The Campaign to Build Not So Super-Farms Grows in the UK

June 7, 2012

Despite rising concern in recent decades about animal welfare, the meat industry has not changed a great deal. Back in the 1990s, it was commonly accepted that large-scale battery farms and pig breeding facilities entailed a diminished standard of animal welfare and significant amounts of pollution – far more so than smaller operations. The idea of Britain copying the United States and importing “super farms” to churn out bacon and butter might have been laughed at, but not any longer.

As the Guardian reports, the National Farmers Union has swung directly behind an industry call for larger, more intensive farming of pork and dairy products. Echoing official calls for “sustainable intensification”, the NFU argues that larger farms are needed simply to feed the starving masses in this, obesity riddled nation. And a liberal dose of green-swill is being applied as well. Apparently, “much larger farms than those in Britain could be “both good and bad” for animal welfare and the environment, arguing that they could “potentially” improve conditions for animals and the protection of the environment.”

That’s the Guardian’s version of a report produced recently by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology. The paper would have you believe that there are equally opposed risks and opportunities, but this is not what the report says. On the contrary, the report states that “The main pollution concerns raised by super farms are ammonia, manure/slurry, effluent discharges, dust, odour and noise.” Moreover, reductions in greenhouse gases from livestock can best be achieved by breeding “fewer, more productive animals” – not mountains of pork in uber-farms.

In terms of animal welfare, the picture is “mixed” – but only if the virtues of keeping thousands of pigs indoors for their entire life are taken for granted. If that’s OK, then sophisticated animal welfare measures like preventing piglets from being crushed and the introduction of “straw containing food treats to forage for” mean that yes, super-farms (in this case a planned pig farm at Foston in Derbyshire) meet decent standards. But for many, the idea of keeping animals incarcerated for their whole lives is a basic breach of animal rights, and for others it will be more than a little off-putting.

Alongside these problems, super farms have a social effect which may damage already battered rural communities. As the report notes, “There are fears that the trend towards large-scale intensification will result in more small farms going out of business.” Those who survive will do so as “niche” producers of luxury goods – for people who can’t stomach the products of the super farms.

There seems to be a strong campaign building to support such factory-farming, with the NFU in the vanguard. In some ways, however, this is strange. After all, the NFU will probably lose members if small farms go bust, to be replaced by hard to unionize super farms. Turkeys rarely vote for Christmas, unless they are NFU members. And the economic case for such farms is dubious. It relies on projections that the nation’s population will continue to grow (it isn’t growing much, if at all), that exports will have to decrease (the UK imports roughly 40 percent of its food supply) and that our diet will remain fairly constant. But, if global supply remains steady, population does not increase and diets shift towards vegetarianism or lower meat consumption, then a glut may well result. The NFU sees increased profits as a selling point of super-farms, but this is far, far, from guaranteed. Profits for retailers, perhaps.

And the food security case is hardly watertight either. Super-farms are being justified on the basis of a comparison to Chinese land use. Research by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (staffed by industry figures) suggests that “though Britain has about 5% of China’s 1.3 billion population, it has less than 3% of its land area” meaning what? Well, apparently this means that we need to overhaul the bacon-industrial complex. So given this statistic, the pork industry should be tightly disciplined and catering solely for the domestic market, before all others, right? Well, no. Actually, the pork industry is looking to cash in on the Chinese market. The Agriculture Minister, Jim Paice, was in Beijing only last month, hawking the oodles of pork products British farmers have to get rid of. And it’s a market that will only get larger. As Paice told the FT, “The fact is we export more food to Belgium than we do to all the Bric countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China] together. That’s a pretty damning indictment of our efforts.” 

The Chinese won’t be getting prime cuts, not yet. Instead, being still possessed of a sense of thrift, they are happy to consume less appealing elements of the pig such as trotters and offal. But if we in Britain are about to experience such an epochal food crisis, why not put some money into changing the way we eat, and encouraging the consumption of off-cuts as people used to?

Of course, there’s an elephant in the room here (well, a very large pig in any case), and his name is profit. Pig producers naturally want to make more money from their investments, and they are constructing an argument to achieve this, but the argument is flawed. The real motivation for super-farms is to do with the structure of the economy. The FT article on the Chinese market gives a hint, writing that “British pig farmers, abattoirs and processors are struggling in the face of high input costs and of pricing constrained by aggressive retailers trying to win over cash-strapped consumers.”

The industry response to this pressure is “sustainable intensification” – running faster on the hamster wheel of capitalism to raise cost efficiency as supermarkets put the squeeze on farmers. This has led to a general trend in European and American farming to “get big or get out”, and super-farms are just the latest development in this sixty year story. But to be truly sustainable, farming would have to liberate itself from the supermarkets (and the petrochemical giants which control farm inputs). This would mean staying small enough to build links with consumers, as the “niche” producers referred to by the NFU would have to do. And it would entail having more farmers on the land, investing in training, technology, storage and marketing. But most of all, it would entail farmers standing up to the retailers in the name of good husbandry, the environment and their livelihoods. In Britain, this has not been the way things have gone. If the NFU stance on super-farms is any guide, this won’t be changing anytime soon.

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