Are animal welfare and profits well aligned?

I recently ran across a claim I've heard many times in the past about animal protein production and animal welfare.  It goes something like the following: happier animals put on weight more efficiently because they aren't stressed by disease and discomfort. So, a producer can't make money unless they takes care of their animals, meaning the profit motive and improving animal welfare are aligned.  

There is an element of truth to this line of reasoning.  But, it's not the whole story.  I discussed this issue in a paper entitled Animal Welfare Economics published back in 2011 with Bailey Norwood.

Here is a key paragraph describing the problem:

It is instructive to consider the trade-off between animal well-being, productivity, and profitability using a simple example. Imagine an egg producer facing the short-run problem of deciding how many hens to stock in a barn with a fixed amount of space. Suppose the animal scientists’ arguments are correct and each hen tends to produce more eggs when they are happier and fewer eggs when sadder. If hens are too densely stocked—for example, so tightly caged that they cannot move or turn around—they will clearly be unhappy and unproductive. Thus, providing a bit more space per hen will increase both welfare and output. At some point, however, too much space is undesirable from both a production and a welfare standpoint. A single isolated hen is likely to be lonely (visitors to egg farms will notice that hens often prefer to flock in groups even in a free-range environment), and as chickens expend energy roaming about, they will be less productive compared to hens more tightly confined. Of course, productivity and welfare are not perfectly aligned and it is probably true that hens would prefer more space than would maximize their individual egg output.

We then walk through a numerical example showing that even when animal welfare and animal output are very highly correlated, a producer will tend to stock hens more hens than would be given by the stocking density that would maximize animal welfare. The main insight is that the producer aims to maximize the profit from the BARN not the ANIMAL.  

The figure below shows the particular example we walk through.  The rest of the details are in the paper.


We write:

Though many producers care passionately about the well-being of the animals under their care, few would argue that the goal of commercial agriculture is to maximize animal well-being. Nevertheless, many in the agriculture community want to argue that animals are most happy when producers are most profitable. A little economic reasoning shows that this is not the case. In a competitive environment, producers who wish to stay in business face incentives to adopt production systems and practices that maximize profit, and profit-maximizing outcomes are not the same as animal welfare-maximizing outcomes. Thus, the real question of interest is not whether profitability must be sacrificed to achieve higher levels of animal welfare, but rather how much.