12 April 2002

Improved welfare costs too high for producers

By Marianne Curtis

CONSUMERS might pay more for food produced to higher welfare standards, but the responsibility for implementing these rests with producers, who have little money to invest in farm improvements.

Those were some of the views of speakers at a British Society of Animal Science pre-conference satellite entitled "What price cheap food?" Mike Appleby of the Humane Society of the US kicked off the session by suggesting consumers were willing to pay more for food to improve animal welfare.

"In 1950, consumers spent 22% of their income on food. This had fallen to 10% by 2000. Most people could pay more for food and many are already doing so by choosing convenience foods or eating out. In 1997, a researcher, Sandoe, said we ought to make radical changes in the way farm animals are being treated and even more so if we can do it at negligible cost," said Dr Appleby.

He argued that, typically, animal products accounted for 5% of a meals cost. Therefore, an increase of 1% in the price of a meal could fund the 20% increase in animal production costs needed to double livestock space allowances and improve disease control measures.

But when questioned on whether producers would receive any extra money that may be charged to consumers to help improve animal welfare, he was unable to explain how that may happen. "We need to discuss mechanisms, but I do not know how that would be addressed at this stage."

NFU chairman Neil Cutler told delegates that many producers would welcome the opportunity to invest in farm improvements linked to animal welfare, but were constrained by desperately low farm incomes.

"An average farm income of £5000-£6000 a year means UK producers have little left to spend on improvements. My milking parlour is 25 years old. I would love to put in a new one – more suited to large, modern cows, but the money is not there."

Agreeing with Mr Cutler, Colin Whittemore, who chaired the session, said that if consumers required animal welfare improvements, money must come from outside the food chain. "It is unfair to demand these changes through legislation. Producers cant change when they do not have the money and will go out of business."

Mr Cutler also challenged the concept that consumers were willing to pay more for food. "Peoples instinct is to buy cheap and supermarkets have built empires based on this. Consumers wont pay hugely more for food and we are already seeing this in the organic sector."

The environmental cost of farming was also addressed in the session. Mr Cutler cast doubt over whether the government would be able to switch a proportion of subsidies from production to environmental based subsidies – as recommended in the Curry report – as quickly as it believed. "DEFRA ministers are showing naïvety about how quickly this can be achieved.

"Systems for obtaining environmental subsidies are also so bureaucratic and complex there is a great disincentive for producers to become involved. Most of the money wont reach producers, it will go on employing consultants to fill in forms." &#42

&#8226 Consumers could pay more.

&#8226 No producer money for welfare.

&#8226 Environmental schemes complex.

A modern milking parlour may be better suited to todays cows, but many producers, such as Neil Cutler, cant afford to invest in one.