Without a proper food strategy, Brexit could spell disaster for animal welfare. It's up to co-operators to champion a better way of delivering Britain's agri-food supply chain

With our policy consultations on Brexit and the economy currently underway, this is the first in a series of guest blogs which bring together the voices and views of individual party members and those from the wider co-operative movement. You can have your say here.

My first experience of farming was through my grandparents. They lived “out the country”, as my dad would say, and had a few acres around their cottage. Neither of them were able to work the land anymore so that fell to my uncle and I would follow him around as a young kid, watching him tend to the cattle.

It was all very Idyllic, very typical of the Northern Irish countryside I grew up around in the 1980s. The animals roamed freely, I could pet the cows and even started to form attachments to them. I gave them names, they were my friends.

Then one day, my favourite cow, Benji, disappeared off the farm. My brother, ever the comedian, pointed to the meat on my Sunday dinner plate and said, “That’s Benji.”

Horrific though that realisation was at the time, I had witnessed the very best of animal agriculture: a small family-run farm with cows in the fields and chickens wandering around the yard. It’s what most people expect the majority of farming to look like still today – especially in the UK. But they’re wrong.

In Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat, author Philip Lymbery states that around 80% of chickens, 45% of laying hens and 75% of breeding pigs are factory farmed in the UK. Globally, 50 billion of the 70 billion farm animals slaughtered each year are factory farmed. This means being crammed together in small spaces indoors with little or no natural light and no stimulation.

It can lead to routine practices such as removing the beaks or teeth of the animals to prevent them from attacking each other out of sheer frustration. Antibiotics are used in large doses to combat the spread of disease as well as, in some non-EU countries, to encourage growth – with disastrous consequences.

The fear is that with Britain set to leave the EU, and the stress that will put on UK farmers, as well as pressure on the government to seek out new trade deals, animal agriculture in the UK will become more industrialised, not less.

Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe 1997-2010, during which time he was vice-chair of the all-party animal welfare group. Today, he is Head of Policy at Compassion In World Farming (CIWF). As a charity, Nick tells me, CIWF remained neutral during the EU referendum, but they are now very active in terms of advocating for the best possible deal in terms of animal welfare.

“After Brexit it’s obvious that the Government will feel urgent political pressure to sign swift trade deals. The USA would like to take the opportunity to export meat which is banned in the EU – chlorinated chickens, hormone-fed beef, etc. – and although DEFRA ministers have stressed that they would not agree to such imports, will that assurance survive against the pressure for a swift deal?”

If lower-quality, lower-welfare meat did enter the UK market, Nick points out, it would have a double whammy effect on British farmers, undercutting them on the home front with these cheap imports now readily available to the consumer, while impairing their ability to export to the EU. “The British market would have been contaminated, as far as the EU would be concerned, by unacceptable meat coming in. Otherwise, it would open a way around EU import restrictions – just route the meat via Britain.”

That said, Nick does see some opportunities through Brexit. Live exports, for example, were a stumbling block for many animal advocates during the referendum and seemed to be something the UK was tied into through being a member of the EU.

“What’s tricky there is that nobody really wants to ban short trips across the Irish border. When we say ‘Live Exports’ we’re thinking of crowded ships and trucks going long distances. CIWF believes there is a way through this to achieve a ban, and we’re in dialogue with DEFRA about it.”

He also sees potential to reform the criteria for farm subsidies post-Brexit in the interest of animal welfare. “If subsidies are used to reward farms who move to less intensive, less harsh systems, rather than CAP-style subsidies which provide rewards merely for having big farms, that would be excellent.”

Co-operative farmers are perhaps seen as kinder to animals with their smaller-scale, more localised approach. A recent report by Wales Co-operative Centre, Co-operative Development in the Welsh Agri-Food Sector, seeks ‘to investigate the potential for the future development of the agriculture sector in Wales through co-operation’ – especially in light of Brexit.

Co-operatives and indeed co-operation in the sector could play an important role in sustaining and developing different aspects of the agri-food supply chain,’ its authors suggest. The report shows a wide range of co-operative practices within agri-food in Wales, from smaller community ventures to larger collectives.

Animal Welfare isn’t given any specific attention within the report, but by looking at the certification referenced, you can get a flavour of what’s going on – one of the larger co-ops considered, for example, permits its members to market their beef and lamb produce under the Red Tractor scheme.

In their excellent Compassionate Food Guide, CIWF place the various certifications on a series of scales relating to animal welfare potential. Organic schemes or RSPCA Freedom Food are clearly a much better choice for animal welfare across the board – Soil Association assured organic beef scores a massive 50 points more than Red Tractor assured beef.

The guide highlights how farm assurance schemes like Red Tractor can permit permanent indoor housing of their animals on slatted floors. “At Compassion, whilst we recognise the Red Tractor certification scheme and others,” Nick says, framing it very diplomatically, “we ask retail partners to go beyond this via the criteria in our Good Farm Animal Welfare awards.”

We see better practice highlighted elsewhere within the report. Started in 2000, Calon Wen is a group of organic family-run farms across Wales, now numbering eighteen. They’ve become a leading brand, supplying Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons & Waitrose alongside many independent retailers. What’s most interesting, however, is that although animal welfare is very much at the heart of what they do, for many of the farmers involved it was a commercial decision to become part of an organic co-op, not an ethical one.

“What makes a producer convert to organic is varied,” Managing Director, Dai Miles, tells me, “however with the long-term producers like myself – I’ve been in farming for twenty years – although initially drawn in by the attractive prices, once they have converted the farm, they’re also converted themselves.” For Dai and the other Calon Wen farmers, there’s no going back to non-organic practices – especially when it comes to animal welfare.

“The one thing all organic producers would agree is that factory farming is not the way food should be produced and unfortunately factory farming of dairy cows is becoming more widespread.”

At time of writing, Labour has just announced their Draft Animal Welfare Bill with a variety of measures to combat the widespread growth of factory farming. The draft bill has been warmly received by animal welfare charities, including CIWF, however farmers will be more cautious. We’ve seen concern raised over previous moves to legislate for animal welfare, post-Brexit, from groups such as the National Sheep Association and the Countryside Alliance.

From a farmer’s perspective, it’s understandable. Legislation can mean more costs and more bureaucracy. This was something Calon Wen farmers had to consider when converting to organic. “Organic is a legally defined form of production and is not like other forms of production methods which are voluntary schemes policed by whoever administers the scheme,” Dai explains. “So to commit your farm to organic production you must abide by regulation currently set out by the EU and administered in the UK by authorised bodies who are in turn licenced by DEFRA. All the supply chain must be inspected annually and have valid certification.”

The challenge, therefore, is to establish a model within farming that not only leads in terms of animal welfare, but is accessible to farmers and sustainable financially.  In Issue 218 of Red Pepper, co-editor and Labour activist, Hilary Wainwright, talking about her book, A New Politics From The Left, proposes a way forward that could work on all fronts – and, while state-led, its success would very much depend upon co-operative practice on the ground.

“The Labour Party – maybe with some support from local government – could begin to map out, say, a food policy that involves talking to local people to start with and then identifies outlets and producers nearby and brings them together.”

You could imagine a policy of schools procuring their food from progressive farmers that have developed co-operative forms of production that are organic or not using pesticides or health-conscious. You could develop an ethical food policy, where the state provides a lead, but is facilitating and building on the knowledge of food producers or retailers or restaurants.”

Although seeing success with Calon Wen, Dai has seen a mixed picture, generally, for farming co-operatives. “Some have flourished, others have failed spectacularly, and one was forced to disband by a government decree due to complaints from the big four supermarkets.”

He recalls better times, conjuring up a similar image to what I remember from my grandparents’ farm back in the 80s. “Traditional farmers would all help each other at harvest, gathering of stock and that, but with farms getting bigger and there being less of them, that cooperation has long gone in most areas of Wales.”

For Dai, survival of the farming industry in general depends upon restoring co-operative principles once again, from owning shares in machinery to collaborative approaches to attending farmers’ markets. “I personally believe that small to medium sized farms will have to think again about working with other farms to survive, regardless of Brexit.”

Brexit is a challenge, but it’s far from the biggest challenge to farming and animal welfare – the worst is yet to come. A UN report in 2010 estimated that food production would have to rise by 70% over the next thirty years or so to cope with an ever-growing global population.

This will inevitably lead to even more intensive methods of farming globally than what we’re seeing now, and the cost to animals, not to mention the environment – the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined– could be huge.

As co-operators, we have a conviction to build a fairer and more equal society despite the many challenges ahead. Tackling injustice within animal agriculture must be part of that.