Andrea Jenkyns: Global Britain can lead the way on farm animal welfare standards

13 Apr

Andrea Jenkyns is MP for Morley and Outwood.

Much of the Brexit debate centred on discussion of sovereignty and freedom; the ability to make our own laws that best reflect our own aspirations.

But my belief in sovereignty and freedom from the EU are not abstract constitutional theories. Rather, they open up a host of real and tangible benefits for our nation.

As a lifelong supporter of animal rights, I have consistently championed these newfound freedoms, and Britain’s ultimate ability to drive farm animal welfare standards post-Brexit. There would be no better area to start than to tackle some of the abuses within intensive farming.

As a vegetarian, I do not eat meat. But that does not mean I don’t care about the state of the meat industry: high animal welfare standards are non-negotiable.

Anyone who sees the images of animals whose whole very short lives are confined to factories will surely know there must be an alternative. Spotlights exposing the practices in the intensive farming industry have increased public consciousness of the issue. The success of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver’s campaign that exposed the cruelty of poultry mega-farms led to an increasing rejection of battery-farmed eggs. Scenes of physical abuse of animals and the sheer filth of conditions hit the British conscience hard.

Since then, families have opted more and more in favour of free-range choices with their weekly shop. Though there is certainly a desire for affordable meat, there is a greater appetite for meat that is fairly farmed.

The premise of intensive farming is to minimise the costs involved with “traditional” farming methods – and to fuel an appetite for cheap meat. To achieve this, space and welfare conditions are reduced to the bare minimum and technology is used to maximise yields beyond natural limits.

Yet animals should not be treated as a mere cog in a factory. There is a high welfare cost that intensive farming fails to include in the equation.

I am pleased that this Conservative Government, led by Boris Johnson, is committed to raising standards and bringing forward wide-ranging Animal Welfare bills in the new parliamentary session. Free from the restrictions of the EU, this Government can lead the way, forging a new and ambitious path to end many of the most barbaric practices of modern intensive animal farming.

From this, there are calls on the Government to consider policies surrounding areas such as the sale of fur and foie gras, trophy hunting and illegal wildlife trading, live exports, and the illegal puppy trade, among others. As a nation of animal lovers, this Government is listening to concerns with recent developments to end cruel practices.

One issue on which I hope to see a difference is intensive pig farming. In particular, reforms to the use of farrowing crates. According to the RSPCA, there are 10,400,000 pigs farmed in the UK every year. Of these, around 58 per cent of sows give birth in farrowing crates. These crates are similar to the illegal sow stall: a narrow metal cage, often on a rough concrete and slatted floor. Very often the space is so restrictive that the sow cannot turn around, and she can only stand up and lie down with difficulty. The UK rightly banned this practice.

Farrowing crates are only slightly different from sow stalls, having space to the side for the piglets, with bars to keep the sow out of the piglets’ lying area to prevent crushing. Yet tragically, they remain in use. Sows are placed in farrowing crates for up to five weeks around the time of giving birth.

The cruelty of this practice is that by restricting their movement, sows cannot behave naturally to build a nest and get comfortable at birth. The crates keep the sow in place and unable to move away from her piglets when they bite her teats. This has the knock-on effect of requiring piglets to then be tooth-clipped without anaesthetic. The impact of such an environment is that sows become distressed, frustrated and bored, leading to aggression and biting other pigs’ tails.

Clearly this is neither a sustainable nor fair method of farming.

So what can be done? Some countries such as Norway and Switzerland have banned farrowing crates. I know the Government plans to be ambitious in its agenda to raise welfare standards. As such, a range of measures to at last eradicate cruelty within intensive pig farming will no doubt be looked into.

Ultimately, I know that meat-eaters will be happier; conscious that back at the farm, the pig was treated as fairly as possible. Getting meat on the table to feed a family ought not to require pushing pigs to the limits.

Post-Brexit, transforming practices and standards across Britain on the issue of farm animal welfare standards can make our country stand out as a beacon of good agricultural practice. This Government has already made strides towards bolstering animal welfare standards, and it is an arena where we can truly become a leader in the field.