Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to bring before your Lordships once again the state of the pig farming industry in the UK. In January this year, I asked a Question about the terrible situation pig farmers were facing in my county of North Yorkshire. I now know that my concerns apply countrywide, and still nothing has changed.
Let us start with a few statistics. The National Pig Association, to which I am indebted for its excellent briefings, both written and verbal, tells me that the UK pig industry is worth £1.6 billion at the farm gate, £5 billion at retail, and around £14 billion in external sales and export values. I understand that the UK is the world’s 11th biggest pig producer, which is amazing, considering the small size of our country.
In 2020, more than 400,000 tonnes of British pork were exported around the globe to over 40 export markets, in a trade worth £655 million, so pig production, from farm to plate, is a very big and very important part of our national export market. We also rear our pigs to some of the highest welfare standards in the world, so it is no surprise that British pork is in demand across the globe.
However, the industry is suffering an unprecedented crisis. A perfect storm of labour shortages, Covid, Brexit and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has seen pig farmers lose £500 million since October 2020. Many have been losing more than £50 per pig, some have had to cull and dispose of healthy animals, and others have gone out of business altogether. A recent survey undertaken by the NPA revealed that four out of five farmers will not survive another 12 months unless their finances improve.
When the Government finally intervened in October last year, they introduced temporary measures that benefited processors, not farmers. These farmers, through no fault of their own, have borne the brunt of this crisis. It is high time that the Government gave them the direct support they desperately need.
To add insult to injury, the Government are again delaying border checks on goods moving from the EU to the UK. British producers have been subject to quite significant non-tariff costs since January 2021 because of the requirement for export health certificates and lots of other bureaucratic hurdles that British businesses have had to deal with as a direct result of our leaving the EU. This has cost them tens of millions of pounds and left them at a disadvantage. Products from the EU are still allowed to move the other way without checks, though, thus making its pork products cheaper than ours.
This “open border” approach must be an absolute gift to unscrupulous businesses that can see a way to avoid customs duties and taxes, let alone the extremely serious biosecurity problems that could well arise if we inadvertently allow African swine fever, which is now sweeping across Europe, to get here because of our lax practices and lack of checks at borders. That is a terrible prospect because, if this disease reaches our shores, animal movement will immediately be restricted and enormous culls will have to take place. This would have the same devastating effect on pig production as it did on cattle during the awful foot and mouth outbreak some 20 years ago.
Pork is a staple for many UK households. Such an outbreak would be catastrophic for an industry already reeling from labour shortages, specifically in the processing sector. Those have been brought about because of Brexit, when thousands of EU workers in the abattoirs simply went home, believing that they had no future here. They were skilled workers—skilled butchers—whose training takes around 18 months. You simply cannot fill these highly skilled jobs from the domestic workforce overnight or give them to unskilled labour. This issue should have been foreseen a few years ago when we left the EU but, sadly, nothing has been done about it—or, if it has, it is too little too late.
The Government’s temporary pork butcher visas, which were intended to bring in 800 workers, were largely ineffective. They were given only a grudging six-month visa, so very few were taken up. Can the Minister tell me how many of these ungenerous visas were taken up? Can he also tell me why the Government continue to omit skilled butchers from the shortage occupation list, ignoring the advice of the Home Office’s Migration Advisory Committee? There are still an estimated 100,000 vacancies in the industry, so what is being done now, today, to mitigate this looming disaster? Or does the Minister believe that it will be all right because we will import more low-quality, sometimes illegally traded, meat from areas where the African swine fever virus is prevalent? Where are the safety checks at our borders?
Will the Government undertake to follow the example of Scotland, where the authorities use sniffer dogs at ports of entry to detect products of animal origin? This would be a very sensible protection for all of us. The complacency with which this whole industry has been treated is breathtaking. How did we reach a point where farmers had to cull over 60,000 healthy pigs? How can farmers be expected to survive if they are losing more than £50 a pig? How many more farms must go out of business before the Government act?
We know that we must become more self-sufficient in our food production now, following the catastrophic war in Ukraine and its effect on grain prices worldwide, so this is not the way to go about reaching that goal. It might help if the Government revised how they present their annual “Total Income From Farming” statistics, taking out those parts, such as subsidies and other irrelevant income statistics, which they use to puff out their policies.
All pig farmers ask is that they be treated fairly. They continue to have a backlog of around 100,000 pigs on farms across the country and still around 200,000 pigs a week are being produced, mainly for sale to our supermarkets, so it is easy to see the problem. Like any supply chain, if there is a weak link—in this case, an inability to get pigs slaughtered in a timely way—then the remaining pigs must still be fed and cared for, and the bigger they are when they get to slaughter, the more the abattoirs want to be paid for slaughtering and butchering them because, ironically, they say that their contract with the farmer was for a certain weight of animal. It is a perfect storm indeed.
Is there a solution? Well, the producers of pigmeat want the supermarkets to pay a fair price for homegrown pork. Some have already put up their prices a little, and the industry is very grateful to them for that, but others, including some of our largest supermarkets, have done very little, despite having made massive profits during the pandemic. It is time for them to step up and help our pork industry.
Finally, the Government must play their part. The Government Food Strategy, published just this week, states that
“successful domestic production is what gives us national resilience in an uncertain world.”
It is time to see action to match these words. The entire pork supply chain, from supply to retail, needs investigating urgently so that we never see this situation arise again. We need a commitment to improve visa schemes for skilled butchers while rapidly recruiting and training people from here into the profession. Action is needed by Defra and the Home Office because nothing has changed since I asked my Question back in January.
I hope that the Minister can assure me that help is on the way so that we can continue to enjoy fantastic British pork into the future.
My Lords, I declare my interest as set out in the register, as the president of the Rural Coalition, and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for securing this important debate. I come from a farming family, so I have little time for many of the urban myths about the agricultural industry, or for the complacency behind the lack of concern about food security for us as a nation.
We have already heard allusions to grain shortages worldwide because of the war between Russia and Ukraine. It is not having a huge impact on us, as we are fairly self-sufficient, but, fortunate as our position is, the serious shortage is causing huge problems in the developing world. That illustrates how quickly matters of life and death can come about when food shortages occur. The vast majority of countries ensure that they support the production of food to give them security whenever there is a war, a pandemic or exceptional weather conditions.
When it comes to the pig industry, we are facing a crisis and the evidence has already been set out before your Lordships. Just last Sunday, I was up in far end of my diocese in north-east Hertfordshire in the little hamlet of Meesden. As we stood outside in the sun having a glass of something after the service, one of the local farmers who farmed all the land around came to talk to me about farming. When I mentioned that this debate was coming up, his comment was, “We got out of pigs years ago. There is absolutely no money in it for your average farmer.”
Perhaps more than other farming specialisation, pig producers have borne the brunt of the past two years with our departure from the EU and the Covid-19 pandemic. Pig producers’ production costs are now outstripping revenue. Farmers are reportedly making a loss of £58 per pig. In fact, collectively pig farmers have lost £500 million since October 2020. This is not sustainable. Something has to change if we are still going to have a viable pig farming industry.
One of the oddities of my life is that I have to balance all sorts of different things. This morning, I was flicking through what I have to preach on on Sunday morning at my next church, and the reading is about the Gadarene swine—2,000 pigs plunging into the sea and dying. We are looking at the destruction of healthy animals because we have problems with the supply chain. This is devastating for our world-class farmers who are doing their best to produce at very high standards good-quality pork for us.
I know it is an obvious point, but I think some people do not grasp the realities of this. When it comes to securing our future as a nation, we can put in store various pieces of manufacturing and production equipment and so on, but you cannot do that with livestock. We cannot put livestock into storage and get it out in five or 10 years’ time when there is an emergency. Once we have lost production capacity, the facilities and the skills and even the experience of the local vets and so on, it take years to rebuild the industry and get it back to where it was.
The immediate task is to sort out the backlog at abattoirs and meat processing places. There is an urgent need to recruit workers. Like many noble Lords, in the past I have paid visits to meat production plants and have been into abattoirs. Interestingly, in the last abattoir I went into, every sign was in Polish—I can see some noble Lords nodding—because the workforce was entirely from abroad. Very often they are the only people who are prepared to do these quite demanding and sometimes not very pleasant jobs. We need to offer work visas, at least in the short term, while the Government devise a strategy to balance the importation of workers with the training of the domestic workforce to fill these roles. However, the reality is that, with 1.3 million job vacancies in the UK as of April this year, the Government will have to be honest with the public and admit that sectors such as agriculture, and pig farming in particular, require economic migration simply to survive, certainly in the short and medium term and possibly in the long term.
If the predictions of the National Pig Association are correct, 80% of pig producers will not survive another 12 months. Unless the financial situation improves, direct government action will be needed, whether in the form of direct temporary financial support or the organisation of a round table for the major food retailers to ensure they support the domestic industry. But we want more than that. I know the Minister will have read the recent report from the NFU, Growing our Agri-food Exports to 2030 and Beyond. Surely this ought to become an even more major part of our exporting to the wider world.
It is incumbent on Her Majesty’s Government to steer the pig farming industry through this immediate inflationary crisis. Will Defra conduct a thorough investigation of the entire pork supply chain, from farm to retail, so that sensible short, medium and long-term policies can be devised to mitigate against the multitude of factors arrayed against this strategically important sector?
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate, whom I thank, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, my neighbour in North Yorkshire, for calling this debate. I am delighted to sit on what I think is now called the Rural Interest Group of the Church of England General Synod with the right reverend Prelate.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister, whom I welcome to his place today, is listening carefully to the tenor of this debate, because the state of the pig industry is parlous and perilous. We have heard about the loss of workers and abattoirs and post-Brexit skilled labour shortages. There is a lack of butchers and vets; I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Trees, will spell out why vets are needed in this process.
Against that background, we hear of rising costs: the large increases in the cost of fuel and wheat, and feedstuffs—a major part of a pig’s diet—going up from £150 a tonne to more than £300. There is mounting concern both for the welfare of pigs, which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, referred to, being kept on the farm for much longer—for too long—and for pig farmers, who are losing money every single week.
In preparing for today, I received a number of briefings for which I am extremely grateful, particularly from Karro, Cranswick, Pilgrim’s and the National Pig Association and its indefatigable chief executive, Dr Zoe Davies. For me, the starting point of the debate today is clearly the excellent report earlier this year from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on such food and labour shortages. I want to pay tribute to its work and in passing, on a sad note, to recognise the role of the then chairman, Neil Parish, who succeeded me as chair of the committee. Its conclusion 15 is absolutely damning:
“The evidence we have taken leaves us in no doubt about the seriousness of the issues facing the food and farming sector caused by labour shortages. These include food security, animal welfare and the mental health of those working in the sector. In contrast, the Government has not demonstrated a strong understanding of these issues, and even on occasion sought to pass the blame onto the sector on the basis of incorrect information about its own immigration system.”
It ends with a plea:
“The Government must radically shift its attitude and work together with the sector to devise solutions that speedily help address the problems it faces.”
I support the conclusions and recommendations it reached.
It is true—and I am sure my noble friend will reiterate it again today—that Defra has provided a package of measures to support the pig industry, such as temporary work visas for pork butchers, private storage aid and a slaughter incentive payment scheme, which helped to increase the number of pigs going through abattoirs, but I argue that these measures are simply not enough and do not address the problem adequately.
As my noble friend the Minister stated in the debate on Monday, repeating the Statement on the national food strategy, the food sector
“is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK—bigger than automotive and aerospace combined.”—[Official Report, 13/6/22; col. 1423.]
I argue that the pig sector is still a very large part of the food and farming sector. It has been of particular significance in North and east Yorkshire in contributing to the rural economy and employment. Sadly, that is less so since the foot and mouth outbreak of 2000 and 2001.
Prior to that, the pig sector was also dramatically affected by the decision in the late 1990s unilaterally to ban sow stalls and tethers, which meant that 50% of pig producers went out of business. More recently, there is great concern that UK standards of production may be further compromised if imports from third countries are permitted that are produced to lower standards than our own.
I reiterate the problems of the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushing up the cost of feed and energy, but I pay tribute to the potential for exports to China, which for the moment have, sadly, been temporarily shut down. I recognise and pay tribute to the earlier work of the now Foreign Secretary, the right honourable Liz Truss, who, when she was Defra Secretary of State, opened up the Chinese market to UK exports and for the first time placed an agricultural attaché in the British embassy in Beijing. Finally, it seemed that we were learning from other countries, such as Denmark, that are brilliant at marketing their produce, not least their pig produce.
At the time, I represented the Malton bacon factory, now called Karro, in the Thirsk and Malton constituency, which contains Filey. This export contract to China massively increased the exports that it was able to provide of pig parts. I kid you not: trotters and such, while British consumers do not deem them very edible, are deemed to be a delicacy and are eaten in huge numbers in China. So I put it to my noble friend that the temporary loss of that trade is keenly felt by the pig sector at this time.
I take this opportunity to ask my noble friend to consider a few urgent measures that the Government could introduce. In particular, I will look at the situation in China. That is compounded by the fact that political conflict in areas where human rights and trade disputes are foremost has resulted in plants being delisted, and we are unable to have them reapproved for export to the Chinese market. All this is massively impacting the ability of processors to pay the price that our farmers require.
Due to the red tape around exporting pig meat to Europe, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, alluded, and the lack of checks and regulation into the UK, the processing industry is facing an unfair situation into Europe, causing cheap European meat to enter the market here and further suppress the price paid for UK pigs. I hope that my noble friend will take the opportunity to look at that.
Cranswick and Pilgrim’s have also opined on this theme, saying:
“The inability to export pigs to China is having a direct impact on the number of pigs that can be processed, and therefore contributes to the remaining backlog”,
to which the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, referred. This is because carcasses exported to China require less skilled butchery, thus allowing for greater numbers to be processed through the sites even with fewer butchers available. They would also like to see the licences to China replaced, but they are very concerned that more than 100 US meat and poultry plants have been granted export licences, demonstrating that approvals are being issued elsewhere but simply not in this country. Perhaps my noble friend could explain why that is the case.
I shall end with the food strategy that was announced on Monday, about which my noble friend stated, when repeating the Statement from the House next door, that
“we are clear that we want people at home and abroad to be lining up to buy British. Our food strategy sets out our intention to consult on ensuring that the public sector sources at least 50% of food locally or produced to higher standards.”—[Official Report, 13/6/22; col. 1424.]
I agree, but how can my noble friend ensure that those contracts for tender will happen? We are banned by the GPA, saying that any public contract of over $130,000 has to be put out to tender. I hope my noble friend will take the opportunity to square that circle and put in place the other measures that others have alluded to, such as better border controls, better communication and a renewed government focus on pig farming.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for securing this debate, which I am sure is going to be very interesting and rich. I begin by expressing sympathy to the pig farmers in the UK, who have done what the supermarkets demanded of them and what decades of government policy has directed and guided. They have set up a business on a model that sees 10 million pigs in the UK raised overwhelmingly in intensive systems and fed on grains and legumes. The pig farmers have invested money and effort, they have employed and trained staff and put themselves into building up a business.
Now, however, the combination of Brexit, the labour crisis and the situation arising from the Russian attack on Ukraine, which has produced a global food security crisis with rising input prices—what is generally called agflation—sees that model suddenly and crunchingly hit the buffers. As other noble Lords have said, fully 80% of British pig farmers say they will not be able to survive the next 12 months with this current model, unless the gap between the cost of production and pig prices is significantly addressed.
It may not surprise Members of your Lordships’ House that I am going to approach this debate from a broader and more structural angle than we have yet done. Although those events are all immediate, the overall model—of intensive systems feeding animals on grains and legumes that could feed people—is facing overwhelming demands for change. There is overwhelming demand for change driven by animal welfare concerns. I agree that significant improvements have been made in the UK that have not in other places, but we are still talking about the factory farming of intelligent, sentient animals that are often compared to dogs. There are some real issues to raise if we think about how we treat our dogs and our pigs.
This change is also being driven by environmental concerns, just one factor being that about 10% of pig feed in the UK is currently imported soya, much of it linked to deforestation in South America and to human rights abuses. Here, I have to make reference to the tragic news confirming the murders of the British journalist Dom Phillips and the indigenous activist Bruno Pereira. It is also worth noting the disgraceful comments of President Bolsonaro around that. However, that framework helps to feed British pigs right now.
There is also change driven by concern about air pollution, something in the forefront of my mind as I come to the Chamber fresh from the launch this morning of my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb’s clean air Bill, which will have its Second Reading next month. Change is being driven by the public health and environmental needs to reduce meat consumption: by 30%, said the much-lauded National Food Strategy, although of course that was not followed by the much criticised government food strategy.
This debate comes a day after the release of the Sustainable Food Trust report Feeding Britain from the Ground Up. That sets out a model for at least keeping self-sufficiency at current levels, although I would say we need to go further. In this insecure, shock-ridden world we need to look at ensuring that everything we can produce ourselves, we should. The report’s model would involve the ending of intensive, grain-fed livestock production, with a 75% decline in pork and chicken production. However, I know that many Members of your Lordships’ House will be pleased to know it concludes that grass-fed beef and lamb should be the meat consumed by most consumers. Grazing cattle and sheep would be part of a mixed farming system, in which they would rotate with crops to rebuild soil fertility. Under the model proposed by the trust, production of vegetables and fruit would double and grain production would halve. The production of UK-grown pulses would double, from 0.9 million hectares to 1.9 million hectares. This would all produce a diet that is great for the nation’s health. It would protect nature, combat climate change and create opportunities for many more small, independent businesses, farmers and growers, and deliver surely one of the most important roles of government policy: food security.
The model presented by this report would see woodland cover increase by 28% to nearly 1 million hectares. A lot of that would be agroforestry, hedges and sheltered trees, but there would also be woodland patches that would be great for pigs. As the Soil Association’s advice on organic pig farming, which, of course, does not allow for any intensive production, notes:
“A pig’s natural habitat is deciduous woodland providing them with shade and nutrients from the forest floor.”
Here we are talking about a system of sharing land, using it for both the environment and food production—pork production. This model involves freeing up significant amounts of land for wild spaces, recreational spaces and carbon storage.
I suspect many noble Lords, including the Minister, would respond, “But what about the cost of living crisis?” We undoubtedly have a huge issue of food security in terms of costs. Nearly one-quarter of adults have reported that it is very difficult or difficult to pay their usual household bills. We have a society that is really struggling to put food on the table. Getting foods from farms to supermarkets pays less than ever to the farmers, yet Tesco has just announced a trebling of profits to more than £2 billion.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, that imported pigmeat presents huge issues. We have covered a number of these, so I will add only to one: antibiotic usage. UK pig producers, even under our current intensive system, have made great progress on this, with antibiotic use in the pig sector reducing by 62% from 2015, according to the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance. We do not want to import pork because of animal welfare, food security and environmental considerations. We need to grow pork here but under a different model.
As Dr Nick Palmer, the head of Compassion in World Farming, has said, transition to a new model should be managed, rather than a crash in the industry. The retailers collecting profits hand over fist at the moment should have a significant role in contributing to this. The Soil Association has produced an outline route map for a just transition for the poultry sector. It could be replicated for the pig sector, rooted in active dialogue with key stakeholders.
I will finish with a personal reflection. I do not know how many Members of your Lordships’ House have worked on the floor of an intensive pig farm, but I have. I worked at the sharp end, mucking out, picking up dead piglets and herding frightened, angry animals on to the slaughter truck. I did that in Australia 30 years ago. I acknowledge that, even now, Australia’s standards are much lower than the UK’s, which is why pigmeat was explicitly excluded from the free trade agreement. I picked up piglets that had been cannibalised by their mothers in farrowing stalls. I saw and heard the sights and sounds, and I do not believe we should be keeping pigs in any system like that.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner, as set out in the register. I welcome this very timely debate, as many of the issues relating to the problems of the pig industry are the same as those in other farming sectors. It is also timely due to the publication of the White Paper on the national food strategy.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Harris and Lady McIntosh, and the right reverend Prelate have gone through a lot of depressing statistics. I will not repeat them, other than to underline that the average loss in the first quarter of this year per pig was £58, which compares to a loss of £39 in the last quarter of 2021. The last time pig farmers had positive figures was in the third quarter of 2020. There is currently a firming of the price as production falls. It is expected to fall by another 5% in this quarter, which is also depressing. At the same time, input costs continue to rise.
Against that background, pig producers currently face multiple issues, but perhaps the most important, in terms of the ability to alleviate these problems, are as follows. The first is the lack of skilled labour, particularly butchers and others in the processing industry. The second is supply chain fairness, in that the increasing move towards integrated supply chains has put more in the hands of the processers than the independent producers. The third is the decline of local abattoirs. Fourthly, the often gold-plated regulatory base has certainly motivated the decline of small producers. Fifthly, the currently limited number of options open to farmers under the sustainable farming incentive limits other income options for pig farmers and others, as BPS is withdrawn. Finally, there is a lack of indexing against inflation on government support under the Agriculture Act, despite the length of the transition period.
Characteristically, the pig price moves according to supply and demand rather than input costs, so the industry, just like the potato industry, has always been prone to feast and famine, and we are now firmly in the latter territory. As with other farming sectors, there is no expectation of a return to subsidies. The industry needs to look to three main players for the easing of their problems: the Government, consumers and supermarkets.
I will not repeat what the Government have already done to address some of the problems, but I note the Minister’s Answer to a Written Question on 25 May, which stated that increasing costs
“are creating short term pressures on cash flow”
for farmers. I would be fascinated to hear his definition of “short term” and on what his delightful optimism is based. There is an old saying that a long-term investment is a short-term investment gone wrong. Let us hope that the Minister is correct.
The issues that still need to be addressed properly are those of labour in the abattoirs, the supply contracts and red tape. The visa scheme for butchers, introduced at the end of last year, was simply ineffective, owing to the short-term conditions. I note that, in the food strategy, an additional 10,000 visas will be issued under the seasonal worker visa route, but this does not address the abattoir problem. Please could the Minister confirm that this issue will be reviewed by the Migration Advisory Committee when it studies the shortage occupation list, or by the independent review that has been announced on the quantity and quality of the food sector workforce?
The options for encouraging consumers are more limited, although efforts to publicise the predicament of pig farmers are most valuable—I am delighted that “The Archers” is following this particular storyline. A campaign to advertise the product, particularly with the summer barbecue season under way, would be a valuable involvement by major retailers. I welcome the Government’s efforts to increase exports, with the appointment of specific trade representatives overseas, but this will take time to have an effect.
I also welcome the Government’s plan to regulate more effectively the commercial relationship between producers and processors. This has been implemented in the dairy industry, and consultation is about to happen for the pig sector, but it needs to happen in very short order to prevent this heavily pressurised sector seeing more growers going out of business.
It is worth mentioning the dreadful situation at the recent British Pig & Poultry Farming Fair at Stoneleigh, where 10 major retailers were invited by the British Free Range Egg Producers Association to a crisis summit. None turned up and few replied. Happily, in the pig sector, the major retailers have been more accommodating, but there is still a need to go further.
I note that the Groceries Code Adjudicator has said that the pressure from rising prices had impaired relationships, with more than one in four suppliers experiencing a refusal by a retailer to consider paying more for their goods or experiencing unreasonable delay in considering this request. The adjudicator himself was quoted in the Times last week giving his concern that these pressures had impaired relationships and created wider problems. Could the Minister comment on the role of the GCA when placed between the devil and the deep blue sea? How can it strengthen things from the producer point of view?
I welcome the Government’s national food strategy and their recognition of the importance of domestic food production, as well as the features of highest food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards, but we are faced with a huge dichotomy. Despite everything that is said, the overwhelming majority of consumers buy on price, not because it is British and produced to the highest standards. They might wish to, but they cannot afford to. Accordingly, the Government need to focus on removing all surplus costs and unnecessary red tape, which has often pushed the small family farm, running a few pigs or hens or whatever, out of business, resulting in more and more concentration in every farming sector. Each of these sectors is now subject to boom and bust. A small family farm is often more resilient than the big, concentrated unit with high overheads and bank borrowings. Their market is the farm gate and farm shops, where price is not the issue, as it is with the supermarkets. Failure to address these cost issues will undoubtedly lead to greater imports at lower standards.
Finally, whether the current crisis is short or long term, could the Government expedite the agriculture transition plan? There is still far too little detail for growers to make informed decisions. The full scope of the environmental land management schemes is unclear when it comes to a farmer planning a sustainable and resilient food business. Farmers have largely accepted the changes initiated by the Agriculture Act and in particular are aware that they can no longer rely on BPS cash as it is steadily phased out, but this makes it imperative that they be given the full picture on what replaces BPS. Bringing forward the current payment is welcome but, as the pot gets smaller, short-term measures like this will become less supportive, and not just pig farmers will be in trouble.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for securing this debate, and draw attention to my interests in the register.
The pig industry is not only a substantial economic part of our food industry, worth over £14 billion pounds per year, exporting over 400,000 tonnes of pork to over 40 export markets; it is also an important pillar of our food security. Currently, we are 66% self- sufficient in pigmeat. However, as we all know, various substantial challenges face the industry, which are neither caused by our pig farmers nor ones that they alone can easily surmount. They include labour for processing, low prices in the supply chain, increased costs of feed and grain, and lower-cost imports.
With respect to labour, I acknowledge Her Majesty’s Government’s relaxation of the visa requirements for butchers, which has been referred to. On prices, while it is important to keep food affordable, it is a fact that, on average, food has never been more affordable in our history. The national average expenditure on food is around 11% of disposable household income. In the UK, 50 or 60 years ago, that figure was nearer 30%. In developing countries, it is still 50%, 60% or more. I recognise that food poverty is a genuine problem, but I suggest that this relates to a fraction of our population with very low incomes. Therefore, it is a matter of financial inequality and low incomes, rather than expensive food. Our pork is not expensive: the other day, I purchased a nicely formed gammon joint for £3 in a supermarket. It was not a special offer; this was nearly a kilogram of lovely meat for £3 which provided beautiful nutritious food for five or six servings or more. Was that a fair price? In fact, the current cost of production is £2.40 per kilogram, but the standard pig price paid to producers is only £1.80 per kilogram.
If we are serious about the sustainability of UK food security and ensuring high environmental and animal welfare standards in the rearing of the animals we eat, we need to ensure that farmers are paid a fair price to cover at least the cost of production. There seems to be an irony that, while there is laudable public awareness of Fairtrade regarding food products we import from developing countries, there is not an equivalent concern to ensure fair conditions for our UK farmers. We need to value our food more. Perhaps our failure to appreciate the quality and value of our food contributes to the appalling amount of food waste. In the UK, in total, we waste around 17%—9.5 million tonnes—of food production post farm gate in households, hospitality, retail and food manufacturing. This has a value of £19 billion and is associated with 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
This issue of food cost and food waste brings me to the cost of pig feed, which, to a large extent, depends on grain—the price of which, as we all know, has risen dramatically as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I put this to the Minister: is this the time for us to revisit the issue of swill feeding? We have massive food waste with an associated high environmental cost; we have pigs, which are omnivores, yet we feed them grain, which humans could eat and which is becoming excessively expensive. As a vet, I fully understand the risks of swill feeding, and how essential it is to heat treat swill to prevent the transmission of epidemic animal diseases, such as foot and mouth. However, the heat treatment of swill is something we can control, and maybe the feeding of swill is a risk we should re-evaluate in the current situation.
This brings me to a major disease risk we are not controlling: recently, for the fourth time, the Government have delayed imposing checks on imported animal products from the EU. This has two main consequences. First, it reduces the cost of imports, which creates unfair competition for our farmers, whose exports face added costs due to checks still required. Incidentally, the absence of import checks and associated charges is estimated to have resulted in a loss to our Exchequer of £1.4 billion so far.
Secondly, and most importantly, the failure to check imported EU animal products is creating a major risk to the biosecurity of our pig population with specific regard to African swine fever—as has been mentioned by other noble Lords. African swine fever, or ASF, is a real and present danger in plain sight. It is a highly infectious disease of pigs with a high mortality rate, for which there is no treatment and, as yet, no commercial vaccine—indeed, vaccination is prohibited. Recently, Vietnam announced in collaboration with US scientists that it has developed a vaccine, but it is not yet known when that might be commercially available. Importantly, ASF also infects wild boar, which then provide a wild animal reservoir for infection to pigs.
So far in the six months of this year alone, there have been cases in Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Moldova, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine. Recently, the infection has jumped nearly 500 kilometres in Germany to close to the French border. This virus can survive for 30 days in salami and for a lot longer in Parma ham and cured products. I remember three or four years ago travelling in south-eastern France and stopping in a lay-by which was clearly a favourite picnic spot. I was somewhat intrigued and surprised to see a notice warning people not to discard their uneaten sandwiches because of the risk of infecting wild boar with ASF.
In contrast, given the number of people living and working in Britain with origins and family in Europe, there appears to be a dearth of warnings about the dangers of carrying pork products into the UK. Are Her Majesty’s Government satisfied that sufficient public information about the risks of ASF is provided to passengers coming into and out of the UK, especially for high-risk countries? Your Lordships will be aware that we have wild boar populations in the UK. Not only would the infection be catastrophic for our pigs should it reach here, but it would also be extremely difficult to eradicate due to that wild animal reservoir—just think about badgers and TB.
Failure to conduct checks on imports not only creates an unfair economic playing field for our producers but is gambling with our biosecurity. Maybe it reduces the costs of imported goods in the short term, but an epidemic of ASF in our pig population will have huge financial impacts and long-term effects on our food security which will far outweigh the marginal additional costs of proper inspections. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider urgently restoring appropriate sanitary checks on animal products from the EU?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Harris of Richmond on securing this very important debate and on her excellent and detailed speech. I also thank the National Pig Association and the House of Lords Library for their very helpful briefings.
Farming is not a profession or way of life for the faint-hearted, or those looking for an easy life. It is gruelling, has unsocial hours and is conducted mainly outside in all weathers. The beef and milk farmer knows when calves are to be born and that this will be an annual event. Similarly, the shepherd knows that in the spring, during the lambing season, there will be little sleep. Not so the pig farmer, who has no specific season, with sows producing more than one litter of pigs a year. The supply of pigs for slaughter is pretty constant throughout the year, so when there are severe shortages of staff at abattoirs it is not possible to “turn the tap off”.
Many years ago, when my children were small, we lived in a village and had an allotment on a pig farm, which was kindly provided by a friend. We grew amazing vegetables there and were able to see at first hand just what is involved in being a pig farmer. My goodness me, it was hard. The margins were small and often piglets were taken by foxes. At that time, the market was overrun with imports of Danish pork and bacon. The outbreak of foot and mouth in 2000 and 2001 added further stress. The countryside surrounding outbreaks was shut down, with minimal movement of animals. The banks were unrelenting in their approach to debts which farmers had incurred in efforts to keep their businesses going. We should not forget that farming is a business. Along with animal husbandry skills, it requires capital investment and a significant, secure cash flow. This was the last straw for our friend; he and many other pig farmers gave up under the sheer weight of the impossibility of making a living. I believe many were earning so little from their farms that they would have qualified for social security benefits had they chosen to claim.
Here we are again, some 20 years later, in a similar situation, with the pig production industry once again on its knees through no fault of the farmer. The reasons for how this has occurred are different this time. The unwarranted attack by Russia on Ukraine and the ensuing devastating war has led to a doubling in the cost of energy, fuel and feed prices—the noble Lord, Lord Trees, raised important issues about heat-treated swill feed—and there have been unprecedented labour shortages for over 18 months. Covid disruption in processing plants has led to backlogs of 100,000 pigs on farms, leading to tens of thousands of healthy pigs being culled and therefore unable to enter the food chain. Those pigs that were kept on the farm are now over their contract weight and size, meaning that the supermarkets and abattoirs are refusing to take them.
The NPA has requested supermarkets to pay a fair price for pork; most have offered support, but not enough. Waitrose and the Co-op have increased their payments to £16 million and £19 million respectively. However, Tesco—the largest supermarket chain in the country—has offered only an additional £6.6 million by August 2022.
My noble friend Lady Harris and the noble Lord, Lord Trees, have given detailed figures on the value of the pig industry both here and abroad, so I will not repeat them. Our sows are not confined in farrowing pens, and our animal welfare is second to none, making our pork sought after across the world. The average cost of pig production reached 240p per kilo in May, which was up 10p per kilo from April. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board estimates the cost of feed, energy and fuel prices in April to be 107p per kilogram, with prices increasing significantly since then. There is a widening gap between the cost of getting a pig to the contract size and weight for the market and what is being paid for the carcass. As we have heard, there is currently a £58 loss on each pig for the farmer.
There are half a million vacancies across the sector, and labour shortages are not being addressed. Other noble Lords have referred to this. There is a lack of skilled butchers in pork processing plants, with an average vacancy rate of 10% to 15%. During the protracted period of preparing for Brexit, opposition Members of this House expressed concern at the loss of skilled butchers and vets from EU countries. The uncertainty in employment prospects resulted in many returning home, leaving a significant gap in the workforce; the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has referred to the Polish workforce. British vets are trained to preserve animal life and are reluctant to oversee the humane killing of healthy animals to enter the food chain. Vets from EU countries are needed in order to carry out this work.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, referred to the damning report on labour shortages in the food and farming sector. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has noted that, while the whole industry has suffered, the impact on the pig sector has been “particularly severe”, with 35,000 pigs being culled due to a lack of butchers to process them. However, the report stresses that a reliance on overseas labour must be reduced in preference for a long-term labour strategy that grows and develops homegrown talent, combining attractive education and vocational training packages with the deployment of new technology. We would agree with this long-term strategy, but urgent action is needed now. Can the Minister now press the Secretary of State and the Home Secretary to add these vital roles to the list of those protected professions which can gain visas in order to work in the UK? Without them, the pig industry will be further disadvantaged. The level of fluency in the English language needed has also been a barrier. Surely abattoir workers do not need to have the same level of fluency as a GP or nurse might need.
The same committee in the other place estimated in January this year that 27,500 sows have gone out of production, which is around 7% of the UK female breeding herd. This is extremely worrying. At the same time, we are seeing illegal imports of pigmeat from countries where African swine fever is prevalent and spreading at an alarming rate through the wild boar population, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Trees. Can the Minister say what the Government are doing about border checks to prevent this happening?
What is needed without delay are a whole range of measures to support the pig industry. The Minister will be aware of these if he has had consultations with the NPA. The Food Resilience Industry Forum should meet at least monthly throughout 2022 and 2023, with a senior Home Office official in attendance. Powers under the Agriculture Act 2020 should be implemented to provide support for pig farmers rather than pork processors, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. Without a supply of pigs, there will be no pork processing industry. The Government’s review of fairness in the pig supply chain should be dealt with immediately, with the final report published before the end of July this year.
As referred to above, the level of English language fluency requirement should be lowered immediately to a basic user level for those skilled worker visa roles in the food and farming sector. The Government must urgently consult with the sector to establish what additional costs businesses face when applying for visas for vital overseas labour and develop an action plan to minimise bureaucratic barriers and process costs. The Government should immediately add the food and farming roles contained in the MAC’s September 2020 recommendations to the shortage occupation list.
Finally, the Government must produce a long-term strategy setting out how technology and labour will together meet the evolving needs. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, referred to the short-term measures which the Government have already introduced. What about the long-term picture? Will these measures be renewed?
The pig industry is a vital part of our rural and agricultural community. It is highly valued by consumers in this and other countries. This is the second time the industry has been on the verge of annihilation. Surely now is the time for the Government to take positive, urgent steps to support the industry through the current crisis. I look forward to the Minister’s—hopefully—positive response.
My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, as set out in the register. I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for securing this debate. As she said in her introduction, the pig industry has faced an unprecedented crisis over the last 18 months due to a combination of labour shortages and Covid disruption in processing plants. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, clearly spelt out in her introduction the challenging environment for pig farmers in good times, let alone the times we have been facing recently.
We have heard that pigs have ended up being on the farm for many more weeks than normal. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, talked about the impact of this on animal welfare and the fact that this has meant that many farmers have run out of space. We then saw the terrible situation in which over 60,000 healthy pigs ended up being culled.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans pointed out that pig farmers have really borne the brunt of the financial impacts of leaving the EU, Covid and now the war in Ukraine, which, as we have heard, has contributed to an increase in cereal prices, used in feed, of over 50%, leading to prices going through the roof. That is combined with the increased costs of fertiliser and energy. We have also heard that many pig producers will not survive unless the financial situation improves. That is why government support is so desperately needed.
The debate has also raised concerns about border checks on goods moving from the EU to the British mainland and the fact that these have been delayed yet again. This brings a disadvantage to British food producers, who are in direct competition with European farmers, so I am sure everyone who has taken part in this debate will be interested in the Minister’s response on what the Government are going to do to change this situation.
A number of noble Lords have raised concerns about biosecurity. In particular, the noble Lord, Lord Trees, went into much detail on this, and the possibility of African swine fever arriving in the UK because of the current lax approach. We have heard how it is starting to spread rapidly across Europe through wild boar populations, but also—I think more concerning for the UK—through contaminated meat products that could make their way through our security if we are not careful.
If we consider the broad thrust of the debate: what does the industry need? The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, addressed in particular the lack of labour. This is critical, so may I ask the Minister how the Government intend to address this, in both the short and long term?
Looking at the issues with feed, the RBST and the British Pig Association have put together a series of supportive initiatives, including providing guidance on alternative feeds. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about the importance of less intensive farming models—more traditional models—but the RBST and the British Pig Association are also looking at what can be done to improve bulk buying and distribution, and the importance of promoting native pork. This is something that could be done more, through the recently published food strategy. Will the Government will look at supporting, promoting and communicating these alternatives to farmers, while the traditional feed with grain is so expensive?
We know that UK farming is going through major changes as we leave the EU, and the Government are rightly providing investment to help the sector through the transition. I recognise that this is happening, but the noble Lord, Lord Trees, also talked about the importance, in this context, of food security and sustainability in the sector, and how we support farmers with this. Again, it would be good to hear from the Minister on that.
I would now like to talk briefly about abattoirs. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, both talked about abattoirs. We believe the abattoir network is just as much in need of support as farmers. It needs short-term capital investment to get itself match fit for a new, more market-facing world, in which consumers expect high welfare and environmental standards.
One of our concerns is that too many smaller abattoirs have gone. The Government maintain that there is sufficient capacity in the system but it is not just about capacity. It is also about transport costs, animal welfare issues and how small producers can access the services they need. I would appreciate a response from the Minister on this and on whether the Government will consider how they can bring smaller abattoirs back into the system.
Another thing to come out of this debate is the need for improved and increased border controls for imports, and better communications to emphasise the risk of bringing in meat products that are not being properly checked. Everything must also be done to stop illegal meat imports. We are too vulnerable at the moment to importing disease that could have catastrophic outcomes. Could the Minister outline what steps the Government are taking to stop illegal meat imports and, more broadly, to give us better biosecurity? It is important that there is a renewed focus on animal health and food safety in general.
Financial support is clearly critical as we move forward. It is good that a number of supermarkets and other retailers have stepped up, as noble Lords have talked about, announcing investment in the pig price to support producers. Will the Government encourage those who have yet to step up, to do so and support our pig producers in their pockets? The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, mentioned the importance of government support for the industry.
The other thing is the common agricultural policy. Obviously, the CAP is going but pigs were not supported directly under it. We believe that they should be supported under ELMS. First, they are a part of our native fauna, in just the same way as their wild counterparts. This point is acknowledged in the biodiversity convention and in the sustainable development goals.
Secondly, pigs have their own unique environmental impacts. They will willingly graze, browse and consume berries and fungi, and have been known to take invertebrates, all of which helps create and maintain a mosaic of bare ground, rich herb pasture and shrub layers. These behavioural characteristics and their resulting impact are almost impossible to replicate using other forms of management. Anyone who has been to Knepp Castle Estate and seen the Tamworths there will recognise the value of this. Pigs’ rooting behaviour can clear dense ground vegetation such as bracken, which can become a real nuisance, reduce the need for weed control and create seed beds for natural regeneration. Rare breeds in particular can make a strong contribution to this and should be supported. We do not want to lose this aspect of conservation. Does the Minister agree that the Government could use their powers under Section 1 of the Agriculture Act to support native pig breeds and encourage conservation in this way?
Finally, in a nutshell—perhaps I should say a pignut—the Government need to do all they can to ensure a sustainable future for British farmers. This has been an excellent debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my entry in the register.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for securing this debate and welcome the opportunity to respond on the state of the pig farming industry in England. I am very grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions to this very good debate.
Recently I was at the National Pig Awards and I was bowled over by some of the innovations, entrepreneurial activities and the animal welfare measures that pig farmers are bringing in. Many are from Yorkshire, as the proposer of this debate mentioned. It is amazing to think that a pig now produces roughly twice the amount from the same amount of inputs we had on the pig farm I grew up on. That is a recognition of the huge contribution that the pig farming industry has made at the same time as improving welfare standards. It is something to be enormously proud of. I do not diminish the problems the farmers face and I will come on to talk about that.
There are about 4.1 million pigs in England. Pig farming and pork production play an extremely important role in our domestic food supply chain. A rise in international consumer demand for high-quality pork means that there are huge opportunities for growth in British pork exports. The UK’s pig industry exported £567 million of pigmeat products in 2021.
Our pig industry has faced several challenges over the last year, including those arising from the pandemic, such as the loss of exports to the Chinese market for certain pig processors, disruption to CO2 supplies, and a temporary shortage of labour in the processing sector, all of which were well articulated by a number of speakers. This was accompanied by a 9% increase in the size of the pig herd between December 2020 and December 2021, the biggest increase in more than 20 years. We recognise that the industry is also now experiencing further difficulties following the increase in input costs, notably feed, fuel and energy, which has further impacted on farmer margins.
The combination of these initial challenges led to a significant backlog of pigs on farms, which in turn led to financial and emotional impacts on the individual farmers concerned and posed serious risks to animal welfare. I have huge sympathy for all those affected by this.
I am confused by those who say that at this time, we should be delaying the tapering of the basic payment scheme. Doing so would reward arable farmers, some of whom will see their gross margins double because of the current wheat price, whereas the pig and poultry sectors really need our help. Those who are saying, for whatever reason, that this is not the time to continue to change our farming system are missing the point.
The Government provided a package of measures in October 2021 to help address these unique circumstances. I refute those who say we did not act at speed: we acted as quickly as possible to help in these unique circumstances, including through a temporary visa scheme for butchers, private storage aid and the slaughter incentive payment scheme to facilitate an increase in the throughput of pigs through abattoirs. The PSA scheme allows processors to place pork products in frozen storage, enabling them to be safely stored and released on to the market later, while the SIP scheme encourages slaughterhouse throughput by providing a payment for any pigs slaughtered outside normal working hours. More than 740 tonnes of pigmeat has entered the PSA scheme, and close to 30,000 pigs have now been slaughtered under the SIP scheme.
Together with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and other government departments, we continue to work on expanding our existing export markets and identifying new ones for pork. In March this year, we announced the opening of a new export market to Chile worth £20 million over the first five years of trade. This follows our successfully gaining market access to Mexico for fresh pig meat in September 2021, with support from the UK Export Certification Partnership and pork-producing establishments.
Working with our British Embassy in Beijing, FCDO and DIT, we continue to press the Chinese authorities to re-list and allow exports of pork from those processors who voluntarily delisted themselves at the request of the Chinese authorities due to the Covid-19 outbreaks in the workforce back in 2020 and early 2021.
Over the past year Defra has worked closely with the pork industry to support it in clearing the backlog. My honourable friend the farming Minister, Victoria Prentis, has chaired three roundtables: two, on 10 February and 3 March, with pig industry representatives from across the UK, and one on 3 April with representatives of the wholesale and hospitality sectors, to discuss the challenges the sector is facing. As a result, processors made commitments to slaughter an extra 40,000 pigs during the period of March to May. As has been said, several retailers also committed to provide further support to the sector. Last month, Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op made public commitments to increase both their financial support to the sector and the volume of British pork products they sell.
My colleague Victoria Prentis also met representatives of the agricultural banking sector to discuss the situation in the pig sector. The banks confirmed that they are working closely with impacted pig farmers during this exceptionally challenging period and remain keen to be supportive. Furthermore, we are launching a UK-wide review—this reflects the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—of supply chain fairness in the sector. We are also engaging with industry and expect a consultation to launch shortly. We want to hear from the industry about improvements to fairness and transparency that could be made to ensure a profitable and productive future. That is addressing the medium to long-term as well as the short-term difficulties. We also continue to work with the industry to support its efforts on the recruitment and retention of domestic workers.
The combination of these measures, together with an increase in slaughter numbers in processors, means that the backlog of pigs has now been almost completely removed, with only small pockets of producers still experiencing backlogs. That is the up-to-date information, and I hope it addresses some of the concerns that have been raised today. This is good news for the sector and demonstrates our commitment to it.
There remain, however, many challenges to pig producers, not least those arising from the conflict in Ukraine and the increase in input costs. The supply chain disruption seen across the agricultural industry, particularly in the pig sector, in recent months, driven significantly by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has created challenges across this sector and the wider food and farming industry. Farmers are facing increased input costs, including for fertiliser, feed and fuel, which we recognise are creating short-term pressures on cash flow.
We are working closely with the pig industry to identify where mitigations are available to tackle these challenges. Together with the devolved Administrations, we continue to keep the market situation under review through the UK Agriculture Market Monitoring Group, which monitors UK agricultural markets including price, supply, inputs, trade and recent developments. We have also recently increased our engagement with the industry to supplement our analysis with real-time intelligence.
I want to address some of the points that have been made. I hope that I misunderstood the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, when she seemed to suggest in her introduction that pork products entering this country just come here. That could not be less true. In recent times, we have recruited an extra 180 inspectors. We are also designing a global import control scheme that will be simple, efficient and safe to use, and best suited to our own needs. We want to utilise digitalisation while also maintaining strict biosecurity controls on the highest-risk imports.
A lot of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Trees, mentioned the very serious threat of African swine fever. He is right to point out how it is progressing across Europe, often in the wild boar population. I chair a monthly biosecurity meeting and the next one will be on Tuesday, where we will hear the latest information on this issue. The Government take this very seriously. We have raised the risk profile for certain countries and undertaken exercises with the Animal and Plant Health Agency and our Border Force colleagues on how we will react to an outbreak and what we can do to mitigate it. However, the most important thing to do is stop it getting here in the first place.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, raised the issue of short-term cash flow, and he is absolutely right. It will help some pig farmers that we have brought forward the basic payment scheme by six months because they will have other farming interests, but the majority of the pig sector is unaffected by the support schemes. We want to make sure that there is more action and that they can benefit from the new, reformed farming system through all the innovation grants we are bringing in and the improvements they can bring to their processes. We can make sure that they will benefit.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator was a very welcome change brought in under the coalition Government. It is working for producers and other parts of the supply chain.
I absolutely assure the noble Lord that the pot of government support is not getting smaller. The £2.4 billion that was in the basic payment scheme will continue to be allocated to the sector.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, talked about food as a percentage of household income. He is right, but we are mindful that a great many families are suffering at the moment. There is wider support for them right across government in how we deal with that. I agree with the noble Lord about waste. We could resolve all our food supply issues if we wasted less food. I was always taken by a campaign called The Pig Idea, which involved the use of safe swill in feeding pigs. However, that might be above my pay grade.
The issue of African swine fever was also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. I assure her that we can block imports from African swine fever countries in the EU through the regionalisation agreements we have made. We want to make sure that future farming support reaches pig farmers.
I absolutely note the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, about rare breeds and I am delighted that the Berkshire breed has been saved; it was going fast towards extinction. It is just one example of the possibilities of future development here. The noble Baroness’s involvement with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust is noted.
In the last few minutes, I will again run through the vital work that we are doing. I hope that this will reassure noble Lords. We included temporary visas for skilled butchers, private storage aid, slaughter incentive payment schemes, and working with the AHDB to seek new export opportunities and an expansion of existing export markets. There were 12 specialist pig abattoirs in England in 2020 and, overall, 93 registered slaughterhouses of all sizes, commodity-specific and cross-species, that can process pigs. Yesterday, I was at Fir Farm in Gloucestershire, looking at a mobile slaughterhouse. This is an innovation that I hope the Food Standards Agency will authorise in the near future. This will be of enormous benefit to stock farmers, and it will alleviate the movements that some stock has to make.
Together with an increase of pigs slaughtered by processors and, sadly, the on-farm culling of an estimated 40,000 pigs—not the 60,000 that was allocated, but still a horrendous number—the combined impact of these measures has helped reduce the backlog of pigs on farms significantly. The size of the backlog has fallen from close to 200,000 pigs at its height to almost nothing, with the backlog now estimated to be cleared by the end of June. This is based on a combination of industry intelligence and internal Defra modelling based on February slaughter data, culling estimates and butcher arrivals. Small pockets of pigs remain backed up on farms where there are specific challenges.
A mention was made of the temporary visa scheme. Due to Covid, many of the butchers did not start to arrive in the UK until February or March 2022, but their arrival has enabled processors to increase the throughput of pigs. The private storage aid scheme closed to new applications on 31 March. Under the scheme, 745 tonnes of deboned pigmeat have been placed in frozen storage, which has been of great benefit.
I will write to any noble Lords whose points I have not been able to answer. We acknowledge the important role that the pig farming industry plays in our domestic food supply chain, and the challenges that it has faced over the last year and continues to face as a result of the war in Ukraine. We will continue to work with and support the industry to ensure its long-term future.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, especially on biosecurity, although I did not quite catch all that he said a moment ago when talking about the highest risk imports and border checks, which he says are adequate; we will see.
I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this very interesting debate and who have supported my concerns about the pig farming industry. My noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, have neatly summed up the contributions of your Lordships, so I will not repeat them. I look forward to continuing discussions on this important subject in the future.