Scale and intensity in UK livestock production
Throughout most of Britain, apart from hill and marginal areas, livestock production has changed completely since the end of WW2. We have moved from small-scale mixed farming to many fewer, much larger specialist enterprises, often keeping only one type of animal; laying hens, broilers, turkeys or ducks, pigs, dairy cows, dairy goats, dairy calves and heifers, lowland beef or sheep. Specialisation has embraced buildings, equipment, labour, disease control, nutrition, waste disposal, and management regimes. The results have been huge reductions in real retail prices to consumers, and year-round availability of a wide range of hygienic products to meet the increased demands of a larger, more prosperous population.
While these developments are more advanced in Western Europe and North America, similar changes are occurring worldwide.
Agriculture fed 2 billion people in 1900, 3 billion in 1950, 7 billion in 2000. Many of these are incorporating more livestock-derived components in their diets at the same time as they embrace all the other material components of life. And world population is expected to increase further, at least to 9 billion by 2050.
But this expansion of living standards has been fuelled by non-renewable 'natural capital': coal, oil, gas, iron, copper, and other minerals. And it has resulted in pollution and habitat destruction on a wholly new scale. Nothing has been left untouched: air, water, and land. In addition, we have sometimes abused the welfare of our livestock, and continue to do so in the views of some of our consumers. We have misused medication regimes. And our success in reducing food costs (relative to incomes) has led to people undervaluing food, and wasting too much.
In looking ahead towards a future food policy for the UK, with the greater independence implied by BREXIT, we cannot expect to continue 'business as usual'. Lessons from the 20th century will be taken on board at different rates around the world, but the signs are that the UK will be an early reactor. Far from the naive hopes of freedom from excess EU regulations, we must surely expect our agriculture to be more controlled by the society we service. Farmers may have to accept more limits on their use of the 'natural capital' which they control, and to internalise some of the costs which they have been allowed to ignore (air and water pollution, fuel taxes, biodiversity reduction). To compensate, we may see new payments for provision of 'public goods'.
As a contribution to the evolution of a new national policy, the WCF and FRAgS has decided to jointly produce a report giving a perspective on the future developments in the livestock sectors. A number of contributors have agreed to produce short summaries on different aspects: historical development and economics, animal welfare, poultry, pigs, dairy cattle, consumer and retailer perceptions. These will be discussed at a general meeting in London on 5 September. We hope that as many Fellows and Associates with an interest in this area will attend and make their views known. The Report will then be based upon the contributors' background material and the proceedings at the meeting.