Agriculture needs to produce more food from less. Are ‘mega’ farms the answer, asks Becky Hothersall.

Becky Hothersall

I research the health and welfare of chickens reared for meat, but last year I spent six weeks working with BBC Countryfile as part of the British Science Association’s Media Fellowship scheme for research scientists. At the BBC I had the chance to act as researcher and scientific adviser for a feature looking at the rise of huge indoor ‘mega’ dairies and pig farms in the United States.

The mega farm debate is highly polarised. I heard equally passionate arguments that mega farms pollute the environment and destroy rural communities, and from others who believe that they’re the only viable way to keep meat and dairy products affordable back here in Britain.

Estimates vary, but population growth predicts that we will need around a 40% increase in global food production by 2030. UK Government food policy supports ‘sustainable intensification’, which means increasing farm production per hectare without compromising the environment or the wellbeing of farmed animals.

Intensifying livestock farming has already shown a phenomenal capacity to raise yields. In 1990 the average UK dairy cow produced 5151 liters of milk. In 2010-11 it was 7,406 liters – nearly half as much again.

We’re used to the idea of chicken farms housing tens of thousands of birds for eggs or meat, but British people seem less comfortable with large scale dairies and pig farms. Proposals for an 8000 cow dairy at Nocton in Lincolnshire met with considerable opposition before they were (scaled back and finally) withdrawn in February 2011. Midland Pig Producers’ plans for a 2500 sow pig farm in Derbyshire are the target of the Soil Association’s ‘Not in my Banger’ campaign, launched in January  2011.

For and against

Those in favour of scaling up argue that it makes everything cheaper per animal and so more efficient. Moreover, if producers can then afford to invest in the latest technology or equipment, or employ specialist staff, higher standards of animal care and disease prevention should follow. There can be environmental trade-offs too: housing large numbers of pigs or cattle indoors makes it easier to collect slurry for use as fertiliser or to install an anaerobic digester and turn it into energy.

Some opponents worry about a decline in small farms: rising UK milk yields over the past decade were accompanied by expanding herd sizes and a drop in both the total number of dairy farms and of cows. Others fear that housing many animals so densely creates a disease risk or restricts their normal behaviour to an unacceptable degree. Big farms sometimes claim to have a smaller carbon footprint but it’s not clear how such claims factor in things the public pay for. These could include the environmental costs of pollution incidents, or government-funded infrastructure such as programmes in America that supplied arid areas with water and allowed dairy farming to expand into the west coast.

Ultimately, it’s not easy to add up the costs and benefits. Every farm is different and animal welfare, economics and environmental costs and benefits can’t even be measured in the same currency.

Reality check

Recent proposals like Nocton and Foston have attracted attention because of their scale, but many of the considerations are not unique to mega farms. It is true that very high yielding dairy cows have been bred to put so much of their energy into milk production that their health, fertility and even lifespan have been affected. But these specialist breeds are used in many small farms too – intensive farms are not necessarily large, and vice versa.

And are mega farms really so different from what we already have? In 2008, over two-thirds of fattening pigs raised for meat in the UK were produced on units housing 1000 animals or more. When does medium become big? When does big become too big?

People often struggle to define exactly what it is about very large scale farms that makes them uneasy. Many have an instinctive resistance to animals being kept indoors. The majority seem unaware that British weather means that almost all of our dairy cows are housed indoors for around six months of the year anyway.

Perhaps the truth is that people’s fears about the future of farming are really a reflection that their lives are quite distanced from its present. And when we do get closer to reality, the choices get even tougher.

However much we value the idea of cows in wide open fields or pigs rooting around in the mud, beliefs and behaviour at the supermarket don’t always tally. If the price goes too high, most shoppers will go for the cheaper option. That can sometimes mean a backward step to imports from countries with less stringent standards.

 The conversations I had during my research for Countryfile made me realise that there is something all sides agree on: whatever its size or production system, each farm is only as good as its staff. Unless there is a massive change in consumers’ habits, there is an argument that animals, the environment and customers’ wallets might all benefit if we focus less on the type of farm and more on demanding – and supporting – rigorous standards from all UK farmers.

About Becky Hothersall

Dr Becky Hothersall is a post-doctoral researcher in the Animal Welfare and Behaviour Group at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences. Her research uses behavioural and cognitive approaches to try to understand subjective experiences like pain and hunger in other species. Becky is particularly interested in how animal welfare can be integrated into the wider sustainability agenda within farming.

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