The Hans Sigrist Foundation

Prof. Dr. Marina von Keyserlingk, University of British Columbia, Canada

An Interview with the 2018 Hans Sigrist Prize Winner

Professor Marina (Nina) von Keyserlingk of The University of British Columbia is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare at the Faculty of Land and Food Systems.  She is internationally one of the most distinguished and innovative researchers in the area of this year’s prize field “Sustainably Produced Food of Animal Origin”.  Prof. von Keyserlingk has pioneered the use of animal behavior (especially including automated measures) for the early detection and prediction of disease in farm animals. She is also a leader in her field due to her innovative approach to combining experimental, quantitative work and qualitative methods including online surveys, interviews, and focus groups to understand the perspectives of farmers, veterinarians, and the public regarding the care and use of farm animals. Her work has motivated scientific research better targeted at perceived constraints and illustrates a new trend towards interdisciplinary research to address societal concerns about the care and use of farm animals.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Congratulations on winning the 2018 Hans Sigrist Prize.  Were you surprised to find out that you had been selected as the prize winner?

von Keyserlingk:  First, I was totally shocked, but then, of course, I was ecstatic.  I was travelling in France at the time, doing some speaking to agriculture students, which meant that I had to keep the news to myself for a few hours, given that there was nine-hour time difference from my family who were all still asleep.  It is a tremendous honor and a privilege that I was considered for this prize.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  What do you think the prize funds will do for you in terms of your research?  Are there things you are hoping to be able to accomplish with which it will help you?

von Keyserlingk:  Absolutely, the prize funds will have a tremendous impact on my research.  Up until now I have been funded primarily through what is called the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, which is a government fund that has been very supportive of science and innovation in Canada, especially in the area of animal welfare.  These funds are divided into two types of funding, one which funds most of the applied work and another that funds the more basic sciences.  However, about 25% of my research is now in the social sciences, work that is key in the field of animal welfare. Securing social science funding is important, as I have come to realize that in order to do good animal welfare science, that is appropriate and relevant, we also have to understand the values, perceptions, and attitudes of the various stakeholders.  That includes, of course, the public, the citizens, the consumers, the farmers, and the veterinarians, and all those people who care for the animals.  So, that is my vision for a good part of the prize money, that it will help fund that social science work.

Hans Sigrist Foundation: What sparked your interest in the field you work in?  When you were thinking about going to university, what drew you to this area?

von Keyserlingk:  I grew up on a cattle ranch of a thousand acres, over 250 hectares, where the cows roamed the high country in the summer time.  My first job was riding horses, looking for cows, and bringing out salt blocks.  I have always been connected to farming and agriculture.  Like many other farm kids, my first dream was to become a vet.  In my undergraduate studies in college, I found out about areas of study I never knew existed, and I went on to pursue a masters and a Ph.D. in animal nutrition, instead of going to vet school, and then studied animal welfare and ethics of animal use.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Did you directly go into teaching after your Ph.D.?

von Keyserlingk:  No, I then took a break from academia and worked in the business world for about seven years.  I ended up managing a research division in a company.  I did a lot of work in chickens, swine, dairy, and beef, focusing on how to feed these animals efficiently for a greater return. Given that I speak German fluently, as my parents were immigrants, I also had the opportunity to travel to Europe.  Already decades ago, Europeans were asking questions about where farm animals came from and what kind of lives those animals led.  I saw this disconnect in North America and in Canada at that time, and I decided that I no longer wanted to be the person who just looked at efficiencies.  So, I began a post-doctoral fellowship in animal welfare and ethics, seven years after I had finished my Ph.D.  When I graduated from my Ph.D., that field did not even exist as an option to study formally.  I started out in the area of feeding behavior, which was a natural progression for me, coming from a nutrition background, looking at behavior and social competition, and trying to reduce competition when animals were feeding.  It was super exciting - finally, I was doing research that was improving the lives of animals.  Some of these animals have very short lives, but for me, it is all about giving them a good life, even though it is a short life.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Is that what made you decide to seek a faculty position in this area?

von Keyserlingk:  Yes, that and the encouragement from a colleague.  He said to me, "You can learn anything you still need to know about animal welfare, but you have something that cannot be taught at university, the ability to talk to and relate to farmers."  Having grown up in the ranching community, participating in agriculture clubs with other kids, and through my work experience, I knew how to talk to people in the animal industry and the pressures they faced.  My colleague told me, “You are going to be able to walk into rooms, talk to farmers, and have a respect that many of us who do not come from the farm may not have.”  Some of these conversations are difficult, so having a rapport with the farmers and an ability to connect with them is very important.  

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Are there practical problems that drew you to animal welfare?

von Keyserlingk:  It was the field in general.  The idea of looking at the animal’s life, not just the output.  There are many things I think we can do better.  It is going to be one step at a time.  Farmers are very proud people.  There is a strong culture there, and they are deserving of respect.  However, with anything, it is hard for people, as individuals, to take criticism.  Now, all of a sudden, they have the feeling that the whole world is coming at them.  We need to be patient and to work with them, and to say, “look, some things we do will not necessarily increase productivity and profitability, but they are simply the right thing to do, even though they are going to cost you money.  For example, de-horning.  Some types of cattle are born with horns, and we need to take the horns off, because they can be a danger to the farm workers and the other animals.  That procedure has traditionally always been done without pain mitigation. We have very solid evidence that it is painful for the animals, and there are ways to mitigate this.  Initially, you would hear people say, “I will do that, but show me how many more kilos of weight they are going to gain.”  There is no scientific evidence that they will gain more weight if you use pain mitigation but using proper pain control methods is simply the right thing to do. That is part of being a good stock person.  You do these things, and you do them right.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  How do you convince them?

von Keyserlingk:  Change is always hard and takes time. We work with farmers on a one-on-one basis every time we have a conversation, but of course, we also use more traditional vehicles such as public speaking, showing them the evidence such as the fact that animals can suffer.  We also find the early adopters of the farmers, the influencers within the industry.  We have conversations with them, and create opportunities for that particular farmer to talk with other farmers.  Those are very good ways of dispersing information.  

We are also seeing different countries doing different things regarding animal care.  The EU has legislated farm animal welfare, whereas in North America, we do not have legislation around these basic animal care issues.  In large part, that is because animal cruelty is governed by the federal laws, but animal care is governed by state or provincial laws, making the legislation route challenging.  So, trying to get all the Canadian provinces or every U.S. state to coordinate with each other is more difficult.  What we are seeing now is that certain corporations, for example, one of the large milk processors in North America, are saying that they will not accept milk into their supply chain if all the calves have not received pain mitigation when de-horned.  Pressure from corporations helps.

Agriculture is a major piece of the fabric of every culture.  I think you have differences within the grassroot culture, from a government perspective, and also from an agricultural industry perspective.  I am very proud of the Canadian dairy industry.  In 2007-2008, the dairy farmers in Canada decided they needed to do something about providing assurance.  The animal welfare program I am a part of came into existence in 1997, there are two other colleagues who started in 1997, and I joined them in 2002.  Grass roots agriculture, including the dairy farmers and beef farmers, supported the creation of the research chairs.  This is even more impressive when one thinks back to the 1990s and that the issue of animal welfare was not a really a problem for North American farmers – it was something that was limited to the European farming community.  Individuals who agreed to support research in animal welfare at my university, back in 1997, were indeed very forward thinking.  In 2008, the dairy farmers went the next step and said we need to do a review of the science in terms of best practices in dairy farming which resulted in the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle being published in 2009.  This commitment by industry to providing assurance about animal welfare on Canadian farms has been followed by the rest of the industry, including beef, poultry, egg, etc.

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Have you followed what is going on in Switzerland in these areas?  

von Keyserlingk:  Switzerland has been a leader in the animal welfare space and a leader in incorporating society into some of these decision making processes, due to its direct democracy approach, which I think is great.  One of the things that has been lacking in North America is that we have a very big divide between the urban and the rural communities.  In the past, many people living in urban areas who bought milk, eggs or meat, often did not think too much about where their food came from, but this is changing given social media and other Internet platforms available to them.  The challenge agriculture has is that for many of these people, the vision of what life farm animals lead is very different than what agriculture provides for them, thus the disconnect.  These sorts of disconnects can lead to a loss of public trust in farming.

Much of the work we have been doing in the social sciences, which has been very novel in North America, is trying to understand these public attitudes, identifying the big contentious issues.  We engage in science to test out different scenarios that will hopefully align better with public values. The next step is to work to have conversations with the agriculture community in which we explain why the public reacts the way they do and then work with the farmer to try to make improvements to the system that the public will accept. Our hope is to create practices that maintain public trust in agriculture.  The important piece of all of this is that agriculture has to be willing to listen when the public has a negative reaction to something that they do.  

Hans Sigrist Foundation:  Do you also notice a disconnect between what consumers expect regarding low prices, while still demanding that products be organic, for example?

von Keyserlingk:  I use the word "citizens", as well as "consumers".  We each wear two hats.  When we vote with our wallets in the supermarket, we are acting as a consumer.  By and large, what we see is that when the public goes into a grocery store, many will buy on price.  Labelling has also been very confusing for the public, because again, much of it depends on whether they know what the label means and what the practices behind that labelling category are.  The question is “what is the minimum standard going to be?”  As a citizen, we have values, and often our values are disconnected from how we vote as a consumer.  We need to respect that these differences are there, because when we vote in an election, as a citizen, we are usually more informed about something.  

This willingness to pay issue is something where agriculture says, “I will change my practices, if the consumer will pay more”.  Again, I think that is putting the sustainability of your industry on the shoulders of an uninformed client is not the way to go in the long run.  Not that the consumer/citizen is not important, but they are uninformed, so we need to listen to what they do not like and then work with the animal industries to come up with practical solutions that result in change.  

Hans Sigrist Foundation: I believe you said this is your first trip to the University of Bern.  Have you had a chance to see our research facilities in this area?  Do you foresee any collaboration?

von Keyserlingk:  I was very fortunate to spend considerable time with Prof. Rupert Bruckmaier, he took me on a tour of his laboratories and the fantastic research facility that he has! We have already begun to have many interesting research discussions, and I am very much looking forward to working with him, his students, and particularly Janine Braun, the recipient of the Hans Sigrist Fellowship, while she is doing her Ph.D.

Hans Sigrist Foundation: Do you have advice for young people who want to get into this field?

von Keyserlingk:  I think that the main advice I would give is to follow your passion.  If you are passionate about something, it is not really work. As a scientist, there is a voyage of discovery as you are learning new things all the time.  For many young people, they set out wanting to be a veterinarian and work with animals. It is a great profession but there are numerous ways you can contribute to animal agriculture, in meaningful ways, without being a vet.but there are ways you can contribute to animal agriculture,  in meaningful ways, without being a vet.