Thursday, 24 March 2016

In or out? It all depends…

As arguments about whether Britain would be better off in our out of the EU multiply, it all depends say Dr Carmen Hubbard and Professor David Harvey from Newcastle University's Centre for Rural Economy in our latest Landbridge blog.

So much debate, so many arguments and it’s only March.  Will anything be clearer by the time the referendum on UK membership of the EU actually takes place in June?  Will the British people have a clear idea of what they want to achieve by means of their vote?  Or will they be responding to a “gut feeling”?

As academics we try always to consider the evidence, but the problem with Brexit is that so much evidence is either missing or speculative at best.  Answers to whether the UK would be better off outside the European community are invariably “it depends” or that “gut feeling”.

Looking first at trade and the rural economy, our main areas of concern, we immediately become conscious of the unknowns.  Leaving the EU means leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but without knowing what financial support (if any) would replace it, this is bound to make farmers and agri-companies nervous.  It’s certainly possible that the Treasury would seize the opportunity to reduce agricultural subsidies or even abandon them altogether (particularly the direct payments).  That may be the most extreme potential outcome, but it would certainly have consequences for most of the UK’s farmers.  Shifting these responsibilities to the devolved governments of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland might be a more likely scenario but there has been no obvious discussion about this.

Literature from both the “in” and “out” campaigns features possible effects on food prices.  Unpicking these is complicated.  Much of the food we eat in Britain is imported and consumers expect all year round access to a wide range of fresh produce.  Whether they would end up paying less or more for these after Brexit would depend largely on new trade agreements, and on the strength or weakness of sterling.  This could be a nudge towards greater self-sufficiency, although British farms might also suffer from restrictions on free movement of seasonal labour from EU member states.  And on the issue of the wider economy it is striking that, even with so many unknowns, a poll of the FT’s leading thinkers found almost three-quarters did not think that Brexit would enhance UK growth in 2016.

Beyond agriculture and the rural economy, there is a much bigger picture that must be considered.  Regulation is often cited as an expense that the EU imposes upon member states.  Employee protection, the Working Time Directive, the renewable energy strategy, regulation of the banking industry, are all among the most costly.  Whether a post Brexit UK Government would lightly abandon them is, of course, another question.  The other elephant that seems to be dominating the room is immigration and the refugee crisis, although any closer examination of the issue makes it clear that this has no real bearing on the “in or out” question.  Our global responsibilities to people fleeing war, civil instability, persecution, or indeed poverty, remain the same.

In the long run, most economic analysis would indicate that the UK will survive and even thrive, whether inside or outside Europe.  But how quickly and to what degree this situation might prevail after Brexit would depend on negotiating new trade agreements, implementing new regulations and absorbing the costs of transition.  In the meantime the costs of uncertainty are impossible to calculate, the refugee crisis will continue to challenge us and there might even be a threat of disintegration within the UK and a residue of ill feeling between us and our European neighbours.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Whose welfare? Pig farmer Kate Morgan reflects on the industry

Pig farmer Kate Morgan recently attended a workshop organised on “Developing and integrated approach to health, welfare and productivity” funded by the Wellcome Trust and shared some thoughts about the practicalities of livestock production with fellow land-based professionals and academics.  In the Landbridge blog she explains what life is like for a hands-on pig farmer who wants to set high welfare standards for her stock.


Welfare is a funny business when it comes to farming. Having travelled to many countries looking at welfare in the pig industry it’s fair to say that “welfare” depends on your perception and no two people see things in the same light.  I am, however, very passionate about the way I see welfare and that’s the only way I want to farm our pigs.  But this is where the problem starts.  Raising a pig on straw does not carry a premium, yet it costs us more to produce and, in my opinion, it’s a better life for the pig.

I should perhaps say we have 1700 breeding sows indoors all based on straw.  For one week out of the five they spend in farrowing accommodation they are in freedom pens. We also have an outdoor unit with 1200 sows. On both units we take all the progeny through to slaughter in large straw yards.

I don’t like to be all doom and gloom but currently the pig industry is in a bit of a crisis. There is just too much pork available for the demand.  All the product from Europe which used to go to Russia is now flooding into the UK and with the strength of the pound retailers can’t help themselves but opt to buy cheaper meat. My problem with this is that farms in Europe don’t meet our standards. As a business we are in a really tough situation where we want to produce pigs to the high welfare standards that we believe in, but our efforts go unnoticed and we aren’t being paid for them.  Retailers used to want a nice story about how we raise the pigs but things have changed.  Now they are telling us to produce a pig as cheaply as we possibly can, and that means having slats, not straw. As our farm stands today we cannot compete against Europe because we just can’t produce a pig as cheaply, so what do we do? Are we fools to even think that people will pay a premium for an animal that’s had a better life?  People demand cheap food, legislation is not enforced and, more importantly, what consumers say they want and what they do are two very different things. Do we get rid of all our nice straw yards and put fully controlled, insulated slatted buildings up and pack the pigs through? Whatever we do now we will have to carry on doing for the next 20 years.  A 2000 place finisher building on slats will cost us over half a million pounds so it’s not an easy decision either way.

The work that the Wellcome Trust is carrying out could be a really positive move forward for livestock farmers.  However, like with all research the hard part is not always the collecting the data but actually spreading the word.  After attending the meeting with the Trust I came away thinking we were not stupid believing so passionately about the welfare of our animals and that other people also feel the same way however it’s all about perception and how you prove that one animal is happier than the other is a massive task in itself!

Antibiotic usage is only going to become under more and more pressure and rightly so.  Numerous time I’ve heard people say livestock are performing well so they must be healthy and happy. I don’t buy this.  We operate our outdoor progeny on an antibiotic-free system and so long as we operate an all-in-all-out system, with strict bio security, our pigs go through well, but they will never be the fasting growing animals. Antibiotics can be used as growth promotors and using them as a preventative is not the correct method, but farmers doing this will have quicker growing pigs than mine.

I love farming and to be honest I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t farming but I do feel we are up against it most of the time. We are all tarred with the same brush but are all sorts of farmers any time, because I have nothing to hide.  But something needs to change because we are producing a product from a live animal that must be looked after and paid for fairly. So, to open another can of worms let’s leave the EU and support our country because I’m sure the EU need us more than we need them.