Helen Browning's speech to the WI on factory farming

09 June 2011

Helen Browning addressed the Women's Institute AGM on 8 June as they debated the motion: 'This meeting abhors the practice of factory farming particularly large animals such as pigs and cows, and urges HM government to ensure planning permission is not granted for such projects.'

Many thanks for inviting me to speak in this vitally important debate today. It is so important because what you decide today will send a clear signal to policy makers and the farming community about whether our society is prepared to accept what could be the beginning of a new era for our countryside. I am aware that the resolution has already been controversial, and people have interpreted it in different ways. But the way I am asking you to interpret it, is whether we should give the green light to extremely large scale animal production units, in which our livestock are confined throughout their productive lives, or whether we should instead support a diverse, human scale farming economy which enhances the beauty of our countryside and sustains rural communities, cares for the health and welfare of our farm animals, provides meaningful work for people, and a flexible, resilient food supply that we can depend on into the future.

Like Peter [Kendall], and perhaps some of you, I am a farmer. I tenant a 1350 acre dairy, pig, beef and arable farm in Wiltshire, so I do really understand the challenges facing our industry today. The pressure on farmers to produce affordable, sustainable food and be guardians of the countryside, at a time of rising feed and other costs is putting a strain on all of our businesses. And this pressure is likely to continue as we face the future: with growing populations, a global increase in meat and dairy consumption and cheap imports of food from abroad.

But the solution is not to create huge-scale operations that threaten that which we hold dear about our landscape, farming and rural communities. Large-scale industrial farms may be able to produce food a little more cheaply in the short term, mostly through reducing the number and cost of people employed, as automation diminishes the need for husbandry skills. But the price we will pay for marginally cheaper food will be high indeed.
So I would like to speak for those farmers who are not, and never will be, super-sized. And for all those who care for our countryside, and for both human and animal health and welfare.

Let me be clear. It is not that big is necessarily bad; big and small farms can be equally well – or poorly - managed. But if big does go bad, it goes bad in a very big way!

And if these ‘mega farms’ succeed, then they will inevitably drive out our smaller scale family farms, just as the multiple retailers out competed the greengrocers, butchers and bakers from our high streets. If they fail, then their acres of concrete will have no other use, but will tarnish our landscapes indefinitely.

The problems facing the pig and dairy industries will not be solved by super-sizing production; this fails to deal with the root cause of the issue. Instead we need to pay our farmers a fair price for food, whilst expecting the highest standards of care for our environment, animals and health in return. 

Large-scale animal units such as the ones proposed at Nocton and Foston are common practice in the United States. Experience there has shown that they impact negatively on smaller, family-sized farms, and can have poor environmental and animal health outcomes; as such units produce enormous amounts of animal waste and rely on high levels of antibiotics to keep animals healthy. This threat has been identified by our own Environment Agency, which opposed the planning application for Nocton Dairy because of the potential of waste to leak into the water supply.

If any of you have ever travelled through the farm belt of the United States, and seen the huge, warehouse units of industrial farming, you might wonder if this is what we want for our own animals and countryside. How would we explain to our children and grandchildren if the reality of farming became like this – and did not match with anything they read in books or played with in toy farmyard sets, which show cows in fields eating grass and pigs in outdoor pens?

These are economically uncertain times. We are all watching what we spend and are all concerned about food security and rising prices. But super-sizing production does not lead to food security. As the British Government found during World War II, it was the small and family farm that fed us – because there were lots of trained, expert food producers (like the WI) who knew how to produce food efficiently.   

We need a diversity of businesses and skills to create healthy economies. We have all seen what happens when ‘too-big-to-fail’ operations, like the banks, get into trouble. Opposing huge animal units is not being Luddite or standing in the way of progress. It is actually more resilient and stronger for any sector of business to have many, rather than a few huge-scale operations.

It is not just groups like the Soil Association who are opposed to huge animal production units. This is not an ‘organic’ versus ‘non-organic’ issue. Many farmers of all different types oppose this move.

They are not only concerned about their own businesses. The vast majority of us farmers care deeply about the welfare of our animals. We want to run efficient, humane and viable farming systems.

This includes providing the highest possible health outcomes for our animals. Keeping many animals in a small space may make the evolution and spread of harmful diseases easier, just as we are more likely to catch a bug after even half an hour on the tube with an infected companion. And with more disease comes the increased use of antibiotics, and the attendant risk of antibiotic resistance in people.

The need to increase the amount of food we produce domestically is rightly made by Peter, the NFU and others. But how we go about this is much more complicated than simply producing bigger, more intensive models of food production. We are perfectly capable of producing the food we need; the reason that our dairy and pig farmers are going out of business is simply that they are not being rewarded adequately for their endeavours. Milk is sold more cheaply than bottled water or fizzy pop, have we got our priorities right? 

We need to think through these issues alongside those of the nation’s health, the environmental resources that we are all reliant on, how farming of the future will adapt itself to changes in our climate and population, and how we will support farmers now and in the future. We need to consider the long term and less immediately obvious costs, alongside the supposed short term benefits.

This means an open debate about how we grow our food, and what we eat, and how to ensure a fair outcome for all, now and in the future This is a conversation we all need to be part of.

But I fear that the coming of the US-style huge animal farm fails to address these bigger fundamentals. It simply wants to address one part of the problem, which will give us a new set of challenges.

So I very much hope you will support the motion before you today – not just for us farmers – but for the future of our landscape, the diversity and resilience of our food supply, the health and welfare of our people and animals, and the backbone of our rural economy – the traditional, mixed family farm. 

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