Once in a generation opportunity to transform food and farming

Once in a generation opportunity to transform food and farming

A blog by Emma Slawinski, Director of Advocacy and Policy

In the coming days we're expecting the government's response to the groundbreaking National Food Strategy report. This report, an independent review for the government led by Henry Dimbleby, made very clear recommendations based on moving us from a broken food system to one which must:

Make us well instead of sick. 

Be resilient enough to withstand global shocks. 

Help to restore nature and halt climate change so that we hand on a healthier planet to our children. 

Meet the standards the public expect, on health, environment, and animal welfare.

The report was warmly welcomed by the RSPCA.

What do we hope to see?

The report contains 14 recommendations, which would bring about the positive food production system described above. Along with many organisations concerned with animal welfare, health or the environment we're waiting anxiously to see whether the government's response will match the level of ambition expressed in the report, and the urgent need for reform. At a time where people are concerned about how to feed their families, a forward looking, progressive food strategy is more important than ever - we need to fix the food system to ensure fair access to sufficient, high-quality food for everyone. 

So what do we think is needed: a trade policy that safeguards consumers, farmers and animals 

The report states:

To protect farmers and ensure that the British people can have confidence in our imported food, the Government must draw up a set of "core standards" that it can use for all future trade deals. It should then explain how it intends to enforce them and thereby help to raise standards both here and abroad.

We agree with the idea of core standards and indeed the case for them now is even greater. Next month Parliament is likely to nod through the Australian free trade agreement which will at a stroke allow in four times as much lamb and 60 times as much beef as now but crucially without any equivalence on animal welfare standards.  

We know standards on beef and lamb are lower in Australia than here.  We don't allow mulesing here or transporting cattle 48 hours without food and water.  But without those set of core standards the Government was left exposed when it sat down to negotiate the trade deal. 

At a time when the UK is already negotiating with a further 10 countries including India and Canada which continue to permit the conventional battery cage for laying hens or sows stalls for pigs, it is vital for the UK to show where its red lines lie on animal welfare. Mandatory labelling or permitting dual tariffs may be proposed as a compromise solution but we agree with Dimbleby's review that only a trade policy which includes a set of core standards will ensure British confidence in imported food can continue. 

Labelling that helps consumers to make informed decisions

The government's response to the report provides a perfect opportunity for an announcement of their intention to introduce a mandatory method of production labelling. 

We've already seen how consumers like a method of production labelling.  It is widely cited as a major factor in free-range eggs now being the most popular category in the supermarket. Extending this model would see all meat and dairy products labelled with the farming method in which the animal was raised. This would be a positive step for consumers, allowing them to cut through often misleading marketing imagery, and make an informed choice, and would support our British farmers, ensuring those farming to higher standards are visibly distinct. 

A comprehensive labelling scheme could also provide the starting point for environmental labelling schemes that many are calling for (and which are recommended in the report). 

Eat less, eat better

Finally, unless human population growth slows significantly, or there is a significant change to our diets, we are likely to have around 10billion more farm animals globally over the next ten years.  Clearly, this is not sustainable and will place even greater pressure on already stressed environments, natural habitats and scarce resources.  

Models to address carbon and methane emissions in agriculture look likely to drive government policy and consumer choice from farming/eating cows and sheep, more towards chickens and fish. This is a two-fold welfare issue, firstly in very general terms chicken and fish are often farmed more intensively at lower welfare than cows and sheep. Secondly because fish and chicken are smaller animals, more are required to meet the same amount of meat production.

There is little land available for these additional animals to be farmed, given land-use pressures from human industry, climate mitigations and housing. The crops required to feed these animals will place further pressure on land. Therefore these animals are likely to be farmed intensively, and it is reasonable to assume welfare will be poor. 

To counteract this potential welfare crisis we must act now to dramatically reduce the number of farm animals - through reducing both consumption and production of meat and dairy products. There is an urgency to this which is not currently reflected by the government. And where consumers do choose to consume meat and dairy products, we would encourage individuals and families to opt for higher welfare options such as RSPCA Assured. 

The report makes significant recommendations in this area, including a 30% reduction in meat consumption and strategies to support alternative proteins:

Careful livestock farming can be a boon to the environment, but our current appetite for meat is unsustainable: 85% of total land that produces UK food is used to graze livestock or produce crops to feed to animals. We need some of that land back. The Government's Climate Change Committee has said we must reduce the amount of meat we eat by 20-50% in order for the UK to reach net-zero by 2050. In this strategy, we have set a goal of a 30% reduction over ten years. This is significant, and it won't be easy to achieve.

This is the most challenging area for the government, but if we continue to dither and delay, we are only storing up even bigger challenges in the future.  This is not a time to shy away from a looming crisis in both food security and animal welfare.  

Looking to the future

The Government has a real opportunity to show global leadership on food production following the independent review led by Henry Dimbleby.  We hope the Government seizes this opportunity to ensure that we have a sustainable food system that is fairer for animals and ensures that everyone has access to sufficient, high-quality food. 

Take action

If you eat meat or dairy, buy RSPCA Assured to ensure animals are raised to higher welfare standards - find out more with our cheap chicken campaign.

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