“…This government has always been quite comfortable with importing… more food from abroad – cheaper imports – and not worrying about our food security and producing at home here, and I think that philosophy is starting to show now…”(Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Producers’ Association, on the BBC’s Farming Today on 6 October.)
On the same day that Boris Johnson made a speech to Tory conference which seems to follow on from his infamous “F*ck business” remark, no-one should be surprised to hear that the government’s real intentions towards UK agriculture are no more supportive.
Allen’s comment is particularly striking: at last someone in the know has described things clearly and frankly. You might argue that he has an axe to grind, that ‘he would say that anyway’, but even some loyal Conservative MPs have begun to spell things out: in uncharacteristically candid terms, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Chairman Neil Parish (MP for Tiverton and Honiton) hinted at the true situation on 16 September when he told Farming Today: “Yes, we need more home-grown labour, but if we haven’t got it or they’re not trained to do it or they don’t want to do the work, it will not happen… If we’re not going to import labour, in the long run we may well export our business”.
The current crisis on pig farms, with around 120,000 pigs now due to be culled, perfectly illustrates the effects of reducing the pool of migrant labour and this government’s inadequate response to the resulting difficulties. Mainstream media and the public are finally catching up, with screaming headlines in the tabloid press, but pig farmers have been warning of this for months. I am no expert but I believe it’s long been clear that owing to a combination of factors – the shortage of carbon dioxide (used to stun animals before slaughter), the shortage of vets, slaughtermen and butchers at abattoirs, the shortage of food-processing workers, the shortage of HGV drivers, the list goes on – there has been a disaster building, as farmers have been forced to keep pigs on farms well beyond the time when they would normally be sent for slaughter.
Most farms rear pigs to a contract agreed with, usually, a meat wholesaler or supermarket: that x pigs will be produced for slaughter at a particular weight – and size – per week. If the pigs cannot be accepted by the abattoirs because those facilities are short of slaughtermen and butchers, the animals have to be retained on the farm, but (such is the demand for pork, and the size of the nation’s pig herd) there are always more pigs ‘behind them’, also all growing – and fast, to that critical size and weight.
The farms must continue feeding and accommodating all the pigs, even after they have grown beyond the size required by the contract, until they can be removed from the farm; or – as is happening now – until space runs out, welfare of the animals cannot be assured and costs become unsustainable. Farmers then have no choice: pigs must be culled.
An on-farm cull is entirely different from normal slaughter, and the details aren’t pretty. Legislation demands that a vet must be present, at least to supervise even if not actually to kill the animals. And there is a shortage of vets.
Judging by his flippant remarks about bacon sandwiches – ‘the pigs are going to be killed anyway’ – our ever-jocular prime minister does not know (or will not admit, despite claiming that his family used to raise pigs) that meat from culled animals – those killed on the farm, rather than slaughtered at abattoirs in the usual way – cannot be used for human consumption. Some of the carcases will be rendered: boiled down, probably for pet food or for animal feed ingredients. The rest will probably have to be incinerated or buried.
Although the number of people who depend on food banks continues to rise, this government seems not to care about the prospect of destroying and dumping tens of thousands of tonnes of meat from animals which were reared to feed people.
This is disgusting. Immoral. And all because of Brexit ideology to restrict immigration.
Faced with risks to the supply of pigs in blankets for the festive dinner plate, and forced to act to head off accusations of ruining a second Christmas in a row, the government is now said to be considering issuing temporary visas for up to 1,000 butchers from within the EU.
As in so many other respects with this government it’s a case of too little, too late. Much too late.
I’ve heard the Farming Today presenters saying repeatedly over the past weeks, in any number of contexts (dairy tanker drivers, fishermen, vets, pig farmers…) that they have asked Defra for interviews and have been told ‘no-one is available’. Instead, virtually the same statement has been provided every time: that Defra ‘are keeping the market situation under close review and are working closely with the sector during this time’: I know it off by heart now.
It has illustrated the wilful lack of engagement with agriculture – this is, after all, the government whose long-awaited, revolutionary, once-in-a-generation post-Brexit Agriculture Bill disappointed so many people on so many levels – but the real agenda is now becoming clear to all. How else can it be that the man at the forefront of the government’s interaction with farmers, George Eustice the Defra secretary, can have given a main Conservative party conference speech without even mentioning the pig industry?
Questioned at a subsequent ‘fringe’ meeting, he is reported not to have fully acknowledged the scale of the crisis – a ploy everyone in government seems to use these days, in whatever circumstances. He is also reported to have said that British supermarkets were sourcing most of their pork from eastern Europe and processing it here, which, he claimed, proves there is no shortage of meat processing workers. If not knowingly uttering an untruth, he was poorly informed for a man in his position: the meat is imported – not from ‘eastern Europe’ but from Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands – already de-boned and it does not require skilled butchers to be redeployed (from lines processing British pork) to prepare it further. Sadly, of course, these details will bypass most people and it will be just the usual selective soundbites they remember.
Such is the British demand for pork that supermarkets, unsurprisingly, are now buying even more than usual from other countries to ensure continuity of supply, and, coincidentally, German pork producers are currently able to sell more than usual to the UK because problems with swine fever have affected their pork exports to China. Much of this pork has been produced to lower standards of animal welfare than those practised by UK farmers, standards which most British people are said to want. It may have taken years of campaigning by animal welfare activists, but British pig farmers have been following higher standards even though it has sometimes put them at an economic disadvantage. All that progress towards a more humane system now looks to be in serious jeopardy.
There may be scant public sympathy for British farmers because of the perception that most spent their lives complaining about the EU and then voted for Brexit. This is not universally true – the proportions vary across the country – but to get bogged down in these arguments is to miss wider points which should concern us all.
We should accept that most people will still want to buy meat if they can afford it but will not have the time, the concern or the inclination to check where it comes from; but should we also accept that, whilst British pig businesses go to the wall, cheaper pork imported from lower-welfare countries will become the norm?
And although there is strong environmental and health evidence that we should be eating less meat, any substantial change in the nation’s diet – unless forced on everyone by post-Brexit food shortages of course – will take years to effect. In the meantime, millions of animals will be reared, transported and slaughtered in mass-production facilities where only lip-service is paid to their welfare – if at all.
If farms here go out of business, it will also result in huge, visible changes to the British countryside which so many of us claim to love. Family farms in Wales are already being bought up by hedge funds based in London, not because the investment managers fancy turning their hands to agriculture as part of a local rural community, but instead to turn the land into plantations, part-funded by Welsh government subsidy. (You couldn’t make it up…) Of course we need more trees planted to offset carbon emissions, but hedge funds (no pun intended) are not known for their altruism. There’s big ‘free’ money in them thar trees.
The government’s insistence that British industries must begin investing in British workers, paying them more and offering better working conditions, is laudable but ignores many of the realities. One of those is that we British clearly lack many of the skills which the country needs and which were previously supplied by migrant workers. The proportion of EU nationals employed in meat processing before the pandemic was reported to be as high as 85 per cent in some factories. Often thought of as ‘unskilled’, their jobs can take a long time to master: it takes a butcher 18 months’ training to work safely and competently at speed.
Nick Allen sums it up: “We’ve got a change in the agricultural system that looks as though it’s not going to do much to encourage production, they’re [the government] signing trade deals all over the world, and… the path we’re on is that British production will become niche, that the wealthier can afford, and most of the food will be imported, cheaper food, and actually if you look at some of the articles that some of our politicians have written in the past, they subscribe to that theory.”
George Eustice, Michael Gove et al promised that our standards of animal welfare would not be compromised by Brexit. And even this year – in February when he addressed the NFU Conference – Eustice said farmers could face the future with confidence and that the UK’s self-sufficiency in food production was increasing.
That’s not how it looks at all.