NPA chair makes the case for large farms in Radio 4 debate

NPA chairman Richard Lister has stressed that there is no evidence to suggest animal welfare is poorer on large farms.

Mr Lister, who farms 3,300 indoor sows across four units in North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, debated the issue of large farms with Guardian journalist Fiona Harvey on BBC’s Farming Today programme on Wednesday (eight minutes).

This followed the publication of a major article in the Guardian, based on a joint investigation with the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, highlighting a 26% increase in pig and poultry farms defined as ‘intensive’ by the Environment Agency. Only 12 counties now have no pig or poultry farms classified as intensive by the agency, which sets the ‘intensive’ thresholds at 40,000 poultry places and 2,000 pig places or 750 sows.

Ms Harvey claimed people were ‘concerned’ about the rise in large farms because they felt animals were ‘unable to express their natural behaviour, such as outdoor grazing, in a way they could if they were on a traditional farm’ and because of the way medication was used. “If one animal gets sick, the whole herd has to be treated,” she said, adding that local people sometimes complained about ‘living near some of these facilities’.

Mr Lister countered: “I can understand why people would be worried. But there is certainly no evidence at all to suggest that a large farm has poorer welfare than a small farm. A large farm is likely to have more trained staff on site and people there for more hours in the day.

“In the Red Tractor Scheme, which covers over 90% of the pigs in the UK, welfare is closely monitored. There is a scientific scoring system, which is monitored every quarter by a pig vet and there is nowhere else in the world doing that.”

Ms Harvey acknowledged that large farms can produce at lower cost and but questioned whether this equated to ‘cheap food at all costs’, pointing out that a lot of smaller farms were going out of business. She blamed the trend towards large farms on the fact that consumers were not prepared to pay for higher standards.

Relatively small

But Mr Lister pointed out that UK farms are ‘relatively small compared to our competitors’.

He said: “A farm of 2,000 pigs is insufficient to employ a full-time person, so we need economies of scale. Small farms are under pressure across all species and people have to innovate to stay in business on smaller scale.”

Presenter Anna Hill challenged Ms Harvey on a what has been described as a ‘loaded’ survey being run by the Guardian on the back of the report. The survey has been heavily criticised for leading respondents by, for example, asking people to outline their ‘concerns’ related to large farms. One Twitter user described it as a ‘misleading, biased tool’, while others pointed out there was nowhere to voice positive opinions on large farms.

Ms Harvey said users could post supportive comments if they wished.

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Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.