One recent night in Dodge County, Wisconsin, a deputy sheriff made a strange discovery. Strewn across the highway were hundreds upon thousands of small, red sweets. The sweets turned out to be Skittles – factory rejects – reportedly fallen from the back of a truck while on their way to be fed to some cows.
Holy cow! “Is this safe?” the online community (and colleagues) cried, as thoughts jumped to the chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-laced beef, and faeces-lakes that are synonymous with America’s deregulated food industry.
Well, yes, the experts said. In general, it is fine for confectionary food waste to be mixed into animal diets. It can be nutritious, cheap, and can even be considered sustainable, as one advisor from the UK’s National Farmers’ Union told BBC Newsbeat.
But is it fine – really?
The global food system is broken. In 2015, UNICEF found that over 155 million children were stunted from malnutrition. Over 40 million are overweight or obese. And the UN believes we only have 60 years left of farmable soil. So what are Skittles’ place in this story?
According to Professor Liam Sinclair, President of the British Society of Animal Science, there is pressure around the world towards ever-larger economies of scale. In America, that has taken the shape of the “Feedlot” system, which keeps vast numbers of cattle on controlled feeding regimes for a much great proportion of their lives. That usually means more Skittles, or at least grain, as well as more pesticides, steroids, and GM crops.
And more of it could be coming our way. “Unless the UK government puts something in place relatively quickly [after Brexit]”, Sinclair says with regard to leaving the EU, “then potentially we could have a large amount of these products coming in”. This could bring increased choice for consumers – but also increased pressure for our farmers to compete with the cheaper, mass-produced meat.
So how will the British government choose to regulate our agriculture or set our trade deals? What will they decide is enough Skittles, processed-feed or antibiotics for animals – and in turn us – to consume?
With an inquiry opened into “the implications of Brexit for agriculture”, now is the time for the public to start some beef over Brexit’s cows.
Here are the key voices:
The National Farmers’ Union
To date the EU has been more wary of intensive, large-scale agriculture than America: eighty-two pesticides currently used in the US are banned here on health and environmental grounds. Foods using GM ingredients must be labelled as such and no GM crops are commercially grown in the UK. Chickens must not be washed in chlorine, nor pig’s carcasses sprayed with acid.
But The National Farmers’ Union, which represents the British agriculture, is concerned that some regulations may be holding the UK back.
NFU director of policy, Andrew Clark, is aware that washing chicken with chlorine, for instance, “may give USA chicken a price advantage on EU markets”.
So as regulatory powers shift to Westminster, the NFU is calling on the Government “to listen to the latest evidence so that UK consumers can continue to enjoy supplies of safe and secure produce and that UK producers can compete on even terms in our market.”
The NFU’s concern with lowering costs is little surprise in the context of an industry already battling low returns. Many of the UK’s smaller livestock farmers already fear extinction: “Brexit could be a disaster for us,” I was told by a cattle farmer from Wales, whose annual profit is only equal to the amount he receives in EU subsidy.
Add in the prospect of increased competition from mass-produced foreign imports, not to mention new EU tariffs on our exports (potentially as high as 59% for beef), and you have a recipe for thin gruel for British farms.
The Organic Farmer
But can you drive down costs without compromising standards, as the NFU suggests?
Guy Watson is an organic farmer from Devon and founder of Riverford – a meat and veg-box delivery scheme that has been hailed as The Observer’s “Ethical product of the decade”. He believes that Britain’s movement towards a deregulated economy is an alarming probability and an unwelcome one.
“From what I see around me I’m pretty despairing,” he tells me on the phone. “This relentless march towards scale and specialisation delivers really very, very marginally cheaper food – and when the costs to society, both environmentally and socially, are not warranted.”
Watson’s move away from pesticide-based farming has personal roots: “I suffered from making myself sick spraying my father’s corn. My brother had just come out of hospital with chemical poisoning and I didn’t want to use all these containers with skull and crossbones on them.”
Instead, he now advocates the advantages of a “mixed” farming system, where both animals and crops are farmed together in balanced moderation: “If you talk to any ecologist they will say the secret to richness and stability is diversity.”
The benefits can be wide-reaching. We’ve all heard that cows – and specifically their methane-heavy farts – contribute more to climate change than cars. But the Soil Association argues that animals grazed on grass, for at least the larger part of the year, actually help sequester carbon from the atmosphere – with their manure and movement helping to fertilise and aerate the soil.
Watson is hopeful that such ecological thinking is catching on – he has even heard talk of arable-only farmers considering bringing livestock back. “I think there is a new generation of much more broad-minded farmers, who might not want to be organic but are interested in learning what they can from organic farming and have a very healthy crossover of knowledge.”
But this approach can only thrive with government support. According to a report from People and Nature, the transfer of current EU subsidies from large landowners to smaller-scale, ecologically-savvy farming would be a good place to start. Without such interventions, the UK risks increasing the quality gap and leaving produce like Riverford’s affordable only to the few.
So to which branch of agricultural science should the government listen? The agro-ecologists? Or Big Agriculture’s seed, feed and chemical companies?
The divides were dramatised during a recent debate, hosted by the charity SendaCow and chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby – the BBC broadcaster and one-time seller of organic “Dimbleburgers”.
On the panel was Mark Buckingham, a representative from the giant seed company Monsanto. After some probing from Dimbleby, Buckingham revealed that he believes technological tools – such as Genetically Modified seeds or the new “Gene Edited” crops – are key to meeting the challenges of population growth and climate change. “If we don’t have sufficient water, if we have very high temperatures, then you start to lose the yield. You need to protect as much yield as possible and if we can use some of these techniques they will be very beneficial.”
Buckingham also insisted that time was of the essence in getting these technologies accepted. We have had a run of record global harvests, he told the audience, “yet prices are not rock bottom – we are eating all of these record harvests we are producing, so the challenge is huge.”
A sceptic might wonder whether the company’s insistence on speedy uptake is related to fears that, like with smoking or asbestos in the past, there has yet been sufficient time to see the long-term ramifications of GM. And there is evidence to suggest that yields of GM crops in America are also no greater than their GM-free equivalents in Europe.
But the real argument that intensive, mass-produced crops (and the meat they feed) has been winning is on price. And for Professor Liam Sinclair of the British Society of Animal Science, this subject has to be seen part of the equation. “The consumer has a lot of power over where they want things to go” says Sinclair. “They can complain and say we don’t like feedlots or we don’t like GM crops or we don’t like this or the next. But if ultimately they end up buying the cheapest thing, which often comes from those systems, then are promoting those systems and farmers have to respond to that.”
If consumers’ purchase power is so important, how can we exercise it effectively? The Red Tractor Label, the Soil Association’s Certifications, and a new black-topped milk-bottle scheme thought up by the Free Range Milk Marketing Board, all give varying degrees of information about how food as reared. But there is often too little information on packaging to tell you about the kind of farm an animal was raised on or how.
So how can this be improved? New technology might also make it easier for supermarkets to document and share information about their products. “Potentially we will be able to genotype an animal at birth and follow it all the way through,” say Professor Sinclair, “so you can actually see whether it’s been fed grass or not.” Such technology could potentially even allow you to link directly to the websites – or even webcams – of the specific farms.
But there is a limit to how much information shoppers are willing are able to digest. “It’s just ridiculous to think that people are going to make informed decisions on everything – whether to buy an electric car, what brand of loo-paper to buy, and what food to buy,” says Guy Watson. “To assume somehow that market forces are going to drive sensible policies on these things is completely ridiculous. Mostly it’s the job of governments and specialists – and to just abdicate that responsibility is absurd. The government needs to decide whether we are going to allow neonictinoids and whether we are going to keep out beef hormone free or let it go to hell.”
Earlier this year, DEFRA Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom promised she would not lower environmental and animal welfare standards in the face of tough trade deals. But as the government gathers evidence for its inquiry, will they treat the headline-grabbing issues of chlorine-chickens and GM crops as isolated issues? Or as symptoms of wider decisions to be made about how our farms operate and the choices consumers are helped to make?