive terms, which is easy since the drama is set during a time before factory farming became the norm. The cows graze because that was what dairy cows did in the 1940s and ’50s.

The welfare group Animal Rights Center started posting rejoinders to the ministry’s explanations to emphasize that the situations presented do not represent milk production today. The farm in the drama is relatively small: only five or six cows cared for by four people, which, by today’s industry standard, makes it unproductive. The average dairy farm in 2017 employed roughly 2½ people administering around 80 cows, which are mostly chained up indoors at all times. Milk production per cow has doubled since the time of “Natsuzora” and, as a result, the cows have become weak, overweight and disease-prone. A cow can live up to 20 years, but milk cows typically don’t last more than five or six years before they’re slaughtered.

For several weeks Animal Rights Center provided more information about modern dairy farming in rebuttal to the ministry posts, including the use of stanchions to limit cow’s movements, the painful removal of horns to protect handlers and other cows and the use of grain-heavy diets, which are bad for cows, in order to increase the fat content of milk.

A common refrain of animal rights groups is that people who consume animal products willfully disregard the suffering of the animals involved, and there is something of that censuring tone in the center’s explanations, but there’s also a sense that most Japanese are simply ignorant of how their food is produced.

When the press does cover animal welfare, the English term is used and usually in conjunction with foreign production. An April 29 Mainichi Shimbun article about Sustainable Development Goals reported on how cattle farming in Australia, which exports beef to Japan, had changed over the years in response to “consumer demand that animals be raised in a more natural environment.” Japan’s situation is not mentioned.

If animal welfare in Japan is covered here it’s usually by nonconventional media. On May 30, the magazine Alterna posted a story online on egg production in Japan, which consumes more eggs per capita than any other country. The reason is productivity. The number of laying hens has not increased appreciably over the past 30 years, but the number of farms has decreased, meaning more hens per farm. More than 90 percent of the birds are now kept in battery cages in extremely cramped conditions, meaning they cannot move or spread their wings.

All the Japanese public really knows about egg production is that the price has not changed since the Showa Era. That, apparently, is all they need to know.