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In defence of factory farming

The celebs campaigning against a mega-dairy in Lincolnshire don’t know which side their bread is buttered on.

Jason Smith

Topics Politics

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What do conservationist Bill Oddie, comedienne Jo Brand and actor William Roache (who plays Ken Barlow in TV soap Coronation Street) have in common? They’re all supporting the Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) campaign against a proposed super dairy at Nocton in Lincolnshire, England.

‘Hundreds of local residents objected to the initial mega-dairy plans earlier this year’, CIWF announced. ‘Now, in the face of a PR offensive from the farm’s backers, we need to help local campaigners galvanise even more people into action.’ Posters saying ‘Mega-dairies have no place in the UK’ and ‘Cows belong in fields’ will soon be seen on the side of buses in Lincolnshire.

The Nocton dairy will be the biggest dairy farm in Britain, housing 8,100 cows. Although that’s tiny compared to the largest US dairy farm, which is home to 32,000 cows, the scale of the Nocton development is not something to be sniffed at or, indeed, protested against. Rather, Oddie and Co. ought to recognise that there is much to celebrate about it.

It seems that much of the controversy over the super dairy concerns the amount of time the cows will spend indoors instead of roaming around fields. Campaigners say it is cruel to keep animals locked up. However, cows aren’t necessarily worse off indoors, as Radio 4’s Farming Today programme revealed when visiting the 26,000-acre Fair Oaks dairy farm in Indianapolis. In this farm, which produces 2.8million pounds in weight of milk a day, barns are a quarter of a mile long, giving cows more space to roam than they would have in a normal-sized British field. The cows also get two months of ‘holiday time’ in between cycles of calving and milk production.

Furthermore, the animals at Fair Oaks are served food that has been scientifically developed to be the most nutritionally beneficial for milk cows. The barns have a $1million air conditioning system to keep cows cool in the summer, and they are properly insulated for winter. The cows are under 24-hour surveillance, and the farm employs four full-time vets and 20 cattlehands. Manure from the farm is vacuumed up before being put through anaerobic digesters, which produce 100 per cent of the farm’s electricity. ‘These cows’, said CEO Gary Corbett, ‘have their needs taken care of more than some American citizens’.

The other issue protesters raise is whether the proposed dairy in Lincolnshire, with over 8,000 cattle, should really be defined as a farm or if it is more appropriate to call it a factory. They see a dairy factory as something un-British – which is ironic considering Britain invented the factory system. As far as the campaigners are concerned, factory farms put traditional small farmers out of work because small farmers cannot produce milk as efficiently as larger operators.

There is a lot of talk about the perils of the British ‘farming industry’, but just because there are a lot of farms in Britain, that doesn’t make it particularly industrial. For instance, Rural Payments Agency production data from 2008/09 shows that 3,484 farms (28 per cent of the industry) jointly produced more than one million litres of milk that year, accounting for 59 per cent of the total milk supply in Britain. That was an increase of 48 per cent compared to 2004/05. By contrast, the 5,008 farms (40 per cent of the industry) producing less than 500,000 litres of milk per year contributed just 13 per cent of total British milk supply. That was down 18 per cent compared to 2004/05, when there were 3,433 more farms of that size. So, small farms are far less productive, less profitable and involve a lot more work.

One of the key ways of increasing production rates and profit is to increase the milk yield while raising fewer cows. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of dairy cows in the United States fell by more than 50 per cent, yet during that same period the average annual milk yield more than tripled. Looking purely at the most efficient, profitable and productive way of organising milk production, it would seem that large-scale farming wins hands down. The campaign slogan ‘Cows belong in fields’ is misplaced.

One of the progressive characteristics of capitalism is that it increases the productive capacity of industry while reducing the amount of time and effort needed to create each unit of a product. At a time when much British industry finds it difficult to compete on a world market, farming is one area where leaps forward in efficiency are possible. Romanticising about happy cows chewing the cud in fields, in contrast to unhappy cows in sheds, is not only childishly anthropomorphic – it also implicitly advocates inefficiency.

People who argue that super dairies are unnatural should realise that there is nothing natural about farming at all. There is nothing natural about the landscape of the British countryside and there is nothing natural about humans drinking milk. Human beings had been around some 140,000 years before they gradually stopped being hunter-gatherers and took up cultivating crops and animals. The British countryside that we see today was largely created between 1760 and 1820 as part of the agricultural revolution that saw the end of the open-field system and the subsistence farming that accompanied it.

A recent analysis of Neolithic remains by the National Academy of Sciences suggested that no European adults could digest milk in 5000 BC. Without a gene which produces a certain enzyme that can break down lactose – one of the main sugars in milk – adult humans would experience bloating, stomach cramps and diarrhoea. This gene was not found in Europeans until much later in history.

It is fair to say that agriculture, especially milk production, is one of the most unnatural activities in which man engages. In fact, farming has done more to change the world, and has had a greater impact on the environment, than perhaps any other human activity.

Small-scale farming, particularly of the organic variety (because these farms are the smallest and most inefficient), is neither more natural nor particularly productive. It is a lifestyle choice. This is why small-scale farmers often make their money, not from selling their product, but from EU handouts. Handouts, that is, for not producing anything, as with the current ‘set-aside scheme’ for arable farmers.

The ability to produce more milk from less is not a bad thing for cows, and it is a very good thing for humans. For those who want to see better food production, who want to see more food available at cheaper prices, the super dairy in Lincolnshire is just the kind of large-scale farming we should all support.

Jason Smith is convenor of the Birmingham Salon.

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Topics Politics

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