Ethical investment and the use and treatment of animals

A ferret in the animal facilities within the high biocontainment area of CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL). Source: Wikimedia/CSIRO

A ferret in the animal facilities within the high biocontainment area of CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL). Source: Wikimedia/CSIRO

On 27 November 2014 the Australian Senate passed a motion against unnecessary cosmetics testing on animals. The motion acknowledged that

the majority of Australians believe the use of animal testing to evaluate safety of cosmetic products and ingredients is unnecessary.

If the use and treatment of animals in cosmetics and other testing is important to us, how can we – as investors (and I include members of superannuation funds in this group) – make decisions that are consistent with our values?

Arguably, ethical investment has moved to the mainstream. The range of ethical investment and superannuation funds is widening, although it is unclear what exactly ethical investment means. Mostly, the focus is on the environment, not the treatment of animals. It is difficult to locate information on companies’ use and treatment of animals quickly and easily. Company websites and annual reports generally do not provide this information. With the exception of Cruelty Free Super, superannuation funds do not do so either.

Survey of ASX listed companies

As an investor with a self-managed superannuation fund, I often wished I had access to this type of information. Therefore, in January 2014 I started writing to companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) to find out.

I contacted ASX listed companies in the industry sectors Pharmaceuticals, Biotechnology & Life Sciences, Health Care Equipment & Services, and Household & Personal Products. The companies were contacted via email or their website’s contact page. I asked three questions:

  • Does your company conduct or commission research that involves animals?
  • If so, to what extent does your company adhere to the 3R’s principle?
  • Does your company allocate any funding toward the development and validation of non-animal research methods?

The 3Rs refer to replacement (not using animals where possible), reduction (reducing the number of animals used) and refinement (minimising impact).

I’ve reported what I found out in a previous post and also here.

Transparency

Last year’s update of the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes (the Code) has brought no improvement for the animals used in research and teaching. While the Code encourages the 3Rs, the number of animals used in research here in Australia and overseas is increasing. There is no commitment by governments and the research community to reduce the extent of animal experiments. Neither have a commitment to become more transparent about animal research.

But we need greater transparency. For example, we want to know what proportion of NHMRC funding supports animal research? What proportion supports development and validation of animal-free methods? Which research institutes and companies are already involved in the development of animal-free methods?

Animal-free research methods

CSIRO animal technician with ferrets. Source: Wikimedia/ CSIRO

CSIRO animal technician with ferrets. Source: Wikimedia/ CSIRO

Frequently it is argued that we need animal research because there are no alternatives. On the other hand, there appears to be little support and commitment to develop and validate non-animal methods.

But there are data for the European Union (EU). Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes was adopted in 2010 and took full effect on 1 January 2013. It requires member states to assist in the advancement of alternative methods to animal testing.

A recent survey of EU countries found that funding of alternatives was between 0 and 0.036% of national science R&D expenditure. Approximately half of the EU countries responded to the survey. Nearly half of these reported that they do not contribute. The seven EU countries that did provide funding for alternative methods contributed a total of € 18.7 million in 2013. Overall, a disappointing result, but at least Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden and the UK have made a start.

There are now many non-animal toxicity test and basic research methods that are more reliable and often also cheaper and faster than animal-based methods. A range of online databases list animal-free methods, for example, AltTox.org, Go3R, ZEBET (in German), NORINA, InterNICHE and Animalearn.

However, to address the current reliance on animal research, we need additional animal-free methods and we need those to be validated. As consumers, shareholders (direct or indirect as members of a superannuation fund) and tax payers we can influence companies and research funding bodies such as the National Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the yet to be established Medical Research Future Fund.

If the use and treatment of animals in cosmetics and other testing is important to us, a meaningful proportion of government grants and industry R&D expenditure must go towards the development of animal-free research methods. With an increased range of animal-free methods available, companies will be more inclined to change practices and report proudly about their cruelty-free, more effective and efficient animal-free research methods.

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