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Opinion- Helen Browning, chief executive, Soil Association

Helen Browning, chief executive, Soil Association 

I have always been a bit ambivalent about Twitter and, as we showed last week, it is so easy to get it wrong.

 

We hugely oversimplified our farm animal welfare concerns, upsetting quite a few farmers who rightly pointed out it is not a black and white issue of organic, good – everyone else, bad.

 

We know there is loads of brilliant stuff going on, not least grass-based, low-input ruminant systems;

development of free farrowing systems; and genetic selection for low lameness and longevity, instead of just yield.

 

So what is our beef with farm animal welfare?


Our tweet said ‘abuse’ and in most people’s minds this conjures up overt cruelty or extreme confinement.

 

We have moved quite a way over recent years. The issue now is often one of mind-numbing boredom for many animals living completely indoors in barren environments.

 

A token football in a pen is not going to cut it for inquisitive animals, such as pigs. The fact most of them still need to have their tails docked indicates their lives are stressful and dull.

 

Cows may look calmer, even as they are increasingly housed 365 days a year in ever larger herds, but this can be exhaustion, not peace. The metabolic stress high yielding cows are under is apparently similar to running a marathon every day.

 

There is a strong need to provide more resources for farm animals while taking production pressure off too.

 

Often the best approach is to get them back on the land where they can improve soils and have the potential for a healthier, more interesting life, though excellent management outdoors is crucial.

 

But who will pay for this? Will it need and receive a market premium? The antibiotic crisis gives every reason to put animal health and welfare centre stage and to expect help with the costs of transitioning to systems where antibiotics will be minimised.

 

Like most farmers, I dislike division and would much rather we could negotiate improvements without getting the public involved.

Sometimes, however, it is impossible.

 

Last week at the Food Standards Agency’s day on antimicrobial overuse on farms, it was both great to hear about the progress being made.

 

Yet only when we formed an alliance, upping our public messaging, did industry seem to take this crucial public health issue seriously.

 

Our job as a charity is to help things change and while I am wary of the soundbite, we will use it to help the public understand and care. It is in all our interests they do care and are prepared to support good British farming.

 

But we will also take care to be as fair and accurate as 140 characters allows.


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