Farming in the British Isles is on the verge of a dramatic step towards industrialization with the establishment of “mega-farms” for salmon, pigs and cows, which opponents claim put the environment and human health at risk. The Government signaled its backing yesterday for large-scale farms ahead of an announcement this week of a timetable for plans for a 25,000-capacity pig farm in Derbyshire. A decision on a planned 1,000-cow dairy unit in Wales is also imminent.
Pressure to meet growing demand for protein by radically increasing the size of farms has also spread to Ireland, where the authorities are backing plans to build one of the biggest salmon farms in the world in Galway Bay, doubling Irish salmon production at a stroke.
Farmers and officials insist the introduction of modern facilities offers a solution to Britain’s voracious appetite for cheap meat by increasing production while maintaining or improving animal welfare standards and without affecting the environment.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Increasing the efficiency of food production will help us meet rising demand for food. This can be done on any scale and in ways that actually deliver environmental benefits. Large-scale farms are required to meet the same environmental and animal welfare standards as all UK farms.”
But campaigners claim approval of the schemes would cause a rush towards factory farms across the country, imperiling countryside and coastline in a dash for cheaper food. Lord Melchett, the Soil Association’s director of policy, said: “The solution is not to create huge-scale intensive operations that threaten our landscape, farming and rural communities. Large-scale industrial farms may be able to produce food a little more cheaply in the short term, mostly through reducing the number and cost of people employed. But we will end up paying a high price for what may be marginally cheaper food.”
In the Derbyshire village of Foston, opponents claim plans for a vast indoor pig farm represent a dramatic leap towards techniques already employed in other parts of Europe and the US, where 100,000-capacity pig farms are common. A petition against the farm has collected more than 25,000 signatures including the actors Sir Roger Moore and Dominic West as well as the TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Sir Roger has described large-scale farms as “concentration camps for animals”. Opponents claim such farms will create enormous animal welfare problems where disease could spread quickly and the environment will struggle to cope with the slurry.
Midland Pig Producers, the company behind the Foston proposal, says it has worked exhaustively to ensure it meets all the concerns with state-of-the-art air scrubbing equipment to remove odor and an anaerobic digester to turn slurry into methane to power the farm. It claims it will also pioneer improved welfare conditions by using new “freedom farrowing crates” allowing sows and piglets greater movement. “We believe farms in the UK will have to get more efficient if the consumer’s demand for British meat at a reasonable price is to be met,” the firm says.