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The real cost of cheap food

News Section Icon Published 29/08/2012

The 'ITV Tonight' programme The Real Cost of Cheap Food shown on ITV1 on Friday evening, explored the issue of intensification of farming in Britain.

The discussion of the external cost of factory farming and how we can feed an ever-growing population on finite resources was welcome. But many watching the programme may well have gone away with an inaccurate picture of what intensive meat and dairy production actually means for animals, people and the planet.

Below we look at several aspects of the programme - and what you were not told.


'Tonight' visited an indoor pig farm. But the pig farm featured as an example of the "modern farming methods" being used today was not representative of intensive farming in the UK. Most significantly, the farm did not show conventional farrowing crates, which are present on the vast majority of intensive pig farms in the UK but the new enhanced crates with straw bedding.

In natural conditions, a day or two before giving birth, a sow will build a nest of grass, twigs, leaves and branches. In industrial farms, however, a few days before giving birth, the sow is moved to a farrowing crate, which usually contains no nesting material. The extreme lack of space in the crate means that she can barely move. She cannot fulfil her strong instinct to build a nest nor can she mother her piglets properly. The sow is kept in the crate until her piglets are weaned at three to four weeks of age.

The danger is that viewers could presume that most sows are kept in the enhanced crates and not the old-fashioned crates and make choices at the checkout without being fully aware of the implications for the animals of those choices.

Dairy cows

The dairy farm visited was more typical of what could be considered an intensive dairy, with zero grazed cows who are never allowed out into fields and pushed to produce a huge 9,600 litres of milk a year. This means they cannot get all their energy needs from grass, as they would be able to if they were not pushed to produce such massive amounts of milk.

The pursuit of ever higher yields (the amount of milk a dairy cow produces) is illogical both in a business and animal welfare sense. Indeed, a recent report by Dairy Co, a not-for-profit organisation set up to help dairy farmers "solve market failure" in the industry, concluded "Average yield per cow is not the main driver of profit"

Dairy farmer Richard Fair told Tonight: "We can tell if a cow is happy or unhappy in the same way that you can with your family members or your workmates. We have to have contented cows and I ask you to look at these cows and tell me do they look contented, do they look chilled? Because if they're not, they will not perform as we want them to."

But rather than looking at them to judge if they look "chilled", let's ask the experts. A scientific opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says: "Long term genetic selection for high milk yield is the major factor causing poor welfare, in particular health problems, in dairy cows."

Countering the argument that dairy cows don't need access to pasture it adds: "If dairy cows are not kept on pasture for parts of the year, i.e. they are permanently on a zero-grazing system, there is an increased risk of lameness, hoof problems, teat tramp, mastitis, metritis, dystocia, ketosis, retained placenta and some bacterial infections."

It is true that farming is at a crossroads. The price of cheap meat and dairy products is far greater than many may have inferred from the Tonight programme.

  • The cost to animal welfare, with animals being deprived of the opportunity to carry out their natural behaviours and being pushed beyond their limits to produce more.
  • The cost to human health, with routine antibiotic use on intensive farms threatening the effectiveness of antibiotics as disease-causing bacteria become more resistant to them, which could damage the health of our families.
  • The cost to the rural economy, with fewer people employed by huge intensive farms than smaller outdoor units.
  • The cost to the environment of concentrating large numbers of animals in the same place with all of the pollution problems this carries with it.

These are all reasons why consumers should choose to eat meat less often and choose higher welfare options when they do.

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