For all the American romanticization of European agriculture — think the agriturismos of Italy or the French concept of a food’s terroir — the continent’s treatment of farmed animals is not strikingly different from the much-maligned industrial system in the United States. It’s certainly better, but by matters of degree, not kind.
In a few years, though, that could change, thanks in large part to the work of activists like Olga Kikou of the UK-based animal welfare nonprofit Compassion in World Farming.
Kikou oversees the organization’s European Union campaigns in Brussels, and over the last few years has led the charge on a farm-focused European Citizens Initiative, a mechanism that allows EU citizens to propose a policy to the EU Commission. This one would ban cages for farmed animals in the 27-nation bloc, and it’s on track to succeed. If all goes as planned, it will get around 340 million animals out of cages.
Attaining an initiative’s passage takes a hell of a lot of work: Organizers are required to gather a million valid signatures from European citizens in one year. If they can do that, the European Commission decides whether or not to consider the initiative. If the commission likes it, it sends a formal proposal to the European Parliament and the EU Council to vote on it.
From September 2018 to September 2019, Kikou’s group and 170 other organizations across Europe collected 1.4 million signatures to ban cages for egg-laying hens, female breeding pigs, calves raised for veal, rabbits, and other species.
Two years later, in the summer of 2021, the European Commission responded positively to the initiative, committing to draft legislation by 2023 that would phase out cages by 2027.
It was a milestone in the decades-long campaign to banish farm animal cages from Europe, but it’s still not guaranteed to make it through the hoops of EU policy-making as planned. Though the parliament has already passed a resolution in support of the initiative and EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides is in full support, EU member states could still weaken or delay it.
Compassion in World Farming, and many other groups, have labored for decades in Brussels and across the European Union to implement partial and total bans on cages for various species, and persuaded dozens and dozens of food companies, like fast food chains and supermarkets, to eliminate cages from their supply chains. Those decades of work might soon pay off in what will surely be the biggest advancement for farm animal welfare in the world.