LONDON — The County Council for Derbyshire, in the U.K., has once again failed to take decisive action regarding proposals to build an intensive conventional pig farm in Foston, South Derbyshire.
Midland Pigs Producers submitted a proposal in 2010 to the local council to build an American-style factory farm that will house 25,000 animals, but the proposal has been in limbo for nearly five years. Campaigns for and against the development are pushing to reopen the debate.
The Soil Association, a U.K.-based organic certification body, has voiced strong objections to the farm and is leading a campaign against its development. It believes the farm will not meet animal welfare standards and may threaten human health. But Midland Pig Producers argues that the farm will maintain high animal welfare standards and may even be good for the environment. The future of the development is in the hands of the local council, where this lingering conflict is a small battle within a much bigger war—over the future of farming in the U.K.
The Soil Association’s campaign, “Not in My Banger,” is gathering signatures for a petition urging the Derbyshire County Council to block the pig farm. Soil Association campaigners object, in general, to keeping pigs in confinement indoors. They also note that although the proposal is to house 2,500 sows, Midland Pig Producers wants the farm to produce 1,000 weaners, or young pigs, a week for slaughter. That means there could be far more than 25,000 pigs living on the farm at any one time. The campaign’s website says “We will be objecting to the proposal on the grounds that the extremely high number of pigs housed in one location may increase the level of disease on the holding, and over time that may pose a threat to the local community at the very least.”
The campaigners object particularly to the use of antibiotics in large-scale conventional pig farming and worry that their use might result in more diseases that are resistant to antibiotics. “There are real concerns that unless antibiotics are used much more sparingly, we will soon find ourselves facing a range of serious diseases in humans and animals that can no longer be treated effectively,” says a statement on the Soil Association’s website.
They cite concerns about pig manure-related, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or, as it is more commonly known, MRSA. “It is now well established that people working with MRSA-positive pigs, such as farmers, veterinarians and even their family members, are at risk of colonization and infection—there have also been a number of very serious cases and deaths,” they said. Recent research has also shown that diseases such as the C. difficile superbug may be transferring from pigs to humans.
In the Soil Association’s latest letter to protesters, it has been pushing for the local council to make a decision. “2014 marks the fifth year since the original planning application was submitted. This is totally unacceptable,” the association wrote.
Martin Barker, managing director of Midland Pig Producers, is no less eager to have a decision. He believes his farm will meet current animal welfare and environmental standards. It will pioneer the 360-degree Freedom Farrower, an innovative pen in which a sow will have enough space to completely turn around while weaning. The development will also include a biogas plant, which will use pig manure to produce green energy.
Barker says that sustainability is important to his company. “Farming is changing, it has to change if it is to have a sustainable future. We have always believed that different farming methods should be able to co-exist in this country,” he says in an email. He also says that his farm is important to the economy. “If we are to stem the tide of European meat—with its inherently lower animal welfare standards—into the U.K., where 60 percent of pork consumed is imported, then new and sustainable production methods are needed.”
In the view of Sophie Hope, a Gloucestershire-based conventional pig farmer, outdoor rearing, which is promoted by the Soil Association, leaves the farmer with too little control. In the U.K.’s temperate climate, where there is much precipitation, pigs that live outdoors might become more susceptible to certain health problems. Wet and windy conditions can quickly lead to chills, stunted growth and, in extreme cases, death. Hope also says that to run an outdoor pig farm with thousands of sows, a farmer would need a lot of land. But that’s not realistic in an economic climate where land is at a premium.
Still, she thinks farmers should work humanely, which was one of the reasons she helped with the development of the Freedom Farrower. “Happy pigs are healthy pigs, and healthy pigs taste better,” says Hope. “It’s in our economic interest to ensure a high standard of welfare.”
The Soil Association is continuing to gather signatures against the opening of the farm, but the local government will have to decide whether the environmental costs of the development are enough to outweigh its economic promise.