Saturday, 16 June 2012

the problem with super farms

There was an interesting article in The Guardian on the 5th of June. Super farms are needed in UK, says leader of National Farmers Union Britain urged to ape countries such as the US and Saudi Arabia and build farms housing tens of thousands of cows or pigs.

 The article states that concerns about large-scale animal farming fall into four categories
  1. animal welfare
  2. super units destroying small farms and rural communities
  3. farms straining soil and water resources and requiring mass transport of chemicals, generating more greenhouse gas pollution
  4. such units being unsightly and emitting foul smells
I am concerned with these four things too, but there is something of even greater concern to me. That is that these super farms are a wasteful use of agricultural resources. It might seem like a good idea if British farmers produced more home-grown pork. Currently Britain is 40% self-sufficient in pork. However, for every kilo of pork we produce in Britain, we would need to import several kilos of maize and soya from across the Atlantic.

There are a billion pigs on the planet, compared to 7 billion people, and pigs are fed on a high calorie and high protein diet consisting mostly of maize and soya. These two crops are grown in vast quantitities in America (where they are subsidised), Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. If we had more pigs in Britain we would need to have more ships crossing the Atlantic full of maize and soya. That is not what I call self sufficiency.

It would be much better if the global population of pigs and chickens was cut to, let's say, 10% of what it is today. That would enable us to do three things.

  1. It would free up vast quantities of maize and soya for human consumption. Maize and soya can be made very palatable; people have been eating them in different forms for thousands of years.
  2. We would be able to grow other grains and other pulses because we wouldn't need so much land for maize and soya.
  3. We could have a less intensive form of agriculture that protects topsoil better and requires fewer expensive agricultural inputs such as high nitrogen fertilizer. One simple way of putting the problem is that we have so many farm animals we have to farm them more intensively than we would want, and they eat so much food that we have to grow crops more intensively than we would want.
Another way of putting it is that factory farming is a way of converting a large amount of healthy food (maize, soya, wheat, barley) into a smaller amount of unhealthy food (meat and cheese), and making it more expensive. If you think of a factory farm as a system with inputs and outputs, you get out of it fewer calories and less protein than what you put in. Meat can never be cheap protein, it is soya that is the cheap protein, and we are wasting it.

Of course, people will say that not everybody wants to eat soya. We have to make our minds up what it is that we are trying to achieve. If we don't we will achieve nothing. What is totally unacceptable is for people to say we need GM to 'feed the world', and when we suggest perfectly practical methods of feeding the world (unlike GM which is pie in the sky), the priorities suddenly switch.

One argument that I heard went something like this. Anchovies are caught in vast numbers (overfished in fact) and used to feed farmed salmon. The obvious thing is for people to eat more anchovies and less farmed salmon. That is a practical method of feeding the world that we could start putting into practice right now. But what was the response? I like to have anchovy of my pizza but I am unable to persuade my family likewise, so why not give people what they want?

We can't pretend that our priority is the needs of the poor when really our priority is the whims of the affluent. There are reasons why affluent people tend to want to eat lots of meat, cheese and farmed salmon. It's partly do do with fashion, possibly what Delia said last night on the telly. It's partly to do with the mistaken idea that people need more protein than they actually do. It's partly to do with people wanting to be modern and westernized. It's also because only added value products get advertized.

A starchy staple such as rice or pasta, together with beans and vegetables, and flavoured with herbs and spices, is cheap, tasty and nutritious. These things should be kept cheap whereas meat and cheese should be regarded as luxury items and have VAT put on them. Planning permission for factory farms should be refused. These are practical methods to help feed the world. If we don't do this, nothing will change. GM crops, even if eventually we get one that is more productive, won't change anything. All it will mean is that there will be even more farm animals.