An extraordinarily large number of negative changes in farming take place largely unseen and often completely unremarked. For example, nowadays crops are treated with far more different chemical sprays than was the case a few decades ago. Machinery has gotten far larger and heavier, causing much more significant soil compaction. Crop rotations have all but disappeared, although they are staging a comeback in a few places. Continuous mono-cropping has led to big increases in soils being permanently infected with diseases, which make growing a particular crop impossible. Mono-cropping has also contributed to the spread of increasingly hard to kill weeds, like blackgrass, which are forcing farmers to rethink their approach. In dairy farming, as cows have been bred to produce ever more milk, their lives have become shorter because their bodies can become too weak to get back into calf and restart milking. Chickens have been bred to mature faster and faster, living shorter lives as a result.
We should be grateful to Compassion in World Farming and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for this week mapping the growth of intensive poultry units around the country. There has been a huge increase in these developments - the investigation found 800 mega farms across the UK, a 26% increase in the last six years. Nearly every new development has raised fierce local opposition. In a case I know near where we farm in Norfolk, the proposed new poultry unit was opposed by the heads of all the local primary schools, by local business people who felt their tourism-dependent businesses were threatened, by retired medical staff from our local hospital who were worried about the health risks, as well as by the large number of local residents. In what I suspect is a fairly typical result, the proposed development was resubmitted at half the size and agreed. Now, not that long afterwards, a proposal has been submitted for further expansion.
In this way, a creeping industrialisation of chicken farming proceeds with local opposition but no national discussion, with opposition rudely and inaccurately described as reflecting personal interests, while concerns about the way we treat animals, the impact on human health of developments of this sort, and the future direction of agricultural policy which has been determined largely in secret as a result of these developments, are all ignored.
Richard Griffiths, CEO of the British Poultry Association says, "I don't think we'll see a change in systems without consumer demand. At the moment, that demand isn't there". But this amounts to deciding our future agricultural policy, with investments which are expected to last at least 15 to 20 years on the basis of how people spend their money in 2017. No scientific or industrial strategy would be determined solely on the basis of what people are buying right now. We know that agriculture is going to go through a revolution between now and 2050 because, by law, we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions from farming by 80% by that date. Most industries have already cut their carbon emissions by 50% in the UK - for the last five years, emissions from agriculture have not gone down at all.
When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, discussion usually focuses on the methane emitted by burping cattle (and to lesser extent sheep), but around a third of emissions from farming come in the form of the powerful greenhouse gas Nitrous Oxide, from manufactured nitrogen fertiliser. Avoiding the use of nitrogen fertiliser also cuts emissions from its manufacture - responsible for around 1% of total global emissions (and 2.5% of global emissions when emissions from application are taken into account).
Intensive chicken production may appear to take up less land because the chickens are crammed into confined spaces, but of course they have to be fed by crops grown over many tens of thousands of hectares both in the UK and in Latin America, where the protein fed to these birds in the form of GM soya generally comes. The carbon footprint of imported GM soya is huge, because much of it is grown on land that was either grasslands or rainforest and has released huge amounts of greenhouse gases as they were converted to arable cropping.
There are all sorts of other concerns about intensive chicken farms. While the chicken industry has taken big steps to reduce antibiotic use, which was huge until very recently, chickens in sheds still use more antibiotics than organic chickens ever would. The shed emits dust and gases which can adversely affect human health, and of course the smells can make life intolerable for people living close by.
The UK chicken industry produces around 1 billion birds a year, and suggests that "If we tried to grow a billion birds a year organically, that would be a lot of land". Indeed it would. But the question that any intelligent agricultural strategy should address is: can we cut greenhouse gas emissions from the UK farming by 80% while continuing to eat one billion chickens a year? Obviously not. The fact is that we need to cut our meat consumption significantly, and eat better quality, grass fed beef and lamb, and outdoor reared chickens and pigs whenever possible.
Organic chickens are guaranteed to be free range, but have more space in their shelters and outdoors than free range chickens. They are guaranteed to be fed on non-GM feed, they cannot be given medication routinely, particularly antibiotics, and only birds that are actually sick and need medicines are treated. Organic chickens cannot have their beaks trimmed. Most important, organic chickens can enjoy behaving naturally - dust bathing, eating herbs, grass and insects in rich organic soils, and feeling the sun on their backs. Anyone who has seen, as I have, a chicken that has spent its entire life indoors and in a cage, when it is first released onto grass will be amazed at the immediate change in its behaviour as it starts scratching at the earth, pecking and dust bathing for the first time in its life.
Of course, consumer behaviour is not static, and the one thing we can be sure of is that demand will change over the years. The huge growth in organic sales worldwide is an indication of that. In the UK, the switch from battery cages, until recently defended as delivering the cheap eggs consumers wanted, to what was the niche product of free range eggs (now 44% of the market), should remind the British Poultry Council just how quickly demand can change.
Indeed there are plenty of signs that the market is beginning to change, with recent YouGov research showing that 44% of British people are willing or already committed to cutting down or cutting out meat, and with meat-free sales soaring by £17m. For the future, over twice as many (46%) young people (aged 18-24) agree that "producing and consuming meat/livestock products has a significant negative impact on the environment" compared with older people (20%) aged over 65. The number of people in the UK following a vegan diet, entirely free of any animal products, has risen 350% in the last 10 years - an increase driven largely by young people.
In the market, changes are starting: Pret A Manger have trialled over 60 new vegetarian and plant-based products in the last year; Asda has a 'Green and bean' lean beef mince with 40% haricot beans; there are new plant-based menus at high street restaurant chains Zizzi's, Las Iguanas and Wetherspoons; Marks & Spencer, Co-op and Tesco are expanding their range of meat-free and plant-based choices; and Waitrose & McDonald's have made commitments to better meat and dairy.
The revelation of the scale of new industrial chicken developments must serve as a wake-up call - we cannot continue to condemn ever-increasing numbers of chickens to cruel conditions simply because there appears to be a 'consumer demand' for this. Piecemeal agricultural developments which make achieving real change in farming, particularly changes that will be needed to meet legal obligations to cut greenhouse gas emissions, must end.