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Old Macdonald losing out to agri-business

Pressure is building up for the creation of massive animal processing plants in the UK to replace traditional dairy and pig production, despite concerns about water pollution, animal welfare, environmental damage and the wiping out of small farms.

Farmers’ leader Peter Kendall claims large scale installations are essential to feed the population and keep food prices down. He wants permission to be given for a 1,000-cow unit in Powys and a 2,500 pig farm in Derbyshire.

Bigger farms are more profitable and can therefore afford better equipment, more space and experts able "to protect the environment and animals", he claims in the face of all the evidence.

That includes recent allegations of horrific abuse at pig farms in the US and a new report showing that most intensive farms in the EU are not sticking to agreed welfare standards.

The government also believes that intensification is needed to cope with population increase, climate change and other factors and is waiting for a working group to report. All this is, in fact, hogwash. The intensive farming of livestock is not a contribution to ending world hunger and climate change – it is a net contributor to both.

The industrial model, far from being the answer is actually hugely wasteful. Factory farms are food consumers, not food producers. A recent UN food security report says:

When livestock are raised in intensive systems, they convert carbohydrates and protein that might otherwise be eaten directly by humans and use them to produce a smaller quantity of energy and protein. In these situations, livestock can be said to reduce the food balance.

In other words, intensive animal rearing puts farm animals in competition with people for food, and as Compassion in World Farming reports, it is people who are losing out.

The biggest intensive unit in the world is the Al Safi Dairy Farm, in Saudi Arabia, an underground bunker where 24,000 cattle who never see the sun produce 125 million litres of milk a year. Hog plants in the US can have as many as 10,000 pigs and in the EU the majority of pigs are now intensively farmed.

This is not a sentimental issue, though the denaturing of animals rightly fills most people with disgust. It is to do with the future of life on the planet. Huge swathes of virgin forest continue to be cleared to grow soya, which is fed to cattle. Their waste is not recycled into the food product cycle and so the whole process becomes an absolute loss to the planet's ecology.

It is incredible that nature's best waste munchers – the pig and chicken – are being fed pure grain in intensive systems. Within mixed farming they would be far more environmentally useful.

In the UK over 800 million meat chickens are reared each year. Keeping them free range would need an area around a third of the size of the Isle of Wight, less than one thousandth of the nation’s total farmland. Integrating them within mixed farming systems would benefit production, sustainability – and the chickens. We need to take the profit out of food and tell the National Farmers Union and agri-business to take a running jump.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
7 June 2012

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