Food For Thought

Over the past 40 years the UK has enjoyed some of the highest standards for farm animal welfare in the world with farmers pioneering many of the practices that have become customary today. However, these welfare standards risk becoming diluted or surrendered after Brexit unless the Government writes new assurances as part of UK Law.

A number of influential voices are already murmuring about weakening UK standards to facilitate trade deals with likely future trading partners whose farming standards are frankly abysmal.

This of course poses a worry for farmers who advocate high standards but also stands to become a financial challenge too. If the trade borders open up to inhumane imports domestic production simply cannot compete with the price with many farmers already running a marginal profit line.

The US Commerce Secretary has already made it clear the UK would need to adopt US food standards to secure a post-Brexit deal. In short, food items currently banned including hormone-treated beef, dairy & pork products from animals raised using growth promotors and chlorine washed chicken, and antibiotic pumped meat would need to be accepted in the UK. Consequently, many UK farmers may understandably need to resist costly welfare improvements and indeed argue for existing standards to be lowered so they have a chance to compete with the cheaply produced chemically enhanced products. However, the majority of farmers would refuse such changes at the cost to their animal’s well-being and therefore could ultimately go out of business.

So what can farmers do?

There are a number of creative options smaller livestock farmers can explore including finding independent quality outlets for their produce. On our own family farm we run cattle and lambs and took the challenge of acquiring The Fox Inn at Ansty, a stone’s throw from home and we supply it with a continuous stream of grass-fed beef & lamb who enjoy a peaceful life strolling lush acres of grass. The farm is indeed in organic conversion to help create an even more desirable product. Other examples could include, a local butchery, farm shop or a meat box business.

However, this is simply not possible for everyone, especially larger enterprises were the volume produced would simply be too much for a small outlet. The help lies with the Government and the key is ultimately the everyday consumer.

If the Government fails to negotiate trade deals that champion high welfare standards they could provide subsidies to those who attain high standards. While this might encourage such standards and help a handful of farmers stay in business it cannot be viewed as a solution.

The answer lies in education and promotion. The average supermarket shopper in unlikely to be aware of the standards of farming in UK compared to many other countries, naively assuming all livestock enjoy a lifetime or wandering open fields which is far cry from some of the farming practices seen across the sea where a cow is unlikely to have ever seen grass. After a difficult financial year for many they are likely to allow the pound signs to sway their choice rather than Union Jack logo.

The Government must ensure mandatory labelling of meat and dairy products to indicate production systems so consumers can make an informed choice and play their part in driving high welfare. Eco-conscious consumers must also be reminded of the air miles and potential damage to the planet caused through imported meats. Alongside this must be education. An alarming amount of children and adults don’t really understand where their meat comes from let alone how it was raised and indeed killed. This could be achieved through schools and promotion of events such as Open Farm Sunday. The shopper needs to know why they should be paying a little bit extra for British bacon rather than the Danish bacon sat next to it on the shelf looking remarkably similar.

While supermarkets such as a Lidl and Morrison’s are excellent and promoting British produce in their adverts there must be broader Government funded advertisement promoting British Farming as a whole, not in one supermarket.

Joe public is willing to pay more for something if they believe it is better. Take toilet roll… an essential, much like food, we all need it! Through a cuddly yellow Labrador puppy they sell over double their nearest competitor who is cheaper and indeed does what is needs to do just a well! Perhaps if British farming had a sweet little sheepdog championing it, the fight for welfare would be over?

The next few years look to be a challenging time for farming with Brexit poised to be a great opportunity or a threat to Britain’s farmers we hope a progressive parliament can create savvy shoppers who believe in all things British.

Will Wallis

Rural Partner at Symonds & Sampson

01305 236572 

Blanchards Bailey

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