RDN on BBC R2 on Mega-farms

Posted by RDN under Economic affairs / RDN's media outings on 28 February 2014

I had a fairly decent outing on The Jeremy Vine Show, whose stand-in host, Vanessa Feltz asked me and Philip Lymbery, author of Farmageddon (with Isabel Oakeshott) to discuss the arrival of mega-farms in the UK. Naturally enough, I stuck up for them…

I said that the important thing with farming (and I might have added, waste disposal and energy generation) is not to get hung up on the name or size of technologies. Small is not beautiful always and everywhere and big isn’t always horrid. I said one shouldn’t get hung up on doctrines either. In the food and farming debate,  words like “organic”, “intensive”, “free-range”, “factory farming” all get bandied around like they automatically trailed powerful truths. (In energy, it’s “renewable”, and “solar”, and “fossil” and “nuclear”; in waste disposal, it’s “landfill”, and “recycling”: all are unreliable guides to things being well or badly done.)

So… I argued that, set to decide about this or that proposal for a system of farming, one should look at its implications for animal health, animal welfare (they are not the same), human health, waste disposal and conservation. Some very big, shed-based, schemes might well pass muster – and even be the best of known worlds – for all of these.

Of course scale does present problems as well as opportunities. Huge sheds – and greenhouses – and the countryside can fit will together, but naturally vastness needs special consideration (and maybe creative landscaping with a JCB and a forester). A planner would have to consider aesthetics and appropriateness. I wonder, too, how one legislates for the after-life of huge rural buildings in the event of a business failing. A big shed would be consuming feed grown somewhere else and I wonder how far a planner is free to think about the trade-offs involved.

But think positive, too. Good factory farms have good animal welfare. Big UK sheds could save us importing masses of eggs, milk and meat from poorer countries with lower costs and standards. Big sheds might be able to process their own feed from food waste, and be better able to generate energy from manure. Hilarious to note: vast sheds could be handsomer, more ecologically-sound, nicer for humans to work in and for animals to live and die in, and better for the UK Exchequer.

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