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Brexit: A Blank Canvas For Farming

19/08/2016 11:29 | Updated 19 August 2016

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Now that the post-referendum dust has settled, it's time to take decisive action for farm animals and the environment.

For the past 50 years, the UK's agricultural landscape has been largely shaped by the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Unfortunately, much of the EU's agriculture under the CAP has been dominated by factory farming and the greenwashed myth of 'sustainable intensification'.

A broken food and farming system

Intensive livestock production is at the heart of many of the concerns which are plaguing today's world. It's the driver for climate change, the culprit in the antibiotic resistance crisis, and the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet.

We have a real opportunity therefore, as we move away from this flawed system, to treat Brexit as a blank canvas upon which to redesign our food and farming policy. If we paint the right picture, we can make huge changes for the better not only here in the UK, but globally too, by setting a new benchmark for others to follow suit.

The current system is not working - for human health, the environment, or animal welfare. It makes no sense to plough on blindly along the same path. We need to start a new chapter, with bold government policies which will reap benefits for everyone.

Returning animals to the land

As a starting point, we must get animals back on the land where they belong, and move away from intensive farming systems. In doing so, a whole range of problems can be solved at the same time. Animals suffer immensely on factory farms, crammed into sheds and regularly dosed with antibiotics to stop them getting ill. Returning animals to pasture and land-based systems is a premise for better animal welfare, and in turn dramatically reduces the need for antibiotic use.

This move also gives us the chance to cut our dependence on grain. Forty-five percent of UK cereals are used as animal feed. We are wasting vast amounts of calories by feeding human-edible foods to intensively reared cattle. This is such an inefficient, environmentally damaging way of feeding people. Once animals are back on the land we can make use of resources which are not fit for human use. Pasture-based and mixed rotational farms enable this; and on the other hand arable land could be farmed less intensively, allowing soil, water and air quality as well as biodiversity to be restored.

CAP payments, which are primarily a subsidy for land ownership, should be replaced by payments for ecosystem services and high animal welfare standards, supporting a move to pasture-fed and land-based animal farming. Farmers should be rewarded for doing the right thing by being kind to animals and the environment.

Setting the bar high

We also need policies which actively encourage eating less meat and healthy diets. Lower consumption of red and processed meat would decrease the incidence of heart disease, obesity and certain cancers. The huge strain these diseases put on the public health system would therefore be eased. Lower meat and dairy consumption would in turn further increase the scope for animals to be farmed extensively using higher welfare standards.

An important step on our path to a better food and farming system is the introduction of mandatory labelling for all animal products, showing how the animal was raised. Consumers should be empowered to play a greater part in driving improvements in animal welfare, and they can only do this if they know what they're buying.

The government must adopt a more ambitious approach to animal welfare. For many, animal welfare was a deciding factor in the EU referendum. The government has hidden behind the excuse of EU free trade rules for years to avoid stopping live exports. Indeed, animals are legally defined as 'goods', and it is prohibited to ban a trade on goods. Now, they have no excuse. In the drafting of any new trade agreements, the UK must insist on the inclusion of a clause permitting it to require imports to meet UK animal welfare standards.

It is imperative that we start sowing fresh seeds post-Brexit - that's why Compassion in World Farming has released a new Charter for Food, Farming and Animal Welfare. If we don't, both animals and people are set to suffer the consequences for a long time to come.

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