Blue-sky group plans greener future

UK - Don't despair. There might be something better on the way for pig farmers, says the National Pig Associations Digby Scott.
calendar icon 15 December 2006
clock icon 7 minute read

National Pig Association

NPA is active on members' behalf in Brussels & Whitehall, and with processors, supermarkets & caterers - fighting for the growth and pros-perity of the UK pig industry.

This is the message from a blue-sky group that spent today trying to fathom a method of making pig farming more environmentally friendly – without driving the pig industry out of business.

“The only way we will achieve delivery of the environmental agenda is by working together,' said NPA/BPEX chairman Stewart Houston, the pig producer behind today's meeting, which drew together farmers, regulators, consultants, scientists and others. The meeting agreed overwhelmingly that it is possible to move forward without crippling pig-keepers.

“Others in the farming industry are queuing up behind us,“ said Norfolk producer Philip Richardson. “If we are successful today, they will want to follow in our footsteps.“ The plan is to have an environment strategy in place by early autumn next year.


The volumes of ideas put forward at today's blue-sky workshop will be written up and circulated. A discussion document will be released next month. The discussion document will be followed by a consultation in February, March. In April a draft environment strategy will be produced. After feedback has been incorporated this will go forward for a full consultation in June, July. The Pig Industry Environment Strategy will be launched in September.

Pig farmers will be hoping the strategy will herald a new era of greener pig production, but without the burden of conflicting and heavy-handed regulation. Regulators will also be hoping for a greener pig sector, achieved by consensus and voluntary agreement. The environment strategy will be created under the direction of BPEX, NFU, the Environment Agency, Defra and NPA.

The strategy will seek to reduce the regulatory burden on pig farmers, and at the same time reduce the impact of the pig industry on the environment. Summing up the progress made today – by people who are frequently at to be found at loggerheads – BPEX chief executive Mick Sloyan said, “There is a reasonable degree of optimism in the future of the pig industry and equal optimism that we CAN develop a strategy. There is a lot of commitment to make this happen.“

The overarching policy that will guide the new strategy for the pig industry will be ‘One Planet Living' – as championed by environment secretary David Milliband - which seeks to bring mankind's carbon footprint back into sync with the capacity of the planet; currently it is out-of-sync by a factor of three. “We need to think about our own behaviour and attitudes because that will change the planet more than Defra writing policies,“ said Duncan Prior, of Defra, summarising the four strands of One Planet Living as energy, water availability and quality, food and farming, and land use.

He said Defra was seeking a ‘net positive' contribution to the environment. In other words if an aspect of farming was considered risky, it could be counterbalanced by other, more positive aspects of farming. Regulation was necessary – but it did not have to be based solely on statute. It could be built on agreements and partnership… “as long as it delivers the desired outcome“.

He added, by way of a cautionary thought for the day: “If the government's environmental policy doesn't get you… climate change probably will. If we don't move forward collectively it will bite us hard and a lot of challenges mentioned in this room today might become immaterial because we won't have anything to do anyway.“ He recognised the current concerns about IPPC but said everyone involved with farming and the environment simply had to think long-term about where we wanted to be in the next 20 years, “and then we must get that vision established and make agreement to get there.“

Philip Richardson said, “It is winning hearts and minds that will get us a long-term solution, rather than making enemies of us with bloody silly regulations.“

He said pig farmers were looking for sound science, practicality, fairness and proportionality. He advised, “You need to understand the psychology of the people you are dealing with. A lot of people will turn their noses up at this meeting we are having today, because they do not see the need for all this regulation.“

There should be two tests for every new regulation, he said. Is it reasonable? Is it fair? Mentioning the practical difficulties facing farmers, he said he had tried injection slurry on heavy land at the new NVZ rates “and you physically cannot put that small an amount on.

“I have got neighbours who don't want me anywhere near their heavy land in spring and it is very worrying. It means that no way can I get rid of my slurry particularly if Defra decides on the Dutch model where all the N in the slurry must be accounted as available to the crop.“ And why, he wondered, did it take 53 hours to check an IPPC application.

Stewart Houston told the meeting, “To me we are seeing a split. The Defra and Environment Agency view on one side and the industry view on the other. I just want each party to be aware of that. It is something that's got to be solved during the day if it is going to work. We have got to see the other side's point of view, or this is not going to work.“ After a series of brief presentations the meeting split into small working groups each charged with defining the challenge facing the industry, and producing a solution.

Having listened to Duncan Prior's strictures on voluntary agreements rather than statute, the group of three I was in (my colleagues were Barney Kay of NPA and Emma Beech of Defra) wondered if an all-embracing voluntary agreement was possible, delivered through a revved-up version of Defra's Whole Farm approach. We agreed the Whole Farm approach had not yet captured the imagination of the industry but Emma and Barney were clear it had the potential to make the regulatory burden much easier for farmers to handle.

We accepted that an environment voluntary agreement would not make IPPC go away, any more than the regulations covered off by assurance schemes make the regulations themselves go away. But we felt a voluntary approach – especially once flexible enough to embrace Duncan's “net gain“ philosophy – would enable us to put a more friendly and more helpful user-interface to environment regulation, and may even put the industry a little ahead of the letter of the law. Other groups had equally ambitious targets.

Mick Sloyan was impressed with how far the two “sides“ had come during the day. “You have agreed to work in partnership and to collectively take ownership of the issues and the challenges. Well done."

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