Editorial: Who needs mega-farms?

We eat too much of the wrong sort of food. More cheap meat is no solution

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The plan for a "mega-farm" of 25,000 pigs in Derbyshire should make us uneasy. As should the proposals for a 1,000-cow dairy factory in Wales and for a 15,000-ton-a-year salmon farm in Galway Bay off Ireland, on which we also report today.

The Independent on Sunday opposes these steps towards the further intensification of farming, but we should be clear why.

The standards of animal welfare in these huge farms would probably be no worse than those in British agriculture generally; in some respects, they would be better. Standards of pig husbandry in the UK are higher than in some other parts of the European Union, and the proposed salmon farm intends to meet the requirements of "organic" labelling, which dictate that fish be kept at densities no greater than 1 per cent of the volume of water, for example.

Pragmatically, welfare standards are more likely to be enforced in larger units: they are easier to inspect and their owners will have a greater incentive to maintain their reputation.

That said, it would do no harm if the debate about these vast factories raised awareness of animal welfare generally. The striking statistic about the application for the 1,000-cow unit in Powys is that the cows would be inside for 250 days of the year. Again, this is better than many existing farms, including so-called zero-grazing units in which cows are kept indoors all year round, but it is a reminder that current minimum standards are set too low.

The growing intensification of pig, cattle and fish farming should also remind us that poultry farming, in particular, is already too intensive, and that progress in raising minimum standards for battery chickens and broiler sheds is being made too slowly. It would be regrettable if the attitude of Bernard Matthews, who has described his firm as "Europe's biggest turkey manufacturer", were to spread to livestock farming.

The real objection to the further industrialisation of agriculture, though, is environmental. Monoculture over vast areas of arable land reduces biodiversity, but huge concentrations of animals pose other dangers too. They are bad for the health of the animals, because diseases and parasites spread further and faster; they are bad for the local environment in that there is more and more concentrated effluent; and they are potentially more risky for human health, in that if anything goes wrong, such as the BSE problem, the scale and speed of transmission is greater.

It may be objected that our concern for the environment is typical of the London wholefood classes, and that this newspaper risks patronising those who cannot afford delicacies sourced by bijou charcuteries from farmers known personally to all their customers. That is, however, a red herring – possibly an organic one. The problem we have as a nation with food is not that it is too expensive, but that, on the whole, we eat too much of the wrong sorts of food. More cheap meat produced in conditions of cruelty is not the way forward.

At a time when we should be moving towards less intensive agriculture, seeking to minimise its environmental impact, and given that we should be consuming less meat – and more of it free range, we should now be trying to encourage diversified, smaller-scale agriculture.

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