clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Illustrated portrait of Mahi Klosterhalfen Lauren Tamaki for Vox

Filed under:

Mahi Klosterhalfen is leading Germany’s animal welfare revolution

How Germany’s meat-centric culture is becoming more humane — and vegan-friendly.

Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

There is perhaps no country making faster progress on farm animal welfare than Germany. And much of that is thanks to Mahi Klosterhalfen, president of the animal welfare nonprofit Albert Schweitzer Foundation.

While Germany is better known for its sausages, it, like most countries, raises far more chickens for food than any other land animal. So Klosterhalfen has intensely focused on reforming conditions for animals in Germany’s poultry industry — and with impressive results.

In the early 2000s, virtually all of Germany’s 50 million egg-laying hens were confined in tiny cages so small they couldn’t even spread their wings. Now, nearly all of them are reared cage-free. It hasn’t exactly made for humane conditions, but it’s drastic progress nonetheless.

Klosterhalfen transformed the country’s egg industry by starting small, persuading cafeterias at universities to switch to cage-free eggs, then eventually the nation’s largest grocers, restaurant chains, food companies, and egg producers.

Under Klosterhalfen’s leadership, the Albert Schweitzer Foundation has also played a leading role in ending the gruesome practice of “beak trimming” in Germany. Each year around the world, billions of baby chicks’ beaks are seared off with a hot blade. The industry does this because otherwise, some birds may peck at and injure one another due to the stressful conditions on factory farms. Klosterhalfen learned that neighboring Austria had begun phasing out the practice in the early 2000s by first improving conditions on farms to reduce hens’ stress, which reduced pecking rates. Using that evidence, Klosterhalfen persuaded policymakers in Germany’s largest agricultural state, Lower Saxony, to ban the practice. Two years later, the country’s egg producers’ associations announced they would phase it out as well.

The Albert Schweitzer Foundation has also begun to make headway on improving conditions for factory-farmed fish, as well as chickens raised for meat.

While numerous countries have strengthened their animal welfare standards in recent years, actually reducing the number of animals raised on factory farms has proven much harder. It’s here where Germany has really set itself apart on the global agricultural stage. In practically every country, meat consumption is either rising or stagnating, but in Germany, it’s actually been on the decline.

In the first half of 2023, Germany’s meat production declined 6 percent by weight, and meat retail purchases were down 3.5 percent, a trend that’s been ongoing for a decade. Lower Saxony, Germany’s largest agricultural state, has even set aside money for pig farmers to either improve their animal welfare standards or switch to growing plant-based foods, citing falling demand for pork.

Germany has also seen a rapid increase in plant-based meat purchases. In 2019, the country’s meat sales were about 150 times higher in value than meat alternatives; by 2022, that gap shrank to just 80 times.

Some of that is thanks to Klosterhalfen and his organization (along with Germany’s robust ecosystem of animal advocacy groups like ProVeg, ARIWA, Soko Tierschutz, and Animal Equality), which has worked with grocers and universities to carry more plant-based options and, for some, even commit to reducing meat offerings.

In the last century, the world has, depressingly, become worse and worse for animals. But the progress of the German animal protection movement should give anyone hope that a brighter future is possible.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.