Win, lose or draw. . .

Helen Browning - 06 June 2011

I’m speaking at the Women’s Institute AGM on Wednesday, in support of the motion: “This meeting abhors the practice of factory farming particularly large animals such as pigs and cows, and urges HM government to ensure planning permission is not granted for such projects.” So I spent the weekend polishing my speech, and reflecting on the issues raised by the motion. Speaking to the WI is both exciting and a little nerve-racking, and win lose or draw on the motion, I’m looking forward to the experience.

I’ll save the speech for the audience on Wednesday, but one thing that I’m certain of is that this motion isn’t about organic versus non-organic farming – that’s not the issue at all. It’s more about scale, the appropriateness of scale, and the impact of these proposed ‘mega’ units on the wider environment and community.

Many non-organic farmers and groups (including the Environment Agency) have concerns about these really large-scale animal production units. And we need to ensure that we’re clear on the future direction for farming they imply, and avoid sleep-walking into a situation that neither the public nor most farmers want. This means an open debate about how we grow our food, what we eat, and how we ensure a fair outcome for all, now and in the future. A conversation we all need to be part of, hopefully.

Helen Browning is the Soil Association's Chief Executive, and also is an organic farmer - she runs a 1,350 acre organic livestock and arable farm in Wiltshire. Her sausages and bacon can be found in the supermarkets, and her versatile team also run the village pub! Previously Director of External Affairs at the National Trust, Helen is also chair of the Food Ethics Council and was awarded an OBE in 1998 for services to organic farming.

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David Alvis
09 June 2011 12:05

Thankfully the WI had the good sense to recognise a 'stitch up' when they saw one coming and didn't dignify this ill-conceived and poorly researched motion with a vote. As many of the previous replies have alluded, the argument that large scale intensive agriculture and animal welfare / environmental sustainability are mutually exclusive simply doesn't stand up to any form of evidence based, scientific scrutiny....but obfuscation and denial of proven science has for too long been the stock in trade of the Soil Association. It has been a constant source of bewilderment to me why the professionalism of many Organic producers has not been not matched by their representative body, whose perpetual sniping and criticism of large scale conventional farming is neither constructive nor justified. Helen Browning's appointment as director was seen by many, myself included, as a sign that there might be a long overdue reconciliation of the organic and conventional farming sectors but unfortunately that would not seem to be the case.Ms Browning has previously highlighted the need for diversity of systems within UK farming, but it is increasingly apparent that what is meant by this is diversity on the rather myopic terms of the organisation she represents. At a time when we face significant global issues of food security, population growth and depletion of the earths natural resources, it is clear that we need to embrace genuinely innovative, efficient and well regulated food production methods rather than allow ourselves to be distracted by the self-indulgent whimsy of 'small is beautiful'

David Griffiths
08 June 2011 18:28

When talking dairy farming the term "factory farming," must surely refer to Nocton type farms. I also think that there is a lot more to this than animal welfare, that is only a small part of the argument there are so many other issues such as impact on the environment, spread of disease, antibiotic resistance plus housing large numbers of cows requires so much energy, diesel to grow and bring food to them as well as take slurry away. wheras a herd that grazes uses much less power as cows harvest their own food and spread their own muck. also the land will only require ploughing to reseed once every few years not every year for a new crop. this saves huge amount of fuel as well as the carbon released when a field is ploughed. I cant see how large farms so that are so big cows must be housed all year round are more efficient surely they are less efficient!

Sian Bushell
08 June 2011 15:59

Be careful about this one as the resolution is very vague on 'factory farming' and scale. Is a 1000 cow herd on a grass-based system factory farming. I don't think so but this needs to be clarified

Ben Foote
08 June 2011 14:31

I completely agree with the previous comment. We have a family dairy farm that I and many others would consider small (below national average), and having gone to college to study specifically dairy herd management made me compare what we were doing at home with what others were achieving using different methods. The conclusions I came to were that to be commercially viable in dairy farming you have to look after the cows as best as possible, something we are only just turning around at home by implementing practices used by much larger farms. It is pleasing to see that the farmers weekly "dairy farmer of the year" award was given to a large dairy farmer (1000 cows) and he is absolutely pioneering animal welfare and how important it is for the survival of his business- I dont think he would last very long or would even have got to a large number of cows without it.

Clwyd Jones
07 June 2011 11:39

Surely the issue here is not about scale but intensity. Animal welfare standards are enshrined in UK law. As the law presently stands, the Nocton dairy proposals for example are perfectly legal on animal welfare grounds. If people are saying that the likes of Nocton's standards are bad, them it is the law that is bad. To my mind scale refers to the size of the business, and not necessarily livestock density. You could have a large scale unit that has 5,000 dairy cows that is not intensive in terms of animal welfare, and you could have a farm that keeps 50 dairy cows where animals are kept in crowded conditions under minimum welfare standards. Campaign for higher animal welfare standards and changes to the law by all means, but small is not necessarily beautiful, and big is not necessarily bad, but the message that the public seem to be getting is that big is bad. Personally I would be a lot more worried about the welfare of animals whose products we are importing than I would be about UK sourced products. Do we really want to drive more of our food production to foreign countries ??

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