Better animal welfare is one of Brexit's great opportunities
Brexit is almost upon us. The UK is preparing to take its leave from Brussels: casting off the shackles, or reluctantly becoming unmoored, depending on your politics. Either way, once the triggering of Article 50 occurs, it could usher in sweeping changes to the UK policy landscape. All manner of industries will be adjusting to doing business outside the EU – including in the agricultural sector. For those campaigning to develop sustainable food systems, this is of particular interest. Once the UK is out, how can we ensure the sector changes for better, not worse?
This was the subject of a lecture given by Compassion in World Farming's Peter Stevenson, as part of the Food Research Collaboration's Food Thinkers seminar series. A lawyer by trade, Stevenson has worked over the years to secure EU bans on the use of battery cages, veal crates, and other practices that violate animal welfare. He also managed to ensure the recognition of animals as sentient beings in EU law. In his view, Brexit is an opportunity to enhance the UK’s standards – the question is whether the country will use it.
Notable progress has already been made, though there is still much more to be done. Intensive farming methods remain widespread, even though they are grossly unsustainable. Factory farms need industrial quantities of animal feed and often divert food fit for human consumption into cattle troughs – this in turn drives intensive crop production, which is hugely damaging to the environment. As infection rates are higher amongst factory-farmed livestock, they are often routinely fed antibiotics. This contributes to antimicrobial resistance, with new strains of bacteria developing that can resist antibiotics used in human medicine. Furthermore, many cruel practices – like the use of farrowing crates, in which pregnant sows are kept in close confinement – are rife.
Stevenson outlined how the UK could use its new trading position to change things. For example, once the country exits the EU trading bloc, the UK Government could ban live animal exports. It would have to ensure that, when striking a new trade deal, the agreement contained a clause allowing us to do so. This could become signature trade policy for Britain. Andrea Leadsom, DEFRA Secretary of State, has said that the UK’s unique selling point “both at home and abroad, should be the highest standards of animal welfare and the highest standards of food traceability.” In the coming months, we will see if the political will is there to make this a reality.
Once funding from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) dries up, British farmers will be looking to Westminster to make up the shortfall. This presents another opportunity to gear the UK’s agricultural sector towards upholding animal welfare. A new subsidy scheme could be devised, prioritising funding for farms that keep livestock in humane conditions. Other policies could complement this. Zero-rated VAT on 'better' livestock products, for example, would mean consumers do not pay a premium for choosing more sustainable, ethically sourced foods.
The lecture also highlighted a peculiar state of affairs. With regard to animal welfare, procurement policies in the public sector are seriously lacking. Large companies in the private sector are, by comparison, setting the example – as Stevenson put it, the public sector has worse welfare standards than many big brand corporations. Both need to step up to their responsibilities. It got me thinking – through ShareAction's partnership with the FAIRR initiative and scores of institutional investors, how can we encourage companies to continue to set the example and, through their influence, to change the rules of the game in the livestock sector and across food supply chains? While policymakers can wield influence from the top down, we also need pressure from the bottom up. After Brexit, this pressure will be needed more than ever.
I came away from the talk, mindful of the opportunities the UK has at hand, and how the Government could well miss them. There is the prospect that the EU will continue to legislate for better animal welfare, while the UK lags behind. If this happens, we must redouble our efforts. Using the power of the investment system, ShareAction works to keep sustainable farming on the agenda. We can engage with companies to review their business models, and support environmentally friendly farming. Shareholders can use their collective voice to ensure that, across the supply chain, welfare standards are upheld. Whatever farming looks like post-Brexit, ShareAction will continue to work with investors and consumers to push companies to do the right thing.
ShareAction, the Food Research Collaboration and Compassion in World Farming are part of the Eating Better Alliance.
David O’Sullivan works as researcher at ShareAction.