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Now, more than ever, we need a ‘just transition’ for intensive livestock

Now, more than ever, we need a ‘just transition’ for intensive livestock

The unfolding crisis in the pig sector has provided an instructive case study on how not to manage any food system transition. Livestock farming will need to be reformed if we are to resolve the climate and nature crises. Throwing farmers and animals under a political bus is not the answer.

Industry bodies have reportedly been warning for months that labour shortages associated with Brexit and Covid-19 could lead to a crisis in meat processing. That crisis has materialised. Faced with a backlog of pigs and escalating costs, some farmers have begun culling their animals on farm. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of pigs will be killed on farms in the weeks ahead. Their meat will not be allowed into the human food chain. Some farm businesses will not recover.

The government has tried to place a positive spin on events, framing the cull as a necessary episode in a process of economic restructuring. We are, the Prime Minister says, in a period of ‘adjustment’, moving towards a high productivity and high wage economy. If meat processing plants are short of workers, the argument goes, then they should offer better wages. If this increases costs for producers, then those costs need to be passed on, presumably to the consumer.

There is some logic in this rhetoric. Butchery is skilled work and deserves to be properly paid. When producers are operating at impossibly tight margins, it suggests we might have to pay more for our food. The crisis has revealed faults in the system. The temporary labour shortage blossomed into a disaster for thousands of farmers. It was a disaster exacerbated by sophisticated supply chains which leave little room for handling variation in the primary product entering the processing chain and retail space. Something has gone awry in the mechanics of our food supply.

But the transition being forced upon pig farmers is not a ‘just transition’. Even as British producers face financial ruin, our supermarket shelves are filling with pork produced to lower animal welfare standards in Europe. Has the government really thought this through? If we are to reform our food system, placing it on a more equitable and nature-friendly footing, then the transition must be carefully managed, with producer livelihoods protected and animal welfare prioritised.  

A nature-friendly future

Make no mistake, a sizable transition is needed across the food system if we are to resolve the climate and nature crises. As global leaders prepare to gather for the COP26 conference, the Soil Association has been highlighting the damaging impacts associated with intensive farming, including those resulting from the production of feed crops such as soya for intensive livestock systems.

Around three million tonnes of soya are imported into the UK each year, mostly as animal feed, mostly for chickens and pigs. Roughly two-thirds of these imports derive from ecologically vulnerable areas of the Americas, and only 20-30% are certified sustainable. Soya farming is known to be contributing to deforestation and land conversion in biologically rich areas of the Amazon and Cerrado.

In a nature-friendly future, we will need to eat and farm very differently, and this will mean phasing out the intensive systems reliant on damaging soya crops. Modelling from French thinktank IDDRI suggests that an agroecological or organic farming system will require a minimum 50% decline in the consumption of poultry and pork, and a correlated decline in farm animal populations. Are such radical changes feasible, and can they be delivered in a just manner for farmers?

A just transition

The notion of a ‘just transition’ has gained traction in recent years as the scale of change demanded by the climate and nature crises has come into focus. Re-structuring the food system in response to these crises will have far-reaching consequences for farmers, workers, and communities, and the interests and needs of each must be carefully considered. While there is no single agreed vision of a ‘just transition’, we might propose that such a transition for intensive livestock should take account of the following five considerations.

  1. Complexity: recognition that changes are required not only on farm, but across the whole supply chain and throughout society. These changes must be driven by dietary change and changes in our food choices, supported by credible policy measures that shift both consumption and production in tandem.

  2. Context: acknowledgement that animals can play a valuable role in the landscape, contributing to positive social and ecological outcomes, when farmed agroecologically and as seen in organic systems. There is accordingly no one-size-fits all model and the de-intensification of production must be tailored to local realities.

  3. Trade-offs: appreciation that diet change away from intensively reared meat and dairy might not always result in positive environmental and human health outcomes. A move from intensively farmed meat to ultra-processed plant-protein products, for example, might not be desirable.

  4. Finances: an emphasis on policies that deliver a fair deal for both farmers and citizens. This will mean addressing the challenge of stranded assets on farms and across the supply chain, taking account of debt, employment, and investment, and tackling food insecurity and inequalities.

  5. Dialogue: recognition that food system transformation should be undertaken in active dialogue with stakeholders such as farmers and citizens. In the context of intensive livestock, this means engaging producers to ensure a democratic and, as far as possible, consensual transition.

There is little (or no) evidence that the government has attended to these considerations in their purported ambition of shifting farming and meat processing to a high productivity and high wage economy. Government policy is not currently supportive of a transition to agroecology, and political rhetoric remains divorced from producer realities. Farmers, citizens, and animals deserve better.

An agroecological transition

Given the scale of transformation required to move intensive production onto an agroecological footing, what would it take to deliver a ‘just transition’ for farmers? New analysis by the Soil Association maps out the transition for poultry and suggests some of the policy measures required to deliver it, exemplifying an approach that should be replicated for pigs.

The analysis is to be read as a thought experiment, rather than a detailed roadmap. It probes the headline changes in human and animal diets, trade balance, housing, and land-use that would be required. The key takeaway is that the transition is feasible. We can phase out intensive poultry within a decade, move to higher welfare systems, slower growing birds, and agroecological feed, all within existing production infrastructure. Intensive systems can be repurposed and placed on a nature-friendly footing – but only with the right policies and investments from Government.

Some of these policies are easily identified. The government, for starters, should use procurement to shift diets, while channelling public money into British and agroecological produce. Retailers should support the transition by working down the supply chain to raise welfare standards. Processors should support producers to implement the Better Chicken commitment, adopting slower growing breeds and providing birds with a better life. In addition, new animal welfare grants and the ELMS system should be tailored to support a process of de-intensification and uptake of agroecology. Tax relief or capital grants should be offered to farmers to help repurpose buildings and animal housing.

None of these policies alone will suffice, and there is no straightforward way to reconfigure either pig or poultry production systems or diets. But the climate and nature crises are set to force radical change upon us, one way or another, so we have little choice but to think big and to get moving.

Lessons learnt

Over the next year, we will be delving deeper into the question of a ‘just transition’ for intensive livestock, identifying pragmatic and political solutions that would enable a more nature-friendly, agroecological future.

We are witnessing in the pig crisis an avoidable tragedy, a disaster for farmer livelihoods and animal welfare, and a terrible waste of food and resources. The right lessons must be learnt. If our political leaders want to maintain and improve UK production, environmental and welfare standards, then agricultural and trade policy must be aligned. If a transition to nature-friendly farming is to be a ‘just transition’, then farmer and producer livelihoods need to be protected.

With the COP26 climate conference fast approaching, the scale of the challenge and the impetus to act could not be greater.