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House of Commons Hansard
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Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
12 November 2018
Volume 649

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

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In the unimaginable scenario that Members do not wish to listen to the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) proceed with his Adjournment debate, I trust that colleagues will leave the Chamber quickly and quietly, giving the hon. Gentleman the chance to be heard and to hear himself. [Interruption.] Yes, Mr Cowan, we are deeply grateful to you.

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I thank the Members staying for my Adjournment debate this evening at the early hour of 11 pm.

For those of us who like to be clear about definitions, I should start by making it clear that my Adjournment debate today is on intensive farming operations in the United Kingdom. I say this because concentrated animal feeding operations has a legal definition that is used in the United States but is also relevant to this debate. In the United States, concentrated animal feeding operations describe farms over a certain size that farm animals in extreme confinement. We do not have an equivalent definition in the United Kingdom, but we do have intensive farming of animals, which is defined by the Environment Agency as a farm housing at least 40,000 birds or 2,000 pigs. This form of intensive farming has increased in the UK by a quarter in the six years running up to 2017.

As reported in The Guardian newspaper, a recent investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that we now have a large number of intensive farming operations in the UK, many of which would meet the definition of concentrated animal feeding operations used in the United States. These so called megafarms have at least 125,000 birds for meat, or 82,000 birds for eggs, 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy cattle or 1,000 beef cattle. We now have 789 megafarms in the UK, according to that investigation.

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We know that there are many more megafarms in the United States. Does my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour share my concern that if we open our markets to lower-standard imports from the US post Brexit, our farmers will feel that they have no choice but to move to megafarming in order to compete on price?

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I agree entirely. I do not think British consumers will accept that position, not least because they enjoy the high-quality standards that we expect of many of our food producers in the UK. If that is exerting a pressure on home-grown produce, they will not accept it either.

Seven of the 10 largest poultry farms in this country already have a capacity to house more than 1 million birds, with the biggest farm holding up to 23,000 pigs and the largest cattle farm 3,000 cattle. These are all numbers, but to give an example to the House, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism study showed that a megafarm in Herefordshire had four 110-metre by 20-metre industrial warehouses, each with 42,000 chickens in them. There were so many chickens in these warehouses that the journalists could not see the floor. These chickens live for only a short period, and the process is repeated up to eight times each year, so that is a turnover of over 1 million birds every year in these confined settings.

These conditions are bad for animals and bad for our food. Confinement can lead to the stress-related death of animals; self-mutilation of animals due to mental health conditions; ulcerated feet, breast blisters and hock burns due to ammonia-filled litter; sudden death syndrome from unnaturally quick growth; foot and leg damage from slated or concrete floors; and in the case of lots of dairy cows, bacterial infection, mastitis, anaemia, stomach ulcers and chronic diarrhoea. These are not things consumers wish to have associated with the food they eat. As a consequence, I will be writing to Tesco, Sainsbury, the Co-operative, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Asda, McDonald’s and Nando’s, all of which, I am told, buy the products I am talking about for their customers.

These stressful, illness-inducing environments also lead to the excessive use of antibiotics in animal feed and water to try to limit the risk of disease from intensive farming settings. According to Compassion in World Farming, there is strong evidence that the overuse of antibiotics in animals is contributing to the antibiotic resistance we are now seeing in human medicine—something this country is, thankfully, working hard to try to prevent.

To make matters worse, these extreme farming conditions can lead animals to become stressed. Again, that is bad for food, but it is also bad for animals. I am told that stress-induced aggressive animal behaviours have led to chickens being de-beaked, which involves a hot blade cutting through a bird’s beak, bone and soft tissue. Chicken toes are also removed to discourage fighting, and the tails of pigs and cows are removed to prevent tail biting. Again, these are conditions I am sure many British consumers would not want associated with the food on their plates.

However, this is not just about the quality of food or the quality of animal welfare; it is also about the environment and our efforts at tackling climate change. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report said we have 12 years to limit post-industrial levels of world temperature growth to 1.5° C—the subject of a separate debate I will be leading at 9.30 tomorrow morning in Westminster Hall.

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The hon. Gentleman and I might have a slightly different opinion on this matter. I declare an interest as a landowner, and I live on a farm on the Ards peninsula in my constituency. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs—the Department responsible in Northern Ireland—has stated that there is no problem with the scale of concentrated animal feeding operations in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that farmers—my neighbours—husband and care for their birds and animals, with all their focus on welfare and quality of life? A healthy animal and bird is what the market demands and what the market receives.

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman that farmers, I am sure, do the best they can for their businesses, their livestock and their customers, but we need to create an environment in which we support sustainable farming, not over-farming, as we have seen in these concentrated environments. I understand that the highest increase in concentrated farming in the country has been in Northern Ireland.

The IPCC is about climate change and carbon emissions. Megafarms might in theory, but not always in practice, reduce the amount of space needed for animals, but those animals still need to be fed, which means an ever-increasing amount of animal food for an ever-increasing number of animals farmed. That has resulted in huge amounts of land being used to grow animal food, often with the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Reducing or eliminating industrial farming has been shown to be a significant way to reduce our overall carbon emissions.

I should declare, of course, that I am a vegan. I became a vegan primarily because of those environmental concerns. I was persuaded, in fact, by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). I was also persuaded because of the animal welfare and health concerns associated with this environment. Veganism is something that more and more people are taking up, which is why you, Mr Speaker, will see vegan options becoming more popular in service stations, supermarkets and restaurants across the country—and, indeed, in the parliamentary restaurants this week.

However, this Adjournment debate is not happening just because I am interested. I am grateful to the House of Commons digital outreach team, who trailed this debate on our House Facebook page. Over 5,000 members of the public have been engaged, with many kindly giving me their feedback. Kara and Lisa made the point that information should be required on food labelling and that they would like to know if the animal products they are buying come from intensive farming settings, so that they can decide whether to buy them.

Clare and Kareen were two of many voices that said that animal welfare was a key concern that directs their shopping decisions. Some say they cannot always afford to buy higher quality meat, so they eat less meat or eat alternatives as a consequence. Caroline, Kelly and Leanne say they buy only organic or free-range meat for their families as a consequence.

I fully appreciate that it is not the role of Government to tell people what to eat, but if we can agree to public health campaigns for eating five fruit and veg a day, or agree to a sugar tax because of the public health consequences, then it is right that we should be having this debate and deciding what kind of action we can take for public health, animal welfare, and the pressing and urgent requirement to reduce our carbon emissions more dramatically in the years ahead.

I hope the Minister in his summing up today will touch on the following points. What policy are the Government pursuing to reduce or prevent intensive farming in the United Kingdom, including working with agri-tech companies that can stimulate innovation for new methods of farming, whether high-rise farming or the production of meat products in the kitchen laboratory as opposed to the farm? What work is the Minister’s Department undertaking with colleagues across Government to change food and farming policy to help to meet our climate change objectives? Following a recent consultation on antibiotic use in farming, what measures will the Government take to prevent antibiotic resistance in animals and the indirect consequences for human health?

Will the Government consider new regulations on food labelling to make it easier for consumers to understand the quality and source of their food products? How will the Government commit to maintaining and hopefully enhancing EU-derived legislation through the Brexit process? Finally, what assurances can the Government give the House tonight that under no circumstances, further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East, will they agree to international trade deals, such as with the United States, that permit the import of food products from intensive farming settings from across the world?

I apologise to the Minister. I had hoped to print off that ream of questions to give to him in advance of the debate, but sadly I was unable to do so. I am sure that if he is unable to answer them all this evening we can correspond with reference to Hansard in the coming days.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on securing this debate on the scale of concentrated animal feeding operations. He made a number of very important points, which I know he makes from a heartfelt perspective and as a matter of principle.

This is an important debate and I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about moving towards more industrial-scale farming. I would like to focus on some concerns that have been raised with regard to beef farming in the context of what he said. It is important to recognise that while we need to manage animal welfare to high standards, we need to recognise the contribution that these various sectors, whether beef, poultry or pork, make not just to food production but to rural economies. I think there is a balance to be struck.

It is worth highlighting from the start that we have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. Our consumers are right to expect that their food is produced to those high quality standards. All operational livestock farms, for example, comply with comprehensive UK welfare legislation. That legislation—I am talking specifically about beef here—applies equally to all livestock farms, regardless of scale or system of production. There is also a specific statutory cattle welfare code, which provides guidance to cattle producers on how to comply with legislation. That is true for other types of farming which the hon. Gentleman touched on in his remarks.

As long as the relevant welfare standards are met, we recognise that the UK market has a place for different production methods. These will collectively enable the industry to be competitive and thrive in the UK, EU and global markets. I can understand the concern about the reports of very large stock units. However, big does not necessarily always mean bad with regard to animal welfare. Indeed, an article in The Guardian on this subject stated that most

“intensive beef farms appear to operate to high welfare standards”.

I can confirm that the Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Government’s expert committee, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, visited this system type and no welfare concerns were raised, including in relation to shelter, stock densities and the legal requirement to have access to a well-drained lying area. These approaches apply to other areas of farming, too.

The key point to highlight is that poor welfare may occur in both intensive and extensive systems. Stockmanship and the correct application of husbandry standards, whatever the system of production, is the key to ensuring good welfare for all farmed animals. We have a strong track record of raising the bar for welfare standards, such as banning battery cages for laying hens, sow stalls and veal crates.

While the UK already has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, we are considering what more can be done in the context of our future agricultural policy. The response to the “Health and Harmony” consultation reinforced the view that high standards of animal welfare are a priority for the public. We will maintain our high regulatory baseline and look to raise standards sustainably over time as new research and evidence emerges.

In addition, as set out in the Agriculture Bill, we will develop publicly funded schemes for farmers to deliver animal welfare enhancements beyond the high regulatory baseline already in place that are not sufficiently provided by the market. We are working with sector groups, retailers, welfare organisations and the Farm Animal Welfare Committee to define a range of enhanced standards. We are examining the role that farm assurance schemes can play in delivering these payments. There are important vehicles ahead that will enable us to address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman discussed. We are already acting to improve the welfare of livestock through, for example, making CCTV mandatory in slaughterhouses, increasing the maximum sentences for animal cruelty to five years, and working to restrict exports of live animals for slaughter once we leave the EU.

I understand that there are concerns that US-style livestock farming will come to the UK, but I reassure Members that EU exit will not result in a move towards US-style agribusiness in the UK, with animal welfare and environmental standards being eroded. The Government are committed to maintaining and, where possible, improving current standards. US-style livestock farming is not what we want and will not happen here.

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Will the Minister confirm that the enhanced regulations that he has referred to for UK farming will have extraterritorial effect, meaning that we will not import food products into the UK that do not meet the standards that we expect of British farmers?

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I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on the detail of that, but I assure him that we have no desire at all to water down our standards. Talk of importing hormone-treated beef or chlorinated chicken is not where we want to go and it will not be contemplated in any of the trade deals that we have going forward. If he wants to explore that in more detail, I will gladly get into that level of detail.

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I appreciate that the Minister is not the farming Minister, but when we tried to introduce a non-regression clause in the Trade Bill, we were told that it was not the place for it. We are now trying to introduce it in the Agriculture Bill, and we are being told that the place for it is the Trade Bill. We need something enshrined in legislation, rather than just the warm words of Ministers, to say that we will not accept imports with lower standards than those required from our farmers in the UK. Does the Minister agree?

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As I said, I will come back on those technical points, but there is no attempt or desire across whichever piece of legislation to water down standards. I have been very clear on that in other debates and I am very clear on it here as well. I will come back to the hon. Members on the points that they have raised.

Other points were raised about labelling and marketing terms. We will look at ways in which we can ensure that consumers have a clearer understanding of the animal welfare standards applying to products. Terms such as “free range” for poultry and eggs are already enshrined in law, but other such as “pasture-fed” or “outdoor-reared” rely on voluntary agreements for their use. It is important that consumers have complete confidence in the way that these terms are used and that their use is clear and consistent. We will therefore review, after we leave the EU, the use of these terms to build consumer knowledge and confidence in these terms and concepts. Leaving the EU gives us an opportunity to shape the future of our farming industry and to help our farmers to grow and sell more world-class food, but as I have said, we will not compromise on the high animal welfare or environmental standards, and we will always protect our proud and varied farming traditions.

The hon. Member for Bristol North West made an important point about antimicrobial resistance. Another example of the UK agriculture sector’s responsible approach to food production is its recent concerted efforts and action against the globally recognised threat of antimicrobial resistance. Last month, the Government published a report showing a reduction for the fourth year in a row in the sales of veterinary antibiotics. This has brought us to a 40% reduction in veterinary antibiotic sales over the course of the UK five-year antimicrobial resistance strategy, with levels now the lowest that we have seen since we started recording them in the early 1990s, so real progress is being made there.

Behind this success, lies close, collaborative working between the Government and the livestock sector, including the beef sector, which has developed and published targets for the reduction, refinement and replacement of antibiotics. These targets apply across the whole sector in farms of all sizes. With all that we have achieved, we want to make sure we continue to have a world-leading beef sector going forward with the right welfare standards in place, and that applies to other sectors as well.

We heard talk also of the agri-tech strategy in the years ahead. Research, development and technological innovation are key if we are to compete globally. By pioneering the use of more innovative and efficient farming techniques, we can also use our resources more sustainably and reduce the environmental impact. For example, the Centre of Innovation Excellence in Livestock, established under the 2013 agri-tech strategy, aims to support, promote and deliver industry-led innovative livestock research, a key asset being its beef grazing systems unit, which assesses feed efficiency and productivity at pasture. Our future research and development proposals will build on existing investments to enable greater take-up of innovation on farms.

We are a proud trading nation. We have talked about trade, but I want to reiterate for the record where we stand. The UK enjoys food from diverse sources of supply as well as our strong domestic production industry. There is no reason to believe that other third countries cannot meet our high standards, and this will be a condition for any market access granted as part of future trade agreements. The Government have been clear that any future trade agreements must work for consumers, farmers and businesses in the UK. I want to be clear that we will not water down our standards on food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection as part of any future trade deals.

Future reform is critical. We need to take the opportunity that being outside of the common agricultural policy will give us to use public money to reward environmentally responsible land use. We know that good environmental practice, high standards of animal welfare and profitable business strategies are not mutually exclusive. We believe they run hand in hand. We will work to ensure that UK agriculture prospers for future generations by designing an approach that works for our farmers and that high environmental and animal welfare standards are a badge of quality.

The UK produces some of the best quality food in the world, and that is the basis on which we intend to sell our produce at home and abroad, promoting and enhancing the reputation of British food and drink through the Food is GREAT campaign. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to redesign our policies to ensure our agricultural industry is competitive, productive and profitable and that our environment is improved for future generations, while at the same time working to improve animal welfare, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted in his remarks.

We are working closely with the industry and the public to drive agricultural and environment policies. We are rightly proud of the high animal welfare standards that underpin our high-quality British produce, and we will not only maintain but work to enhance these standards through our future policy framework. Once again, I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate on such a vital subject and for conducting it in such a considered way. I look forward to working with him through correspondence and future debates—no doubt—on this vital subject.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.