‘Are “super farms” good for the environment?’ – they are bad for animals

Posted on June 7, 2012

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Today (7th June), a long item was posted on guardian.co.uk titled ‘Are “super farms” good for the environment?’, which consists of an online debate about ‘super farms’ (huge factory farms of livestock) in the UK. Contributors to the debate include the RSPB and Compassion in World Farming, and there is some consideration of animal welfare.

‘… The NFU says that large-scale, intensive farms can help reduce the environmental impact of farming and increase food security. Is it right? Leo Hickman, with your help, investigates …

Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), has argued this weekthat the UK needs to consider building “super farms”:

The challenge of feeding everybody with the constraints of climate change and weather shocks is so great we’ll need a complete rethink.

Kendall believes that the acute shortage of farmland in the UK means that the largescale livestock farms seen in countries such as the US and Saudi Arabia – where one super dairy has a herd of 37,000 cows – should now be approved by planners.

This is about a few experimental versions, so we can see whether it lowers greenhouse gas emissions, see whether it’s welfare friendly, see what the impacts are on the environment.

But, as Juliette Jowit’s news story points out, “super farms” have their critics:

Concerns about large-scale animal farming fall into four categories: of animal welfare; of super units destroying small farms and rural communities; of farms straining soil and water resources and requiring mass transport of chemicals, generating more greenhouse gas pollution; and of such units being unsightly and emitting foul smells.

But what are your views? If quoting figures to support your points, please provide a link to the source. I will also be inviting various interested parties to join the debate, too. And later on today, I will return with my own verdict …

2.33pm: I have received this response from Compassion in World Farming:

NFU President, Peter Kendall, says that the UK will need “more and bigger ‘super farms’ (akin to US Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs) to keep food prices from rising too high and to maintain high animal welfare standards”. Demand for food will inevitably increase, but choosing meat quantity over meat quality is an ill-judged strategy to match this demand.
We set out these arguments (and more) through RAW; our new campaign to expose the true cost of factory farming – for animals, for people, for the planet.
Compassion in World Farming is deeply uncomfortable about mega farms for a range of reasons:
Our starting place is the farm animals themselves – the sheer scale of modern mega farms means that it is very hard to account for their welfare. Animals are treated as commodities and are often raised in intense confinement, with little thought paid to their needs as sentient beings.
But this isn’t just an animal welfare issue. At the heart of the problem lies the relocation of animals from farms to indoor environments. In doing so, we increase a reliance on grain-based feeds rather than pasture. In fact, over 90% of soya meal and 60% of maize (corn) and barley are grown for animal feed. Humans could eat this food but we are giving it to our farm animals instead. And unfortunately we waste much of the feed in the process as meat production is inherently inefficient – it takes around 6kg of plant protein to produce just 1kg of animal protein and for every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and milk; a 70% loss (according to the Stockholm International Water Institute).
This requirement for grain-based feeds may well mean that factory farming is driving up food prices, not reducing them. In 2011, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) stated that food prices were driven upwards in recent years, in part, by ‘longer-term economic growth in several large developing countries that (a) put upward pressure on prices for petroleum and fertilizer because of the resource-intensive nature of their economic growth and (b) led to increased demand for meat, and hence animal feed, as diets diversified.’ This upward trend in prices is making it increasingly hard for those who need it most to access vital food.
In order to produce this feed, we need to create huge swathes of cropland, often in fragile biodiverse areas, such as the Cerrado in Brazil. This can have severe repercussions for the animals and people that inhabit these regions, who often find their homes replaced with endless rows of monoculture crops. In other words, factory farms are not the efficient users of land that some might suggest – we also have to factor in the land required to produce the animal feed.
By concentrating so many animals in relatively small spaces, the concentration of waste generated is increased, with even more potential for local environmental damage. Experiences in France and the US highlight the inherent environmental risks of concentrating livestock operations. The US Environmental Protection Agency itself states that the growing scale and concentration of [CAFOs] “has contributed to negative environmental and human health impacts”.
Interestingly, Dutch agricultural minister Dr Henk Bleker sent a letter to parliament this week suggesting a maximum size restriction for farms in the Netherlands. Dr Bleker cited animal welfare, environmental and social considerations for his decision.
By eating a smaller amount of higher-quality meat (supplementing the shortfall with other more efficient foods), we can both feed the world and help to solve some of the most pressing environmental, social and economic issues of our time …

My verdict

This debate – as several commentators have noted – needs to be far more sophisticated than “big is bad/small is good”. As is so often the case, when you scale up production, improvements in input efficiencies will invariably follow. But we’re not talking about the manufacturing of cars or toasters. We’re talking about rearing sentient animals. The appalling conditions some livestock are forced to endure under intensive farming regimes have, quite rightly, long been exposed and condemned. If – and it’s a huge “if” – cast-iron guarantees can be secured concerning animal welfare, then larger farms need not be ruled out, but we need to precede very carefully, with the hand of considered, evidence-based regulation hovering close overhead. To my mind, it’s impossible to assess the environmental impacts of “super farms”, without including the implications on animal welfare in the debate, too.
There is a wider point, though, that underpins this discussion: do we really need ever more, cheaper meat? Again, as other commentators have remarked, the move towards larger scale, intensive farming is not just driven by a growing human population, but by a shift in consumer demands, too. More and more people – despite the health implications – now desire cheap meat. Do we sate that appetite by building ever bigger farms, or do we challenge that demand with education and/or alternatives? Personally, as I have said before, I would far rather see the rapid development of in vitro meat, than attempts to further intensify livestock farming. Granted, it’s not to everyone’s taste, but those who desire increasing quantities of cheap meat should not hide themselves from the environmental and welfare implications of intensive livestock farming …’

Read the item in full and add your comment online at www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/jun/07/super-farms-environment-livestock-climate

[Vegans say abandon the exploitation, abuse and slaughter of all animals, and abandon the production of all animal products.]

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