Intensive farming debates

Why is there such opposition to modern farming techniques?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Since the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, intensive farming has found itself in the firing line. Big, modern, industrial farming – with its machine-milked cows and chemical-drenched crops – has been blamed for everything from the spread of disease to the destruction of the countryside to the collapse of British morale.

‘What they breed is disease, not food’, one farmer-loathing Londoner told the UK Observer. ‘The way they breed chickens and pigs, it’s like Auschwitz or something. The whole farming business is totally unreal, with us paying subsidies for stuff nobody wants, produced in sick conditions and screwing up the environment.’ (1)

No doubt there are some dodgy practices on intensive farms – most big farms are big businesses out to maximise profits and only too happy to cut corners. But the doomsday depiction of modern farming doesn’t square with our experiences: we have more, varied, fresher and cheaper food than ever before – and nobody has to break their back on the land to get it to us. So what’s going on?

As an urbanite who likes his milk and eggs, I decided to get to the heart of the contradiction by testing out the arguments against modern farming on some of those who work, lecture and play in the world of agriculture.

Is intensive farming to blame for the foot-and-mouth outbreak?
‘Far from it’, says Dr Jean Margerison, a senior lecturer in dairy science at the Seale Hayne Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Land Use in Plymouth (2), one of the UK’s leading centres of agricultural study.

‘Intensification has led to pig farms being separate and specialist’, says Margerison. ‘If that had not been the case, we would be in the same position as in 1967, when there was more of a mixture of animals on farms – more pigs would have got the disease and pigs spread it far more quickly over much greater distances. Intensification means we’re better off this time around, because we don’t have pig farms right next door to other livestock.’

‘Foot-and-mouth has got nothing whatsoever to do with intensive farming’, says Séan Rickard, former chief economist of the National Farmers’ Union and author of the UK government’s agricultural manifesto. ‘It is farming markets which have spread this disease among sheep – and sheep farming is probably the most extensive form of farming. This knee-jerk reaction that modern farming caused foot-and-mouth is so far wide of the mark that you have to ask: why on earth are people even raising this?’

‘The farm where the outbreak started was the opposite of a modernised farm’, says Matt Ridley, commentator, part-time farmer and author of Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (3). ‘It was a small farm, growing pigs in a “peasant” way – that is, with swill, which is a locally sourced, natural, unprocessed food. Had the farm been using processed pig meal, as industrial pig units do, this outbreak would not have occurred.’

Okay. But intensive farming involves keeping animals very close together (‘densely stacked livestock’) which must surely contribute to the spread of disease?
After all, as Caroline Lucas, Member of European Parliament (MEP) for south-east England, points out: ‘Agriculture is now organised in a way that makes transmission of disease very easy.’ (4)

‘That’s not really true, either’, says Dr Jean Margerison. ‘People like to say intensive farming is to blame because modern farmers really stack the animals densely and that’s what causes all the disease – but it’s not actually right. It might have been the case in the past, between 1967 and now. But today a lot of pig farmers have outdoor and loose sow buildings, which in fact give the animals more area not less.’

‘People like to point the finger at densely stacked livestock’, says Séan Rickard. ‘But there is pretty strong evidence that the current outbreak of foot-and-mouth started on a badly run small-scale farm, where possibly the animals had more room to roam than on some intensive farms. Presumably it was just the sort of small, idyllic farm that some people would like us to return to. The fact is, foot-and-mouth hasn’t been here for over 30 years – it was much more prevalent before we had modern practices, like densely stacked livestock.’

But isn’t intensive farming bad for the animals?
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals thinks so: ‘Most farms offer pigs just a barren, crowded environment with no bedding for comfort or recreation’ (5). Which is presumably why the UK Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made animal welfare one of its main objectives: ‘to ensure that animals and fish are protected by high welfare standards and do not suffer unnecessary pain or distress.’ (6)

But according to Dr Jean Margerison, today’s intensively farmed animals are ‘better’ than they were in the past – that is, better at ‘being productive’: ‘A lot of animals are genetically better, more productive, more efficient than they were in the past. You can choose to keep a very inefficient cow that doesn’t produce much milk, or one that produces a good level of milk for the same input. We are dealing with animals that are genetically superior, and better able to produce milk more efficiently. This is what farmers are interested in, and rightly so.’

But what about all those pesticides that modern farmers spray on their crops, which are said to be destroying the UK’s wildlife?
‘There has been a concerted campaign to blame modern farming for many ills, especially over bird losses’, (7) says Matt Ridley. ‘And one kind of modernisation – winter sowing of corn – is indeed a major cause of bird declines. That, combined with the usual human tendency to nostalgia, has made modern farming an easy target.’

‘I don’t deny that chemicals have brought some cost to the countryside’, says Séan Rickard. ‘But I’m afraid that we have to face up to reality here: everything we do that brings a benefit also brings a cost. We spend all our lives balancing benefits against costs, and farming is no different.

‘But the solution is not to turn the clock back 50 years and go back to traditional, small-scale farming. The solution is to have more technology, not less. Firstly, intensification means we now have on large, efficient farms something called “precision farming” – intensive farmers are using less chemicals and only where they need to use them. The second solution is the use of GMOs – they have an important role to play in reducing the use of chemicals.’

Fair enough. But what about the argument that we should return to a more natural, traditional way of farming?
Like the kind proposed by Green MEP Caroline Lucas: ‘Agriculture needs local, sustainable solutions based on farmers and the needs of consumers and the environment….This must be the way forward and we should end industrial agriculture in this country.’ (8) Or as the UK Observer asks: ‘Where did it go, that rosy English vision of the farmer and his virtues, of the farmyard and its wholesome produce?’ (9)

‘I don’t know what kind of world they’re thinking about’, says Séan Rickard. ‘But until relatively recent times, anybody who worked in farming, except landlords, were dirt poor and worked in abject poverty. It was a hard, tough life. In our society, productivity on average rises by two percent a year, which means we can enjoy a higher standard of living. If we don’t allow the farming industry to keep apace with that, then we condemn farmers to a much lower standard of living.’

‘Foot-and-mouth is the clearest example of why we need more, not less technology’, says Matt Ridley. ‘It is an old problem, usually found in unmodernised farming countries. If you check the sizes of the Cumbrian farms that have caught the virus, they are nearly all small to medium operations with 200 to 1000 sheep or 50 to 300 cattle. These are tiny farms by comparison with US or Australian standards.’

Or as farmer Oliver Wolston has pointed out: ‘Strange, isn’t it, that the only parts of the world where foot-and-mouth is endemic are the third world countries where the agriculture is extensive? And virtually organic?’ (10)

So locally produced food for local people is not a good idea?
‘If I had to eat the food produced in my locality’, says Séan Rickard, ‘I’d have to have to eat whatever they produce, however ropey it was. It would actually reduce my choice, not increase it. Think about the ease and the extra choice that intensive farming has given us. We can have strawberries at Christmas! That might sound like a small thing, but it shows how modern techniques mean we can have nice, fresh, clean food all year round, at cheap prices, from the local supermarket. And still some say, “oh we really should get back to seasonal food, we should only have strawberries when they’re in season”. No thanks. Some people want strawberries all year round, and they have modern farming to thank for that.’

So how far has intensive farming increased productivity?
‘Look at the facts’, says Rickard. ‘The reason we now spend 10 percent of our income on food, as opposed to 25 percent in 1970, is partly because our incomes have risen, and partly because modern farming and other food production techniques have lowered the cost of bringing food to us.

‘Also, we have been losing about 1200 farms a year recently. And over the past 30 years we have lost about 180,000 full-time jobs from agriculture. And yet here we are today with more food than we had 30 years ago. There’s your evidence of productivity. Fewer farmers, more food.’

So intensive farming isn’t responsible for the spread of disease; it is developing technologies that could protect the countryside; it has helped to make better, more productive animals; and it means we can have fresh milk, eggs, fruit and meat whenever we want them….Are you saying intensive farming is a good thing?
‘Yes, intensification has had a positive effect’, says Dr Jean Margerison.

‘Far from teaching the lesson that farming needs to be less industrial’, says Matt Ridley, ‘[foot-and-mouth] is actually a forceful reminder of how risky and unpleasant farming used to be before modernisation’.

‘Intensive farming has caused a whole lot more good than the bad that is being flagged up now’, says Séan Rickard.

All right, this urbanite is reassured. When so much of today’s ‘heated debate’ about farming seems to be about everything except farming – uneasiness about modern life, crisis over national identity, the role of the countryside – it is easy to lose sight of the practical issues. Like how best to combat disease, how to further modernise and improve the farming industry.

And how to get milk and eggs to millions of people in time for breakfast.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:
Read more In defence of modern life
Read more on the Foot-and-mouth issue
(1) Observer, 25 March 2001
(2) Seale Hayne Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Land Use, University of Plymouth, UK
(3) Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
(4) BBC News Online, 6 March 2001
(5) Pig welfare, RSPCA
(6) Animal welfare, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(7) See Strictly for the birds, by Tony Gilland
(8) BBC News Online, 6 March 2001
(9) Observer, 25 March 2001
(10) BBC News Online, 6 March 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today