Dr Alison Caffyn of Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning examines the outdated laws that have led to the rapid growth of intensively farmed chicken.
During my research into intensive chicken farming across Herefordshire and Shropshire I encountered many modern poultry units over the last few years. And as I have walked close to the massive metal clad ‘sheds’, each of which stretches over 100m, one question has kept nagging at me: is this actually farming?
The buildings stand in groups of four, six, sometimes 10 or more, accompanied by tall shiny silos, surrounded by wide expanses of concrete and sometimes a huge biomass boiler shed, or the distinctive dome of an anaerobic digestion unit. It looks like a factory. Rather an anonymous factory where there doesn’t appear to be anyone working, but a factory nonetheless. And yet in UK planning law this is agriculture.
Farming v industry?
The definition of agriculture from the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act includes the keeping of any creature for the production of food. It hasn’t been revised in the intervening 30 years, despite the scale at which many livestock are kept having increased substantially. The typical broiler farm in Herefordshire in 1990 might have housed 100,000 chickens. Now they are double, quadruple and in some cases six times this size. And the buildings are bigger, higher, noisier and produce much more poultry manure and ammonia emissions. In fact, those operations with more than 40,000 birds have to secure an environmental permit from the government, required for an ‘industrial facility’, but they are not treated as industrial for planning purposes.
If a landowner applied for permission to build a factory producing widgets on these rural sites in some of the most scenic parts of the UK, they would be immediately refused. But because the factory is ‘agricultural’ it sidesteps standard planning policies and falls into a policy void. Herefordshire and Shropshire, like many counties, have no planning policies about intensive livestock farming, despite the poultry industry being long-established. Both counties have avoided drawing up supplementary planning guidance which could have specified the situations where intensive livestock developments would be acceptable. And national planning policy gives no guidance other than supporting sustainable development, which most planners interpret as an agenda for growth.
The environmental impacts of intensive livestock farming are well-established: air and water pollution which cause biodiversity loss in local habitats and rivers due to the excessive nutrients. But local authorities and environmental agencies have been in denial. Under pressure from the influential farming lobby and landowner interests, intensive poultry units have been normalised as just modern, efficient farming methods. The argument is that farmers need to increase productivity, maximise economies of scale and use of smart technology, in order to meet the increasing consumer demand for chicken meat. But the derivation of the word agriculture is cultivation of land or fields - this form of farming, inside sheds on concrete hard-standing, involves no contact with the soil at any stage.
Local protests at weak laws
As the numbers of poultry units proliferated across Shropshire and Herefordshire (from 350 sheds in 2000 to 1150 in 2020) it has been local people who started asking questions, scrutinising the proposals and objecting to further poultry developments. Local communities have had to pick up the role that you might think public bodies should be playing; researching the multiple impacts of intensive farming on the environment but also on people’s quality of life and health and raising awareness of the price the local population is paying for the farmers’ profits. Protestors have become increasingly critical as they see inadequacies in the planning process, weak evidence used to support the applications and when they understand that such agricultural factories don’t even pay business rates.
Meanwhile the local authorities which have passively allowed the proliferation have had the situation backfire on them. In Herefordshire the excess nutrients in the Rivers Wye and Lugg have triggered a halt on all development in parts of the county and are requiring millions of pounds of investment in sustainable drainage schemes to try to reduce the phosphates and nitrates. In Shropshire the council has incurred large legal fees when campaigners proved mistakes had been made in the planning process.
The campaigners I spoke to had various concerns. For many it is the distinctive unpleasant smell from the poultry units which people want to avoid or the additional heavy goods traffic on rural lanes. One was outraged at the air pollution risks they’d read up on – the dangerous particulate matter that is emitted in the invisible fumes from the chicken sheds. Another quoted their GP’s concerns about anti-microbial resistance developing in the local environment. Almost all of them mentioned the existential threat of bird flu (which has since turned up in Herefordshire in autumn 2020) and the consequences if it crossed the species barrier.
Chickens in an industrial system
There were some campaigners who focused on the many ways intensive livestock farming is environmentally unsustainable. The distances covered by the feed, the birds and the final product, the amount of land farmed to produce the feed crops for the birds and in particular the importation of soya from deforested habitats in South America. Others were horrified by how the industrial model treats the chickens themselves: killed as adolescents after only six weeks of life and kept in crowded conditions in these vast sheds.
Our growing demand for chicken is driving this industry, as detailed in Eating Better’s WeNeedToTalkAboutChicken. It wouldn’t take much to stop the continuing proliferation of these poultry units; the UK is at least 75% self-sufficient in chicken already. Even better would be to also buy only better welfare, slower grown chickens, meaning lower bird stocking densities and less environmental harm. We all know we need to eat less meat - better to eat more plant protein ourselves than have so much go to feed animals, so inefficiently.
Tackling the hidden costs of intensive poultry farming, currently picked up by the tax payer, is key. Whether that’s through business rates on intensive operations, tax levies on processing companies, or supermarkets, or some kind of chicken tax on intensively farmed chicken. And let’s subsidise the alternatives instead: growing vegetables, beans, lentils etc. Adjusting the system would help people begin to make better sourcing decisions, as outlined in Sourcing Better.
I’m sure many farmers would welcome this approach too. Farmers are not often publicly critical of their farming neighbours but several in this region have recently been moved to put pen to paper to object to more planning applications for poultry units. One said, gazing across at his neighbour’s poultry sheds, “That’s not farming.”