Us & Them Attitude Gets Us Nowhere
I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Twitter, and as we showed last week, it’s so easy to get it wrong. We horribly oversimplified our current concerns with farm animal welfare, used an inflammatory word or two, and upset quite a few farmers who rightly pointed out that it’s not a black and white issue of organic good, everyone else bad. We know there’s loads of brilliant stuff going on, not least all the grass based, low input ruminant systems, development of freer farrowing systems, and genetic selection for low lameness and longevity, instead of just yield.
So what is our beef with farm animal welfare? One of the words we used was 'abuse' and in most people's minds, this conjures up overt cruelty or extreme confinement. We've moved quite a way over recent years and this kind of abuse is largely illegal. Many farming systems have also implemented welfare outcome monitoring for chronic painful conditions like lameness. The issue now is often one of mind numbing boredom for the many animals who still live their lives completely indoors in pretty barren environments. A token football in a pen is not going to cut it for inquisitive, active animals like pigs. The fact that most of them still need to have their tails docked indicates that their lives are stressful and dull. Cows may look more calm, even as they are increasingly housed 365 days a year in ever larger herds, but that’s exhaustion, not peace. The metabolic stress that very high yielding cows are under is apparently similar to running a marathon every day.
So there is a strong need to provide more resources for farm animals and to take some production pressure off too. Often the best approach is to get them back on the land where they can improve soils and have the potential for a healthier, more interesting life though excellent management is of course crucial. But who will pay for this? Will it need and get a market premium? The overuse of antibiotics on farm animals gives every reason to put animal health and welfare centre stage and to expect help with the costs of transitioning to systems where antibiotics will be minimised. This will bring export opportunities too as British farmers build a reputation for brilliant welfare, low drug use and sensational taste. So there is much to play for post Brexit. We must join the dots between public and animal health and wellbeing, a wonderful countryside and thriving rural economy, fair trade for the developing world and a fair deal for UK farmers too.
Like all farmers, I dislike division and would much rather we could negotiate improvements without getting the public involved. Sometimes, however, it’s impossible. Two events drummed this home last week. I spent a couple of days on how business can help stop deforestation; three global companies all admitted that it was Greenpeace staking out their HQs dressed as gorillas that finally made them act on this planet critical issue. Then at the FSA’s day on antimicrobial overuse in farm animals, it was both great to hear how about the progress being made, and salutary that we have campaigned on this for over 20 years now, and yet it was only when we formed an alliance and upped our public messaging that industry started to take this crucial public health issue seriously. Our job as a charity is to help things change, ideally through working constructively, sharing knowledge and helping more ‘organic’ approaches to soil care, managing pests and diseases and animal health and welfare become the new norm. So while I’m wary of the soundbite and the tweet, we will use them to help the public understand and care and it’s in all our interests that they do care, and are prepared to support good British farming. But we will take care too, to be as fair and accurate as 140 characters allows.