Farms not factories

Declan Allison

09 December 2016

Who would have thought that a farm planning application in Northern Ireland could get international media attention?

Surely farming, often the subject of children’s storybooks, is inoffensive although I haven’t noticed any set in the modern factory farm. The reality of which, at least in the US, is covered by AgGag laws.

Even so, people continue to dispassionately discuss pros and cons. The arguments typically go along these lines.

Factory farming is superior as it is inexpensive, efficient, delivers goods to market faster, provides employment, is profitable and given world hunger we have to be realistic. The other side is often portrayed as artisanal, superior products but only for those who can afford it. The arguments against factory farming usually debated include animal cruelty and welfare issues, substandard food, environmental pollution and massive contribution to climate change. Along with the moral argument of cruelty towards sentient beings, it would seem to me that the climate change issue should be enough to sway people to rethink going for growth at all costs, but climate change is still something society can ignore.

The elephant in the room which we can no longer ignore with respect to super farms are superbugs. Keeping huge numbers of animals in cramped conditions results in a high disease risk. Preventative antibiotic use creates perfect conditions for the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, for example MRSA CC398 (persistent infections and seriously harms people with compromised immune systems).

Other examples include stronger versions of salmonella, campylobacter and E. Coli. This is not futuristic alarmism, this has already happened. The UK’s Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, states that “antibiotic resistance could claim 10 million lives worldwide by the year 2050 if we, as a global society, fail to act.” They add the expectation that more people will die from this than cancer. This is not just another point we can add to the debate, this is a stark fact we cannot in good conscience continue to ignore.

It is a rare, costly, and difficult thing to develop an effective new antibiotic. Humanity has successfully farmed animals for meat consumption for generations. I suspect that with a mature problem solving attitude, instead of winner takes all point scoring debates between capitalist verses environmentalists, we could solve this issue. Northern Ireland’s farmers are real people who are in crisis. The last thing this economy or society needs is another serious disease issue. Both farmers and the people who live around them deserve to live in a sustainable environment. 

Dawn Patterson is an East Antrim food and farming campaigner.