Specially targeted farm subsidies could improve animal welfare to meet the government’s ambitions for the highest quality food standards post-Brexit, claims the RSPCA.
The animal charity’s proposals include ring-fenced funding for training, infrastructure and enrichment to improve animal welfare and financial support for farmers when market prices fall meaning higher welfare products are being sold at a loss to the farmer.
As plans progress for the UK to leave the EU, the government is considering the best options for supporting farmers once the EU farm subsidy ‘CAP’ system ends. Having committed to maintaining and improving the high standards of UK food products post-Brexit, the government also acknowledges that the increased costs inherent in producing higher welfare food means that farmers need financial incentives to achieve this goal.
Speaking at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on Thursday 4 January, RSPCA Head of Public Affairs David Bowles said: “Paying farmers to achieve high animal welfare standards is a no-brainer. Farm subsidies targeted at animal welfare will be good for new trade deals, good for consumers and good for the animals.
“If post-Brexit farm support schemes include ring-fenced incentives for farmers to improve animal welfare, the government’s laudable ambitions for the UK to produce the highest quality food will be met. This, coupled with Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s newly announced comprehensive food labelling system which includes, amongst other things, indicators on animal welfare standards, would be the icing on the cake.
“As the UK leaves the EU and nationalises the farming support system this presents us with a once-in-a-generation chance to radically transform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) into a British policy for humane animal and sustainable land management.
“If we get it right now, the UK’s food quality can become the world’s gold standard – and that can only happen with the highest possible animal welfare.”
Although certain farming sectors such as laying hens are now able to command a premium price for their high welfare products, other sectors such as dairy and beef cows are not able to and would need financial help to improve their welfare standards.
The RSPCA identifies three funding areas that would help improve animal welfare while complying with world trade rules. The proposals are based on current EU farm subsidy amounts given to improve animal welfare and would be relatively straightforward to fund, as well as meeting World Trade Organisation rules. Support could include:
- Capital costs, including higher welfare training and improved housing of herds
- Ongoing production costs when market prices for higher welfare products would produce a financial shortfall (‘market failure’)
- Ongoing costs such as improving enrichment or providing access to pasture or straw
Three comprehensive European Commission polls over the past 12 years show that UK citizens want improvements in the food chain. These aspirations have translated into substantive buying patterns for certain products. For example, the number of laying hens under the RSPCA Assured scheme have risen from 24% in 2004 to over 51% of the UK flock in 2016 and for the first time at the end of 2017 over half the eggs sold in the UK were from non-caged eggs.
The RSPCA recommends that animal-welfare-related subsidies should be delivered via the devolved Rural Development Plans (which provide money for projects to improve agriculture, the environment and rural life), as previous and current schemes in the EU show this approach works.
There are currently 29 European schemes aimed at improving welfare, most of which have been over-subscribed, showing the desire from farmers to improve the welfare of their animals. Some of these programmes already show improved animal welfare by encouraging farmers to apply welfare standards which went over and above legal requirements, reduce disease or allow animals to have access to grazing or straw which had previously been denied to them.
The RSPCA also welcomed Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s commitment to a much more comprehensive food labelling system that measures how a farmer or food producer performs against a number of indicators, including animal welfare.
Speaking at the same Oxford conference, Environment Secretary, Michael Gove said that he wanted the UK to develop new approaches to food labelling; not only badging food properly as British, but also “creating a new gold-standard metric for food and farming quality.”
Mr Gove explained that while there were already impressive ways in which farmers can secure recognition for high animal welfare or environmental standards there was still no single, scaled, measure of how a farmer or food producer performs against the wider basket of indicators including soil health, control of pollution, contribution to water quality as well as animal welfare.