In the wake of a decision by the Welsh Assembly to allow a 1000 head mega-dairy unit near Welshpool in Powys can we expect increased pressure on Derbyshire County Council to approve the application for a 25,000 pig unit in Foston?
A recent media event in London was part of a ‘charm offensive’ by big agribusinesses to try to win over opinion on mega-farms, with speakers with close associations with the industry giving their ‘objective’ view on them. They went to great lengths to insist that the economies of scale that come from these farms help keep food costs down and that animal welfare is safeguarded.
Not surprisingly these speakers took a blinkered view, yet any close analysis of the mega-farm model reveals that, rather than being an answer to the developing food crisis, it is actually a key driver of rising food prices across the globe. In addition they have many other damaging impacts; from pollution, to heavy water usage, impacts on local communities and employment, and the effects on the animals involved.
The mega-farm model is popular with big agribusinesses because it allows them to produce the cheap food supermarkets want and to make larger profits by externalising costs. These costs include the full impact of pollution, disruptions to people’s lives and the risk to public health. These costs are paid for by us.
The tax system encourages the growth of the mega-farm industry in that it provides a massive subsidy to energy-intensive large-scale farming, over more labour-intensive, and smaller-scale pasture and mixed farming. How? Because energy use, especially reactive nitrogen fertiliser (which accounts for half of all energy use in agriculture) and red diesel, both come in at a low tax rate. Whereas labour is highly taxed, so time is expensive. We need instead, to tax pollution and fossil fuel use, and encourage reliable and skilled employment.
Big agribusiness uses its financial muscle to buy animal feed, both on the local and world market. Land that should be used to grow food for people is instead widely used to grow animal feed. Industrial animal farming and its demand for grain and soya for animal feed is a key factor in global food price rises.
As well as huge inputs of food this industrial farming is also heavily reliant on water and drugs, such as antibiotics, and produces large amounts of toxic waste. The lessons from America, where this sort of farming is much more prevalent, are troubling. Industrial farming practises there have required massive amounts of antibiotics. There is increasing evidence of a link between antibiotic use in animals and resistance in people. The UK chief medical officer Sally Davies has given voice to her concern about the increase in antibiotic resistance in people. Are we really willing to risk this absolutely vital class of drugs to have a bit more cheap meat on our plates?
Animal welfare is also about much more than health, something the supporters of these farms don’t seem to understand. The industrial dairy cow can no longer live on grass and suffers from numerous ‘production diseases’ as well as high levels of lameness and mastitis. This disease led to the destruction of far more cattle in the UK than bovine TB, about which the Government professes such concern.
In these massive mega-farm units, animals are unable to express their natural behaviour; cows can’t graze, pigs can’t root around. We are dealing here with sentient beings, not machines. We know animals feel frustration when unable to behave naturally; they get bullied in large groups and feel fear and distress. If you have seen cows in pasture you will see a contentment you will not see in factory farms.
Small farms, in their current form, are far from perfect – partly because they struggle on tiny margins, and these large scale units will further impact negatively on small local farmers. But it is they who can sustainably provide their local markets with food season by season, as they have done for thousands of years.
There is no doubt we will see more of these units come up for planning approval in the near future, and the Green Party is committed to fighting them. The Government has already shown it will ride roughshod over public opinion and the real facts on cost. Only Greens understand the need for our agriculture to head in a fundamentally different direction, to support local production and local markets. We need to be reducing our reliance on imports, regulating the middle men and the supermarkets. We need to ensure that smaller scale producers get a fair deal, and produce the healthy food we need, create jobs, look after our precious landscapes and wildlife and make a decent living. Only then will our food supply be secure.
[Mike Shipley, with thanks to Caroline Allen]