Are ‘megafarms’ fit for the future?

Are 'megafarms' sustainable and how is the swine industry reacting to the increasing emergence of intensive systems?
calendar icon 2 August 2018
clock icon 6 minute read

A change of scenery...

In Herefordshire the river Wye curls through market towns, forests of oak and yellow fields tall with rapeseed. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty – walkers come to the area to traverse Offa’s Dyke, go fishing or catch a glimpse of herons, bats or polecats. Which makes the sight just down the road from the church in one small village somewhat unexpected.

A short walk along a public footpath a few miles from the river brings you to a field where large white polyethene tunnels stretch dozens of metres down a hill. They are met at the bottom by five mammoth sheds – each as long as a football pitch. Tall metal silos rise up from between the imposing units.

This facility is one of nearly 1,700 intensive poultry and pig farms licensed by the Environment Agency. A Bureau investigation shows that the number of such farms in the UK has increased by a quarter in the last six years.

Many of these units like the one in Herefordshire are giant US-style “megafarms”. Our investigation has discovered there now nearly 800 of these throughout the UK. The biggest house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 dairy cows, in sprawling factory units where most animals are confined indoors.

The growth in intensive farms is concentrated in certain parts of the country where major food companies operate and many are in the process of expanding. In Herefordshire, intensively-farmed animals outnumber the human population by 88 to one.

Get the data – this investigation used information from the Environment Agency and local authorities to get a comprehensive picture of modern British farming. Click here for a full fact sheet

Behind the data lies a fundamental debate about what we want to eat as a nation, and what price we are prepared to pay for that food.

The big farms say they are led by consumers – people want to buy cheap meat, and intensive farming is the only way to efficiently satisfy that demand. But critics say factory farms blight local communities, subject animals to prolonged distress and push out small producers – and that we do not need the vast quantities of meat we consume.

Norman Lamb, the MP for Norfolk, called on the government to review whether the regulations around intensive units were robust.

“The government need to gain a greater understanding of the impact of these very large units,” he said. “They should look at whether lessons can be learned from the US. We need new and robust domestic regulations to meet the emerging landscape and to take the place of European Union legislation post-Brexit.”

Intensive farming also allows farms to carefully control the temperature and humidity of housing units, and give just the right amount of additive-boosted feed and chlorinated water for optimal growth in a short time.

Advanced technology...

Currently there has been little demand to stop the growth of intensive farms and move to organic farming, said Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council. He said organic farms would take up much more space “If we tried to grow a billion heads a year, that would mean a lot of land. It’s a balancing act and it’s demand driven.”

Intensive farms maintain high environmental, hygiene and welfare standards when they are run properly these are high health and welfare farms,” he argued. "The husbandry of the animals is the crucial element here. I think people think of hens roaming around a farm but that image is no longer the case – that’s not how chicken is farmed anymore.”

Dr Zoë Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association (NPA), the industry body for pig farmers, said farmers had to operate intensive systems to compete with cheap European imports.

Intensive farms have to meet many different regulations to get an Environment Agency permit, she said, and the biggest farms have excellent resources to maintain welfare standards, such as specialist vets on site.

She reiterated that there was a lack of consumer demand for free-range meat.

“People like the idea of a family farm,” she said. “They don’t know what an actual farm looks like."

A spokesperson for major poultry company Faccenda said the scale of big farms allowed them to afford to invest in green technologies.

“On large modern farms it’s easier to create and maintain the right environment, meaning that our animals are raised somewhere that is warm, dry and clean, and the risk of air borne diseases, such as avian influenza, is greatly reduced,” she said.

“Through investing in fewer, larger facilities we make the best use of scarce agricultural land and reduce the environmental impact of our farms. We have for example biomass energy on all of our farms.”

Not a simple question of what is good and bad...

Professor Charles Godfray, a food policy expert from Oxford University said it was not as simple as saying intensive farms were bad and small ones were good.

"It’s much more about how you do it,” he said. “There are intensive operations which are horrible, and others which are good examples of how to look after animals well and get good outcomes.

“You have the most excellent free-range examples and other poorly-managed and poorly-led operations.”

The Bureau asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to comment on the rise of intensive farming in the UK and how the future might look, but it did not respond to our findings.

It did say the government would “not compromise on our high animal welfare or environmental standards,” and it would “always protect our proud and varied farming traditions.”

Leaving the EU offered “an unprecedented opportunity to shape our farming industry so it works for the UK,” said Defra.

Dan Crossley of the thinktank Food Ethics Council thinks that Brexit leaves us at a critical juncture. "Will our government seek free trade deals at any cost, lowering standards and ramping up intensive farming? Or will the UK push for a ‘race to the top’ on animal welfare standards, environmental protection and workers’ rights?"

The UK has to do some “hard thinking” about how we want our food to be produced, said Lamb, the Norfolk MP.

“It’s easy to condemn the producers but the vast majority of people eat meat," he said. “‘We need to have a national debate about whether we can justify the methods to deliver cheap food. I can choose between organic meat and cheap meat. But people on low incomes might struggle to make that choice within their weekly budgets.”


Emily Houghton

Editor, The Pig Site

Emily Houghton is a Zoology graduate from Cardiff University and was the editor of The Pig Site from October 2017 to May 2020. Emily has worked in livestock husbandry, and has written, conducted and assisted with research projects regarding the synthesis of welfare and productivity of free-range food species.

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