Our society is showered with images of happy animals grazing on sunny green fields, and chickens chasing each other across the barn. But these images are a far cry from reality in times when the farming industry is more concerned about making a profit than securing a fair life for its main source of income.
The real picture can look rather grim: social deprivation in unsanitary confines and the prohibition of any free movement, coupled with hormone treatment to encourage over-production and mutilations of beaks and tails, are more representative of the dreariest of farming methods, US style mass factory farming.
Proposals for intensive farms have sprung up across Britain over the last two years but public resistance is strong and welfare organisations are doing all they can to resist a cave-in of the British farming system.
In Nocton for instance, a proposal for a mega dairy farm housing up to 4000 cows was rejected earlier this year on the grounds of environmental risks, while a proposal for a pig farm near Foston housing up to 25.000 pigs, had to be pulled back and re-submitted to the authorities. Further plans for the re-introduction of rabbit battery farms to the UK were withdrawn in April 2011, following heavy public opposition.
Midlands Pig Producers, developers of Foston pig farm, said that public demand and trading competition were the reasons for having to expand business.
But Peter Melchett, policy director at Soil Association, an organisation promoting organic food, waved the argument off: “Developers claim they’re meeting public demand, but it’s wrong to say the British public are demanding that cows must be kept inside throughout the months they are milked, or that 2,500 mother pigs should spend their entire lives shut up inside a factory. These huge factory farms could herald a new phase in the way British farmers keep animals, opening the floodgates to similar developments and changing our farming landscape forever.”
Although the UK is yet to introduce a fully fleshed US-style farming system, a great majority of the 200 milion UK farm animals are already reared in ways“in which the animals are regarded as units of production rather than sentient beings”,according to Dr Jacky Turner, senior research officer at Compassion in World Farming, a leading organisation promoting the welfare of farm animals.Over 14 million laying hens for example, are currently housed in battery farms.
Justin Kerswell, campaigns manager at Viva!, an organisation promoting animal rights, warned that should we be following America into massive zero-grazing units “where cows are merely a cog in a giant machine,” we could also be attracting the common side-effect of heavy pollution.
He said: “As we have seen in America, large scale factory farms have the potential to be massive polluters – from slurry lakes to ammonia output. In the end, the more animals gathered together the worse as far as risk goes.”
He also warned of a potentially rapid spread of diseases: “What we are doing is forcing animals into stressful and unnatural environments. Just like us, animals are susceptible to disease when stressed and overcrowding can spread disease quickly.”
Typically, mass-farmed animals are given antibiotics to prevent the acute problem of the spread of diseases. This however, can result in the creation of antibiotics-resistant bacteria, such as salmonella, and have dire consequences for public health, said Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming: “Cutting corners about the way we treat livestock has already thrown up public health threats such as Mad Cow Disease or high pathogenic avian influenza for example, which jumped the species barrier and threatened the lives of people. These have been the products of intensification so we can see that factory farming does threaten public health.”
In his bid to stop factory farming operations world-wide by 2050, Mr Lymbery suggests a viable alternative to the intensive method. For him, sustainable farming is the way forward: “Our vision is of a humane and sustainable way of producing food that looks after the welfare of the animals, and ensures that everyone can be fed well, and fairly – not just in this country but across the world. “Factory farming cannot and does not achieve that. Factory farming uses a huge amount of resources at great cost, wastes a lot of food, and actually drives up food prices worldwide to the disbenefit of the poorest people in developing countries.”
A sustainable bio-dynamic approach is what Kent farmer Michael Duveen has practiced on his 100-acre farm for years. Defying the ideology that bigger is better, Mr Duveen keeps a small variety of different animals that together, produce all the fertility for the crops on the farm. The crops in turn, are eaten by the animals and the surplus he sells locally.
For him, the complete industrialisation of the farming industry is the wrong way to go forward: “The idea of the political class is that producing on a large scale is the only way in which we are going to feed the growing population of the world. I personally think they are completely wrong about that.
“I’ve been working for 40 years on a specific small scale type of farming because I believe that it’s part of a local social network. I think that people need to think globally but they need to act locally. That means they need to start by concentrating on their own communities because really that’s where the basis of your livelyhood is.
“It just strikes me that eventually, because of the way we are going, we will run out of various world resources which will allow agri-business to go out of functioning in the way it is. And at that point things will start to change.”