A hard pill to swallow: animal agriculture is killing us off

When we think of British farmers and animal agriculture we often think of them as custodians of an idyllic land, tending to their flocks that wander and graze over the rich, green grass of the British Isles. Maybe this image evokes some essence of national pride, especially knowing that we are somewhat better than other nations in food standards – like the US with their chlorinated chicken. Whilst some don’t like to admit it, this is likely down to EU legislation.

Despite this, lurking in our land of hope and glory there are more than 800 American-style ‘mega farms’ in the UK.  The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reported that between 2010 and 2016, over 4000 smaller farms have closed as a consequence of the rise of these mega-farms. Considering that over 51% of all greenhouse emissions come from animal agriculture (with methane being 20 – 100 times more potent than CO2), UK mega-farms are only further worsening the economic and environmental situation within the countryside. Tories like Zac Goldsmith have echoed this sentiment, arguing that “American-style agribusiness comes with serious environmental and animal welfare implications, as well as posing a threat to our small and family farmers”. Frustratingly, we as a nation actively oppose American agricultural standards, despite the fact that a similar system is active in our countryside. We should be worried and angry that these practices take place in the first place.

Over 51% of all greenhouse emissions come from animal agriculture. UK mega-farms are only further worsening the economic and environmental situation within the countryside.

To give a sense of the scale of these ‘mega-farms’, it was reported that within Herefordshire alone one mega-farm was breeding over 20,000 pigs, 2000 cows, and at least 1,000,000 chicks. In the county, the human population is outnumbered 88 to 1. On a national level, over 85% of British land is used for animal agriculture. The ONS reports that the UK population is expected to exceed 70,000,000 by 2030; we must seriously question whether we really have the housing to support basic welfare needs — and whether animal agriculture is preventing us from building new homes. 

Two inferences can be made: firstly, animal agriculture is land consuming. Secondly, in an age of sustainability, the public should be more conscious of the environmental impact of the animal-agricultural industry. The apathy within a section of the mainstream press to report on the ethical and environmental considerations surrounding the meat and dairy industry is problematic, and inhibits the access to education and awareness. The focus is instead solely on coal and oil consumption. Without this exposure, the press and the public cannot hold government policy to account. With that said, policy surrounding animal-agriculture lacks transparency in the first place, especially surrounding environmental accountability.

With Brexiteers arguing that by leaving the EU we will gain our own sovereignty and powers ‘to make our own laws’ for ourselves, to them I say our policy on animal agriculture must be bolder and more daring. If the UK wants to lead the way in a post-Brexit world on issues like environmentalism, then we have to be decisive now — especially if we want a trade policy with the US that ensures we don’t lower our food standards for the sake of trade. 

There is a Climate Change Levy in the UK, but it is ultimately flawed as it groups all British sectors under a common policy, which includes the agricultural industry. Placing levy rates on electricity, gas and solid fuel is fine. However, animal agriculture’s biggest production of emissions isn’t from electricity, gas, or solid fuel – but from the animal itself. Mega-farms need to be regulated by a bold Climate Change Levy that is independent of current policy. For instance, a tax levy could consist of the following:

  1. A levy upon the amount of land used for animals over x number of hectares.
  2. A levy on the number of animals reared over x number.
  3. A levy imposed on the production of emissions created over x number of kg, e.g. methane. 

Whilst this appears controversial, the reality is that for 100g of beef produced, 105kg of greenhouse gases are produced as a consequence. That is around 1.05kg of emissions per gram of beef – which is just astounding if we consider the fact that one of the biggest mega-farms in the country holds up to 2000 cows. This drastically contrasts with the fact that tofu only produces less than 3.5kg of greenhouse gases per 100g. In creating new tax levy, it should encourage mega-farms to significantly cut down on the number of animals they rear, and the amount of land they take up. As soon as farms comply then the levy is reduced. Moreover, by ring-fencing the money that is brought in, it can be reinvested into renewables that could be used to power infrastructure and hospitals across the nation. With less land being used, we can build more affordable homes and fix the country’s housing crisis.

It has been proposed that up to 15 million hectares of British land would be freed up if animal-agriculture was totally abolished in the UK. Yet, whilst I believe this unlikely to happen – or at least, any time soon – forcing mega-farms into considering their environmental and economic impact on our already fragile environment can only ever do good. In doing so, as a nation of consumers, we would have the means of forging a new relationship between ourselves and our food – and those who produce it. Yet this only comes from creating an honest dialogue, which cannot be done until the facts are made public.

The aim of this article was to provoke debate and offer a concept that may be undeveloped, but that raises awareness of the way our animal-agricultural industry works and could be legislated.

About James Cottis

Second-year English Literature student at the University of Sheffield. Can be found frequently listening to Shirley Bassey and shaking from a silly amount of caffeine.

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