The Future of Livestock Farming Post Brexit

Eating Better and Friends of the Earth kicked off 2017 by hosting a lively debate at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

How might Brexit shape the future of UK farming? And in particular, what should be the role for livestock in a more sustainable and healthier food system? At the Real Oxford Farming Conference at the start of January, Eating Better & Friends of the Earth brought fresh thinking to these questions by bringing together David Baldock (Institute for European Environmental Policy); Clare Oxborrow (Friends of the Earth & Chair of Eating Better), farmer & founder of Riverford Organics Guy Watson and Carol McKenna (Compassion in World Farming), all ably chaired by Vicki Hird of Sustain.

The packed audience heard Clare Oxborrow outline why meat is the new sustainable food issue. The rise of intensive livestock production particularly of pork, poultry and dairy is having a devastating environmental impact, not least for climate change and biodiversity, as well as for health. Faced with feeding a growing and more affluent population, halving current levels of grain-fed meat consumption for example could feed 2bn more people. She invited the audience, particularly farmers, to join Eating Better in considering how a shift to producing and consuming ‘better’ meat, but less of it, can be part of the solution to the sustainability challenges we face.

Carol McKenna introduced Compassion in World Farming’s work to improve farm animal welfare and their campaign for mandatory labelling of production methods on livestock products to inform consumers. She highlighted how intensification of livestock production, particularly pigs and poultry, has been fuelled by intensification of crop production which now sees 45% of UK cereals fed to farm animals. Compassion want to see much more pasture-based/mixed rotation farming systems and for EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies and other fiscal measures to better support ‘public goods’ that encourage farmers to do the right thing. “We do need to eat less & better meat and dairy,” she said.

 

David Baldock introduced some of the thinking Eating Better has commissioned from IEEP on how, post Brexit, farming subsidies and trade arrangements could better support a shift towards healthy and sustainable diets. He referred to the perverse complexities of CAP, for example schemes that support dairy production while also seeking to reduce production. He acknowledged the importance of livestock farming economically, culturally and for the landscape, while pointing out that it is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions from food & agriculture.

He emphasised that we need to transition towards lower carbon, sustainable, more resource efficient farming that protects biodiversity and animal welfare and which aligns with public health goals. Currently CAP lacks clear policy goals. In future farm support needs to be more tailored and targeted to reward high public good provision (eg from more extensive production), coupled payments for livestock should be removed, and promotional budgets focussed on sustainable diets. Maintaining environmental dimensions to trade rules will be equally important in determining future trading arrangements. 

Guy Watson, who leads Riverford, the UK's largest organic retailer, described his experiences of researching the complexities of the environmental and sustainability impacts of livestock farming, including land issues and feeding grain to animals. His conclusion? "There’s no getting away from it, we have to eat less meat and dairy and eggs too.” But how much less? Quoting Simon Fairley, he concluded this should be a third to a half of what we currently consume, with mixed farming including grazing alongside crops in rotation and providing manure as the way forward. He also called for the planting of more trees – highlighting another anomaly currently disincentivised by CAP.

The lively discussion that followed covered the issue of taxing meat through VAT, as well as the impacts of imported animal feed and World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, the important role for organic and pasture-based systems and the need to ensure that policies and public facing messages distinguish ‘better’ meat.  The problem of maize production as feed for large dairies was identified as a continuing problem, particularly for soil loss.

We were pleased that our speakers got a mention in BBC News piece the same day asking After Brexit: what happens next for UK farmers? 

In the same week MPs from the Environmental Audit Committee published their report into The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU referendum warning that leaving the CAP will threaten the viability of some farms and new trading relationships with states outside the EU could lead to increased competition from countries with lower food, animal welfare and environmental standards.

The Real Oxford Farming Conference will be making available recordings from the conference sessions in due course. Keep an eye on their website!