Drone footage and satellite images have recently revealed that thousands of British cattle reared for supermarket beef are being kept at some sites in outdoor pens, known as corrals, sometimes surrounded by walls, fences or straw bales. Although the cattle will have spent time grazing in fields prior to fattening, some will be confined in pens for around a quarter of their lives, until they are slaughtered. Disease spreads easily in such conditions and traces of the medication needed to prevent or treat the animals will be present in the meat offered for human consumption.
Who owns these companies? Who are the directors? Do they donate to party funds?
Why are there no official records held by DEFRA on how many intensive beef units are in operation?
Government regulations say that an environmental permit is needed if you operate any of the following:
-an industrial facility,
-or other business that produces potentially harmful substances, eg:
-a landfill site, a large chicken farm, a food factory
Why is government not requiring an environmental permit before their construction – and indeed consulting those in their neighbourhood?
A small section of a group of intensive units photographed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism/ Guardian
Though environment secretary Michael Gove said, in a parliamentary statement. “I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country”, it’s here.
The Guardian and Bureau last year revealed that 800 poultry and pig “mega farms” have appeared in the British countryside in recent years, some housing more than a million chickens or about 20,000 pigs.
Following the revelations, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, pledged that Brexit would not be allowed to result in the spread of US-style agribusiness.
Readers who want to know the extent of this problem and the location of megafarms for dairy, pigs and poultry, may find this information by looking at the interactive maps produced by Compassion in World Farming: The snapshots show information about intensive pig rearing in Gloucestershire, where the writer lives.
A Moseley reader draws attention to research by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism establishing that the UK is now home to a number of industrial-scale fattening units with herds of up to 3,000 cattle at a time. Sites in Kent, Northamptonshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire were identified, the largest farms fattening up to 6,000 cattle a year.
The practice of intensive beef farming in the UK has not previously been widely acknowledged – and these findings raise questions over the future of British farming.
Richard Young, Policy Director at the Sustainable Food Trust, said: “Keeping large number of cattle together in intensive conditions removes all justification for rearing them and for consumers to eat red meat…
“More than two-thirds of UK farmland is under grass for sound environmental reasons and the major justifications for keeping cattle and eating red meat are that they produce high quality protein and healthy fats from land that is not suitable for growing crops.”
Originally policies were introduced to reduce price volatility and ensure that farmers had secure incomes, enabling citizens to have more reliable supplies of food.
Global concern with food security was reinforced by the big spike in cereal prices in 1972-74. Marketing boards – despite their name – took distribution and pricing essentially out of market hands, with prices negotiated year by year between all sides of the business
On May 8th the government ended its consultation period on a new agricultural policy for England. Revealingly, its policy document – called ‘Health and Harmony: The future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’– has more to say about the environment than either food or farming.
In the eight chapters defining new policies in DEFRA’s paper, more than three times as much space is devoted to environmental issues (including animal health) as the economic ones which affect farmers’ and farmworkers’ own livelihoods.
But now few politicians see agriculture as of much consequence since it accounts for only 0.7 % of UK gross domestic product and 466,000 jobs, or 1.5 % of UK employment in 2016 (of which 302,000 in England). The countryside seems to matter more for its visitor attractions.
However, the state of agricultural prices and farmers’ incomes is worrying
- From agriculture itself, the average farm lost £700 per year.
- Even in nominal terms, total income from farming is less than half of what it was in 1995.
- Farmers’ median age is 59 and one-third are over 65, with only 3 % under 35.
But to survive the end of EU direct payments, DEFRA offers only a pious hope, not a policy: “Removal of Direct Payments may be offset in a number of ways, including farm efficiency improvements and diversification, although this will vary by type and location of farm.”
Average income (£) from agriculture for cereal farmers, 2003-04 to 2016-17
However, because of corporate concentration, especially in retailing, the share of those prices received ‘at the farm gate’ is substantially less than it was.
Farmers are price takers, squeezed by powerful businesses on either side of their activity. Not only do they receive less of the traded price for their outputs than in the past, but the real prices of essential inputs for industrial farming, such as fuel, agro-chemicals and fertilisers have gone up sharply. (Table below added by editor)
The wider backlash against neoliberalism has not touched the sanctity of market mechanisms in agriculture, even though the markets that serve it fulfil their purpose of balancing supply and demand through the price system only fitfully.
in Britain, the urgency of the situation is seen in a chronically weak balance of payments, part of which is a deficit in food trade. In 1984, before the CAP reforms began, the UK had risen to 78 % self-sufficiency in all food and 95 % in ‘indigenous’ foods, based on international prices. Ten years ago this had fallen back to 60 % and 74 % respectively and it has stabilised at around that level. However, when valued at ‘farmgate’ prices – those actually received by farmers – Britain in 2007 produced only half of the food it consumed.
The World Trade Organisation’s rules will not allow any return to measures ensuring food security
Marketing boards – despite their name – took distribution and pricing essentially out of market hands, with prices negotiated year by year between all sides of the business. They started with the Milk Marketing Board in 1933, when market concentration had enabled dairies to force down the prices they paid to farmers – just as in recent years. The MMB ensured the production, distribution and availability of good-quality milk and dairy products at stable prices for over 60 years. These measures were allied with practical, free technical advice to farmers from a government agency. The economic principles of those interventions were sound, even though they accompanied the shift to industrial farming methods.
How can the higher farm prices and incomes needed for the sake of farmworkers as well as farmers be ensured?
Thomas Lines believes that DEFRA’s current proposals portend a serious crisis in English agriculture, which will be entirely of the country’s own making. He ends: “If our farmers cannot afford to continue in business, who will feed the rest of us?”
Natural England – sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – is responsible for ensuring that England’s natural environment, including its land, freshwater and marine environments, geology and soils, are protected and improved.
The Farmers Guardian reported that in 2016 Natural England’s payment record was rated even worse than that of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) as it also failed to deliver the required Countryside Stewardship payments for work already done.
Its performance did not improve in 2016; farmers were kept waiting for their first Countryside Stewardship payment. Though Natural England had pledged to make advance payments to 2016 mid-tier and higher-tier scheme holders between November 2016 and January 2017, with final payments due between January and June 2017, the NFU said exasperated members were calling the union demanding to know why their payments had not arrived. Farmers Weekly understood that ongoing delays in processing payments were because of problems with IT systems and processes at Defra.
A spokeswoman for Natural England declined to comment on the number of 2016 scheme payments already made.
FW added that farmers are yet to receive the first tranche of their 2017 payments for work done. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee was scathing in its criticism of the RPA’s failure to distribute basic farm subsidies whilst requiring prompt applications from farmers (below left).
The extent of the Rural Payments Agency’s failure to pay farmers in England on time and in full is now clear. The RPA paid only 38% of farmers under the Basic Payment Scheme on 1 December 2015—first day of the payment window—compared with over 90% in previous years.
By the end of January this had risen to 76%, but at the end of March 2016 there were still 14,300 farmers (16%) who had not received any payment.
Government agencies should honour their own injunction: don’t leave it too late.
Over 10,000 farmers who had received a payment had not been paid in full. Two thirds of the additional payments made to these farmers were in excess of €1,000 and were first paid in September 2016, over 9 months after the first payment should have been received.
Farmers Weekly reported in February this year that the RPA boss was ‘blasted’ over farm payment delays and mapping.
At a NFU council meeting on 30th January at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, farmers took RPA’s chief executive Paul Caldwell to task over BPS payment delays. More than one in 10 farmers are still waiting, according to an NFU survey (see “Survey uncovers extent of delays” right) – although the RPA’s own statistics suggests that figure is nearer to one in five. NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “When you look at current payment performance and the levels of outstanding issues from previous years you could describe the RPA as ‘just about managing’.
In March 2017, having received what Miles King described as a ‘verbal beating’ (Countryside Stewardship in front of the EFRA committee) Guy Thompson, Chief Operating Officer, left Natural England and now works for Wessex Water.
Natural England announced in the autumn that it would increase first tranche payments, traditionally paid in the autumn, from 50% to 75%, with the remaining 25% following later, reflecting payment reductions or penalties.
Missing payments have reduced cashflow, leading some to take out bank loans
According to farm leaders, many claimants are still waiting for that first payment, with some now being forced to take out bank loans because of their resulting cashflow difficulties. Max Sealy, NFU county delegate for Wiltshire and a consultant with the Farm Consultancy Group, said some farms were waiting for substantial sums of money for work which they had already completed.
“What we need is clarity on the situation and better communication,” he said. But a Natural England spokesperson declined to clarify how many payments were still outstanding and when farmers could expect to see them.
Farmers who have signed up to Countryside Stewardship, or still have an old Higher-Level or Entry-Level Stewardship agreement, have yet to receive the first tranche of their 2017 payments. Farmers Weekly reports that farmers want to know when they can expect to receive their agri-environment scheme payments, with ongoing delays leading to budgeting problems and growing resentment about the way the schemes are being managed.
The Farmers Guardian then reported that Defra is to transfer delivery of the Countryside (agri-environment) Stewardship scheme from Natural England to the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) – more confusion?
NFU Deputy President Guy Smith (right) said:
“The Countryside Stewardship scheme has been plagued by poor delivery from its launch in 2015 and the NFU has been raising these concerns from day one. It seems almost every day we have complaints from members about the muddled application process, wrong maps, moving goalposts, late start dates and delayed payments. All this has undermined farmer confidence in the schemes leading to very poor uptake. Plans to improve delivery have to be welcomed but until we see improved delivery we will withhold judgement.
“I know many farmers will not be reassured that delivery is moving from NE to the RPA, which is notorious among farmers as the organisation which comprehensively screwed up the payment of the as then new Basic Payment Scheme back in 2014. A highly complex new IT system was commissioned to enable farm payments to be moved online. 7 years later the system is still not working properly.
Conservationist Miles King went further, calling for the abolition of the Rural Payments Agency before the introduction of the government’s England Agriculture Policy which is expected to be published this spring: “We need a publicly-funded independent champion for nature (as Natural England was intended to be when it was set up) and a new body which will deliver the public goods for public money”.
Will agri-business be allowed to charge ahead, imposing genetically modified food on an unwilling public?
The work is publicly funded through a £696,000 grant from the government’s UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and $294,000 from the US Department of Agriculture. Other partners include the universities of Lancaster and Illinois.
As Northern Ireland farmers combine to continue their cross-party diplomacy MP Nigel Evans has been contacted by his constituent, a Lancashire dairy farmer.
The message opens by referring to a question by Richard Arkless (SNP Dumfries & Galloway) on the 29th January to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, asking what steps the Government is taking to support milk producers in ensuring milk prices in supermarkets are maintained.
George Eustice (minister for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment) responded that the government is supporting the farming industry by reducing red tape. The farmer corrects this answer:
“This is untrue in the case of dairy farmers whose financial risk and responsibility is great and whose product is highly perishable”.
“In fact, dairy farmers are increasingly being required to spend precious time producing statistical information of little worth other than to help meet the targets of individuals within large and powerful organisations whose employment is indirectly funded by taxpayers or by compulsory levy imposed upon producers”.
The minister referred to a £26.6m aid package for the UK from the EU – a one-off, flat rate payment linked to milk production – administered by DEFRA’s Regional Payments Agency.
Did it arrive? FG Insight reports that once again, “Thousands of farmers across the UK are suffering frustrating and, in some cases, crippling waits for their new Basic Payments as administrations to struggle with the new scheme.”. A Freedom of Information request reveals that nearly 8,927 farmers have been placed in the late payment tranche alongside 4,722 commons farmers, 379 cross-border claims and 342 with ’multiple issues’. It revealed that the assessment about these payments had been made back in August. Computer Weekly confirms that – after successive software releases failed to resolve problems – a £154m system to process claims for EU subsidy payments to farmers hit problems has forced applicants to resort to paper forms.
Our farming correspondent points out that the RPA will be fined by the EU for this delay at British taxpayers expense, if deadlines are not met.
Describing the ‘solutions’ offered by industry advisers and financial institutions, encouraging farmers to increase borrowings, expand herd sizes and increase production, it is feared that these will “intensify an already precarious situation, as efficient non-aligned British dairy farmers struggle to meet ordinary running costs let alone make essential reinvestments”.
The Lancashire dairy farmer ends, “For dairy farmers, real progress and growth does not come from individual enterprises ruthlessly undercutting and competing with each other to counter inappropriate commercial or government interference, but by ebbing and flowing with the tide and doing what is best in their own district for their own farm, their own family, their own animals and their own environment, with the resources available, as an integral part of the wider rural community”.
Milk, fruit and vegetables will eventually be imported, unless British food producers are fairly paid
The FT reports that Asda also justified the low prices paid to farmers saying they were set by global supply and demand.
First Milk, the farmer-owned group, one of the UK’s biggest dairy co-operatives, has suspended payments to around 1,200 farmers for two weeks. The company said that returns had fallen 50% in the past year and yet – the FT reports – farm costs are 36% higher than they were in 2007 and the single largest cost component of a dairy farm, animal feed, is more than 50% higher.
A table from an 2007 overview: Snapshot of farming in the UK, on the BBC website (below), will be of interest to readers news to the subject. Recent price cuts mean that farmers are facing milk prices of just 20p a litre, the lowest since 2007 according to the NFU said, but the following graph indicates an earlier date.
‘Fiddling while Rome burns’, DEFRA promotes involvement with the volatile global casino: “It is important to remember that the long-term prospects are bright with exports at record levels.”
Is there any future for those who produce perishable food and are currently held to ransom – unless they join forces and demand prices covering production costs?
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who sees himself as a ‘moderniser’, lauding the government’s IT prowess, has faced several less-than-creditable charges according to his Wikileaks entry. After recruiting Tony Caplin, who recently resigned as head of the Treasury’s Public Works Loans Board, Maude has made a far more serious mistake.
Despite David Cameron’s Davos commitment to ‘reshoring’ British jobs, Francis Maude has appointed an offshore and outsourcing expert, Peter Swann, to supervise the export of jobs of civil servants who provide back-up facilities such as pay roll and contract details to Whitehall offices.
David Hencke records in the Tribune that these jobs handling sensitive personal pay roll details, and possibly criminal and police records, are to be moved offshore by private companies under a Cabinet Office initiative to save money.
A rising star
Under Swann’s leadership, Steria, a French international company with a presence in India, has a joint venture with the Cabinet Office: Shared Services Connected Ltd (SSCL) – its slogan: ‘a Trusted Transformation partner’.
The latest news on Steria’s website is that the Council of the European Union’s General Secretariat has chosen the company to secure its internal communications networks.
SSCL has already taken over back offices across the country for the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Environment Agency. It is now looking at taking over work at the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.
Within a year, it started a closure programme of sites affecting more than 500 jobs in Sheffield, Cardiff, Newport and Leeds and is looking to relocate the work to India. Other centres such as Blackpool, Newcastle, Peterborough and York will also lose staff.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said: “It will be a major blow for local economies losing hundreds more jobs . . . The Government should act now to keep these jobs in the UK, rather than attempt to cynically exploit the inferior pay and employment conditions that workers abroad face.”