DURING swine fever, and later foot-and-mouth outbreaks, UK farms were scrutinised like never before and it became apparent that DEFRA had no records for some units, leading to calls for farms to be licensed.
FWi opened the debate in March with the headline "Morley backs farm licensing". Junior agriculture minister Elliot Morley agreed with other supporters, including the RSPCA, to a licensing system for all farms.
The proposal discussed involved revoking licences for producers who flout welfare laws and health or hygiene regulations, forcing them out of the industry.
"Where a minority cause problems for everybody, then one method of control would be removing the licence," said Mr Morley.
"It might be an easier and speedier process than the present methods of control under the various welfare legislation. These involve going through courts and revoking the rights of people to keep animals, which is a lengthy and complicated process," he added.
The RSPCA heightened their campaign at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool on Oct 8. David Bowles, head of the RSPCA international department said licensing arrangements, like those for riding schools, should be extended to the farm sector.
"We are not saying that producers dont know what they are doing. Of course, most producers are very good. Therefore they will have nothing to fear from a licensing system where they have to apply certain standards."
Opponents of the scheme said it would be expensive to run and increase the burden of bureaucracy on producers. This included Baroness Byford, the Conservative agricultural spokeswoman in the House of Lords, who was cautious about supporting the idea. "Id have reservations about it because I think there are practical difficulties with it, such as costs and policing. Many questions need to be clarified by the RSPCA before you could say its a good idea," she said.
But, the idea of licensing producers continued to gain favour within government and among vets in October. Cheshire-based sheep vet Chris Lewis revealed at this years British Vet Association Congress that the Sheep Vet Society had already had meetings with DEFRA about such a scheme.
"Licensing may include the requirement for a herd health plan which is at least agreed by a vet," he told delegates attending the event in Winchester. Devon-based dairy vet Dick Sibley also said compulsory vet health plans should be a condition of a licence to produce food for human consumption.
Throughout November, the RSPCA were still whipping up support for the scheme. Martin Potter told delegates attending the National Sheep Associations annual conference that licensing need not be bureaucratic and could give the UK a competitive edge over foreign counterparts.
"Some vets attending farms during the F&M crisis discovered appalling animal husbandry on a small minority. It seems wrong that anyone could buy a farm and be responsible for a flock of sheep with no previous experience. Should such farms be supplying food?" asked Mr Potter.
In France, producers require a droit dexploitation, which is literally a licence to farm. It qualifies them to receive subsidies.
In reply, NSA chief executive John Thorley said licences are something the UK industry should consider. "The inexperienced must not be allowed to bring our industry into disrepute. A few years ago, farm assurance was a difficult concept to contemplate. Now 80% of lamb is farm assured."
Farm assurance schemes could provide the basis for licensing, saving on bureaucracy, said Mr Potter. "Licensing need not be draconian. It could be included within farm assurance schemes which cover health plans, movement recording and annual inspections.
"It would be best if the livestock industry oversaw development of such a scheme, setting standards which overseas competitors may find difficult to match."
Further support came for licensing from junior farm minister Lord Whitty (FWi, Nov 20). He advocated producers obtain licences to continue farming in the wake of F&M, replacing current health and safety, environmental and agricultural inspections with a single test.
In response, Conservative rural affairs spokesman Peter Ainsworth said the government should be focusing on strengthening import controls, not introducing more red tape. "More regulation is not the answer to the suffering in the farming community."
"Theres no point in piling on regulations aimed at controlling animal disease until effective action is taken to stop imports of illegal and sub-standard food."
In November, NFU president Ben Gill agreed the proposals did not address the issues thrown up by F&M. The debate is set to continue into next year. *
LICENCE TO FARM
Bureaucracy gone mad?
Strengthen UKs industry?
Based on farm assurance schemes?
• Bureaucracy gone mad?
• Strengthen UKs industry?
• Based on farm assurance?
Farm assurance schemes could provide the basis for licensing, saving on bureaucracy, believes Martin Potter.
Licensing of farm animals for human consumption should be considered, believes John Thorley.