Pampered pigs and healthy hens aren’t a serious economic disadvantage for European farmers, reports the AgriFood Economics Centre.

European Union regulations demand a higher standard of treatment for certain breeds of pigs and chickens. Providing the animals with room to move around or have access to fresh air and sunlight often make European pork, chicken, and eggs more expensive.

Many of these premium brand animals are only sold within their national markets, but the economic downturn raised questions over whether imported animal products are now out-competing European products.

“We have investigated the connection between animal welfare regulation in the EU and competitiveness. We have seen that the impact on competitiveness and on trade is very minor, if it exists at all”, says Anna Andersson, a researcher at the AgriFood Economics Centre in a press release by Lund University.

The research ruffles some feathers on the political debate over putting up trade barriers to block imports or make them more expensive in a move to make EU products more economically competitive.

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Andersson’s team asserts that putting up trade barriers to protect European farms from imports is unnecessary.

“More trade barriers would increase prices, consumers would have less choice, the use of our agricultural resources would become less efficient, and reduced competition would lead to a less dynamic industry when the pressure for improvements falls,” said Andersson.

“EU protection of agricultural products already hits poor countries the hardest and increased trade barriers would risk further worsening the situation,” she added.

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Different types of caging do have an effect on cost and productivity, the study asserts. But a balance between free range and high-density factory farming was found to be economically competitive.

For example, in the case of egg-laying hens, banning cages entirely could raise the cost of eggs by about 8%. But the current practice of using “enriched” cages, that provide at least 750 square centimeters of space, a perch, a nesting box, and litter, was not found to increase retail prices significantly.

The “enriched” cages offer nearly twice the space of cages in the Ukraine, India, Brazil, and the United States, which average 300-400 square centimeters of space per bird, according to the study.

The report found that feed costs were in fact the largest expense for farmers.

No matter what animal welfare measures are used, the EU is likely to continue to have a trade deficit in agricultural products. Most of this is due to the fact that Europeans love coffee, chocolate, tea, tropical fruits, and other products that won’t grow in places where winter temperatures drop below freezing.

AgriFood Economics Centre is a collaboration of Lund University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

IMAGE: Chickens from Bresse, France, are a protected national breed that must be raised under exacting standards on small farms. As a result of their premium brand status, Bresse chickens fetch around 15 euro ($21) per kilo. Credit: Wikimedia commons.