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Is our demand for cheap food putting our health at risk?

The video clips are upsetting.

There’s a big bin full of dead lambs, a piglet slipping across a filth-strewn floor in search of its mother and a calf lying dead in a shed with blood seeping from its nose and mouth.

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The latest compilation of factory farming horrors assembled by the campaign group, Animal Aid, packs an emotional punch. But it also underlines the serious message that the anti-meat activists want to get across: that industrial farms can hurt humans as well.

At least 12 major diseases, which between them cause millions of people to suffer and tens of thousands to die around the world, can be blamed on factory farming, they claim. These include swine flu, bird flu, salmonella, e-coli and mad cow disease.

But the campaign has provoked a vitriolic response from the National Farmers Union (NFU) in Scotland, who condemned it as “poisonous”. Others, however, argue that the campaigners have a point, but just take it too far.

The arguments, though sometimes bitter, are important because they are about how we look after the animals on which we rely for food. And they raise the question of what we can eat without being cruel -- and without putting our own health at risk.

The video clips that Animal Aid has posted online come from uninvited visits their activists made to more than 40 farms in the UK over the last three years. They included 15 pig farms and 12 chicken farms, as well as dairy and goat enterprises.

“We found some disgusting, appalling and depressing scenes,” Animal Aid’s director, Andrew Tyler, told the Sunday Herald. “We have exposed filth, overcrowding, suffering, disease and death.”

The group has also released a new report summarising the dozen deadly diseases which they claim can be linked to intensive, factory farming (see below). “If you farm animals intensively, they get diseases,” argued Mr Tyler.

“And if people come into contact with them, they run the risk of getting sick. That is the pay-off you get from cruelty and exploitation.”

Swine flu, the report pointed out, came from pigs and had killed more than 18,000 people around the world. In the UK, there are 450,000 cases of sickness a year caused by the animal bacteria, salmonella and campylobacter.

Scotland suffered Britain’s deadliest e-coli outbreak in 1996 when the 0157:H7 strain killed 21 people and infected 400 more in Lanarkshire, the report said. They had eaten contaminated meat from a local butcher.

According to Animal Aid, approximately two-thirds of the 1,400 known human pathogens may have originated in animals. Tuberculosis is thought to have been acquired from the domestication of goats, measles and smallpox from farming cows, whooping cough from pigs, typhoid fever from chickens, and influenza from ducks.

The animal campaigners’ answer is simple: stop eating meat and other animal products. But their approach has infuriated NFU Scotland, who angrily dismissed them as extremists.

“The video from this anti-farming, animal rights group peddles an extremely distorted view of what actually happens on family farms across the UK as part of its ongoing campaign to turn the world vegetarian,” argued a NFU Scotland spokesman.

“It is a sad irony that by breaking into farms to try to capture images, these animal rights activists threaten the biosecurity and therefore the health and welfare of our stock.”

Scottish farms had a worldwide reputation for animal welfare, and worked closely with the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the spokesman said. “Thankfully, poisonous and biased campaigns like this are rarely seen as credible.”

Animal Aid denied that it broke into farms, saying it never damaged property or locks, and blamed farmers for poor biosecurity. “We commit common trespass in the public interest to gather evidence of illegal practices,” asserted Mr Tyler.

“The NFU does not look credible when it aims to duck this important debate by accusing us of being extremists. Our efforts have a great deal of support from parliamentarians, as well as from the public.”

The slanging match aside, what is the truth about the links between factory farms and human diseases? Opinions differ, but the reality is probably more complicated than Animal Aid make out.

According to Hugh Pennington, an emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University and a former government adviser, factory farming can’t be blamed for every disease. Salmonella had been spread by large-scale poultry production, he said, but there was no evidence that e-coli was associated with factory farming. Although links had been alleged with swine flu, bird flu and campylobacter, they were not proven, he argued. Sometimes the illnesses were also associated with small-scale, traditional farms, as well as with intensive production.

“Farming plays a significant role as these bugs are helped by farming practices,” Professor Pennington stated. “But I would put factory farming very low down the scale.”

For the Soil Association, which certifies organic food, the emphasis was different. “It’s no secret factory farms are breeding grounds for pathogens that can affect humans,” said its director in Scotland, Hugh Raven.

“The swine flu outbreak last year is very widely thought to have started in pig farming factories in Mexico. If further industrialisation of animal farming is allowed in Scotland, it might happen here.”

The Soil Association, however, didn’t propose a meat-free diet. “We don’t advocate vegetarianism,” continued Mr Raven, “but rather eating less but better meat and dairy products, and supporting Scotland’s livestock farmers whose animals eat what it has always produced best -- grass.”

He also pointed out that organic farms had some of the best animal welfare. And they brought other environmental benefits, including maintaining landscapes, helping store huge amounts of carbon pollution, and building soil fertility.

The respected agricultural organisation, Compassion in World Farming, took a similar view. “We don’t have to do without meat,” the group’s chief policy adviser, Peter Stevenson, told the Sunday Herald. “But we do need some major reforms.”

Some of the worst aspects of factory farming -- conventional battery hens, crammed veal crates and stalls in which sows couldn’t turn round -- were in the process of being banned, he said. But there were still huge sheds containing up to 50,000 chickens suffering from leg pains and heart disease, and as many as a third of pigs kept without any straw.

“British livestock farming, including pigs and poultry, is highly industrial and animal welfare standards are poor,” argued Mr Stevenson. Those looking to avoid meat from such places should look for free-range or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ freedom food label, he suggested.

 

The big question is whether it will be possible to feed the world’s burgeoning population without increasing intensive farming. Industrial farmers like Nocton Dairies, which has just applied for planning permission for the UK’s largest dairy farm for over 8,000 cattle in Lincolnshire, clearly think greater intensification is the future.

“The welfare of the cows will be our top priority,” though they will mostly be kept indoors, said the company. “But in addition, the scale of the operation will allow us to take advantage of unrivalled opportunities in areas such as veterinary education, renewable electricity generation and herd management.”

But a new report by experts for Compassion in World Farming and the environmental group, Friends of the Earth, suggests that there could be another way. “Contrary to current thinking,” it said, “it is possible to feed the world using solely humane, free-range, farm animal production systems.”

Scientists from the Institute of Social Ecology in Austria, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, worked out which types of food production could feed the world’s predicted population of nine billion in 2050. They assumed that no more rainforests would be cut down to make way for cattle farmers.

They showed that there were a range of possible options for feeding the world, including what they called the “fair, less meat diet”. That means that everyone could still eat meat up to three times a week -- but no more.

At present, people in rich countries eat six times as much meat as people in poor countries, so consumption in some places would have to come down, while in others it could go up. The problem is that producing meat in factory farms is very extravagant of resources, using 10 kilos of animal feed and 15,500 litres of water for just one kilo of meat.

Shifting meat-eating from the rich to poor countries would also improve the world’s health, the report argued.

“With a billion people in the world malnourished, and the same number of people obese -- overweight to a level which endangers their health -- adjusting diets globally will benefit rich countries as well as developing ones,” it concluded.

“With the adoption of healthy and fair diets, organic farming can no longer be dismissed as a luxury that the world cannot afford. In fact, a mixture of organic and free-range farming can deliver a range of sustainable diet options for the world’s 2050 population.”

  Intensive farming: The debate

  For

Robert Shearlaw says animal welfare is important, but farms had to grow bigger to become more economic.

He has a herd of 200 dairy and beef cattle at his well-run High Garphar farm, near Maybole, in south Ayrshire.

“You cannot shut yourself off from the economics of scale that large farms open up,” he said. “I think they may be the future.”

He accepted that animals that were well looked after were more productive, but argued that good, intensive farmers knew this, and made sure that their livestock didn’t suffer.

Although organic production might have a role, he didn’t think it was suitable for everyone.

“I don’t believe we will ever produce the amount of food required by adopting these techniques across the board,” he argued.

  Against

David FinLay is famous for his organic ice cream, Cream o’ Galloway. Luxurious and tasty, it has carved out a successful niche amongst those who value good, natural foods.

The ice cream is made from the milk produced at Rainton farm near Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkcudbrightshire. Covering 340 hectares of rough, rocky grassland, the farm includes 85 dairy cows, 12 beef cows and 650 sheep.

Mr Finlay is not a fan of factory farming. “It has major problems,” he said, with its dependence on artificial chemicals and fertilisers, plus its wasteful use of natural resources and the questions it raises about animal welfare.

“We are trying to find a different way that can be profitable,” he said. “We are trying to design a system that has high animal welfare, high productivity and low waste.”

This relies on the belief that animals reared in a natural environment will be better able to resist disease, and more productive. This was not some “wishy-washy nonsense,” Mr Finlay insisted, it really worked.

On the Cream o’ Galloway website, he has recently posted a video of his cows being let out to pasture for the first time this spring. When they reach the grass, they gambol like lambs in apparent glee.

“Ah yes,” he said, “my happy cows. I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but they are sentient beings, they are aware. They are not mere production units.”

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