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Farming

Warning on trade deal dangers

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President Trump: Reimposed retaliatory tariffs on beef imports

THE SOIL ASSOCIATION has released a report on the potential food safety risks posed by potential free trade deals with the US following Brexit.

The preliminary steps towards a UK/US trade deal are currently being taken. Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox MP has recently opened preliminary discussions with US officials to consider potential opportunities and risks for the negotiations. Much press emphasis has been placed on chlorine-washed chicken, but there are a host of other regulatory divergences that could undermine UK food standards.

The report warns that a range of products produced under lower safety and welfare standards than those in force either in Britain or the EU could pose a risk to both animal AND human health, as well as damaging British agriculture’s integrity and viability.

Some of the key differences between UK and US production – hormone-treated beef, GM crops and chlorinated chicken – are becoming increasingly understood by British consumers.

The report highlights a number of other areas where products imported from the US could be produced under significantly different standards to our own: this includes the inclusion of food colourants that have been withdrawn from the UK, the use of the herbicide Atrazine that has previously been linked with human health risks, and the sale of chicken litter as animal feed which was banned by the EU in 2001.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows a number of steroid hormone drugs for use in beef production. Cattle producers use hormones because they allow animals to grow larger more quickly on less feed, thus reducing production costs. Hormone treated beef has been banned in the EU since 1989. The 2003 EU scientific review concluded that the hormone estradiol-17β was carcinogenic. The US imposed retaliatory tariffs, which were removed when the EU agreed to allow non-hormone treated beef from the US access to EU markets. President Trump re-imposed the tariffs last year.

In the US, chicken litter (a rendered down mix of chicken manure, dead chickens, feathers and spilled feed) is marketed as a cheap feed product, particularly for cattle. The cost of chicken litter is lower than corn and soy due to the high levels of industrial broiler chicken production in the US. In the US, the use of poultry litter in cattle feed is unrestricted. The use of chicken litter has been banned in the EU since 2001 following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease and BSE. These diseases were attributed to the inclusion of animal protein in industrial animal feed.

Atrazine is estimated to be the second most heavily used herbicide in the US with 73.7 million pounds used in 2013.

It was applied on more than half of all corn crops, and up to 90 percent of sugar cane. Atrazine is a potent endocrine disruptor and reduces immune function in both wildlife and laboratory rodents. The chemical has also been found to possibly induce breast and prostate cancer. Despite these findings, the EPA still allows its use in US agriculture.

The EU banned atrazine due to its public health risks and its polluting impact on waterways.

In the United States, products that include Yellow 5 and 6, Red 3 and 40, Blue 1 and 2, Green 3 and Orange B are available for purchase and do not require labelling. In 2008, these artificial colourings were taken off the UK market due to health concerns. The UK banned these food dyes following a 2007 double-blind study, which found that eating artificially coloured food appeared to increase children’s hyperactivity. While banned in the UK, the EU requires mandatory warning on foods that include these colourants.

Honor Eldridge, Policy Officer at the Soil Association, said: “British farming has a reputation for high food safety and high animal welfare. It is imperative that any future trade deal does not result in a dilution of these standards for consumers. Nor should any deal competitively disadvantage UK farmers.

“We welcome Michael Gove’s assertion that the UK should not race to the bottom in competing with cheap imports, as well as his commitment to supporting environmentally-friendly farming practice. If the UK Government is to achieve its goal of improving and strengthening our food standards, future trade agreements must reflect these commitments. To this end, any future trade negotiations must be conducted transparently and with input from public stakeholders.”

Quite how far that meshes with Liam Fox’s urge to deregulate and open up global markets for the UK by sacrificing public and industry protections remains to be seen.

Farming

Conservation groups don’t like ‘unpalatable truth’

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Post-badger: A hedgehog experiences nature

THE FARMERS’ Union of Wales has warned that conservation bodies have their heads in the sand over the devastating impact badgers have had on hedgehog numbers, and are doing conservation a great disservice by scapegoating farmers.

The State of British Hedgehogs 2018 report released on February 7 by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species estimates that hedgehog numbers have halved since the beginning of the century, and places the lion’s share of the blame on intensive farming.

However, world leading hedgehog expert Dr Pat Morris, author of The New Hedgehog Book, wrote in his 2006 book “The implications [of high badger population densities] for hedgehog survival are serious…ignoring the issue or pretending that badgers exist only by harmless drinking of rainwater doesn’t help at all.”

A survey of badger numbers between November 2011 and March 2013 found that badger numbers in England and Wales have increased by between 70% and 105% in the past 25 years.

“Dr Morris is named in the State of British Hedgehogs 2018 report as the instigator of the first survey of hedgehogs based on animals killed on roads, but no mention is made of his concerns regarding high badger numbers having such a devastating impact on hedgehogs.

The issue is dismissed and swept under the carpet, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the impact of badger predation, while farmers are effectively singled out as being to blame,” said FUW President Glyn Roberts.

A 2014 peer reviewed study of hedgehog numbers in ten 100km2 areas where badgers were culled in England found that “…counts of hedgehogs more than doubled over a 5-year period from the start of badger culling, whereas hedgehog counts did not change where there was no badger culling.”

Mr Roberts said: “Of course there are areas where intensive farming has had a detrimental impact on hedgehog numbers, but it is simply wrong to paint the whole of the UK as being like that – the fall in hedgehog numbers has in fact coincided with farmers planting more hedges.”

Mr Roberts added that this view was backed up by the RSPB, who said that losses of managed hedges appear to have halted in the mid-1990s, while the net length of hedges in the UK was stable or increasing.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species report said it was planning to engage with the farming community to ‘stem the alarming decline of our country hedgehogs’.

The likelihood is that there is a range of events causing impacts on the hedgehog population. Certain types of pesticides affect the hedgehog’s food chain, while larger and more open fields with less substantial hedgerows might also contribute to hedgehog predation and decline. The increased use of road vehicles is a certain factor, as is urban and suburban spread. Unusually, domestic pets are not a major hazard for hedgehog populations.

In rural Wales, however, the dramatic explosion in badger populations cannot be ignored as a significant factor in driving the decline of hedgehog numbers.

In the early-2000s, an investigation was carried out by the Small Mammal Specialist Group into patterns in hedgehog and badger populations across hundreds of square kilometres of rural southwest England and the midlands. One important finding was that hedgehogs appeared to be absent from large swathes of pastoral grasslands where they are thought to have once been commonplace. The group surveyed hedgehogs in a number of areas which were geographically and ecologically similar, but with different levels of badger culling.

Hedgehog numbers in suburban areas doubled during the five years of badger culling, and remained static in areas without culling. This demonstrated for the first time that badger predation is a strong limiting factor for hedgehog populations in these particular habitats.

Until the mid to late 20th century, heavy persecution of badgers kept them at low numbers. The Badgers Act of 1973 introduced protections, enhanced by the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act. Consequently surveys published in January 2014 revealed that in the 25 years since the first survey in 1985-88, the number of badger social groups in England has doubled to around 71,600.

In pasture-dominated and mixed agricultural landscapes, and in some suburban habitats, badgers thrive with have plentiful denning opportunities and abundant food resources. The largest increases in the density of badger social groups have occurred in the landscapes that dominate southern, western and eastern England. These are also the areas where hedgehog declines are likely to be most severe.

While nobody is suggesting that badgers be culled to improve biodiversity and give hedgehogs a chance of re-establishing themselves, the refusal to acknowledge evidence which they find inconvenient suggests that the weight that can be given to the Hedgehog Survey is questionable.

Glyn Roberts suggested that those ignoring the evidence were simply unprepared to face the truth about natural predation: “By sweeping under the carpet the unpalatable truth that badgers eat hedgehogs, and that the doubling in badger numbers has had a catastrophic impact on hedgehog numbers, and scapegoating farmers by highlighting outdated ideas about hedge removal, conservation bodies are doing a huge disservice to hedgehogs and conservation.

“In fact, they are doing exactly what Dr Pat Morris warned of in his Hedgehog Book – burying their heads in the sand by pretending increased badger numbers are not a major threat to hedgehog survival.”

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Farming

Charities benefit from breakfast fundraising

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'An incredible job': Glyn Roberts hails FUW members' generosity

THE EQUIVALENT of a year’s farm income (£13,000) has been raised by the Farmers’ Union of Wales, for its charitable causes – Alzheimer’s Society Cymru and The Farming Community Network.

Speaking about the success of the FUW’s farmhouse breakfast week at the end of January, Union President Glyn Roberts said: “Our staff, members and wonderful volunteers have done an incredible job in raising what is the equivalent of a year’s farm income for many farms in Wales for our chosen charities.

“Farming communities are close-knit communities and this shows what can be achieved when we all come together, with a common goal. Through these events, where we all sat around the kitchen table to talk and share our thoughts about #FarmingMatters, we’ve strengthened ongoing and permanent relationships and established new ones.

“The money we have raised in our rural communities will go towards helping others in our communities – we must never forget that our communities are the engine room of people powered change and also that this strength of community has the power to hold governments to account.”

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Farming

FMD plans tested

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Exercise Blackthorn: Testing FMD preparedness

GOVERNMENT departments around the UK are set to carry out simulation exercises to test contingency plans for dealing with any future outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Exercise Blackthorn involved the Animal and Plant Health Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Scottish Government, Welsh Government and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland are set to test their current state of readiness over the next few months.

The EU Directive 2003/85/EC requires Member States to exercise their contingency plans either:

  • ​twice within a five year period; or
  • ​during “the five year period after the outbreak of a major epizootic disease has been effectively controlled and eradicated.”

The first simulation exercise took place on Thursday, February 8, with a further table-top exercise on March 8 followed by a real-time exercise on April 25 and 26 April.

Exercise Blackthorn will end on June 7 with a final table-top exercise. UK chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said regular testing of contingency plans was an important part of making sure the authorities can respond to outbreaks.

“Exercises like this provide an opportunity for teams across government and industry to engage and to learn lessons in a controlled and safe environment,” he said.

“The risk of foot-and-mouth disease arriving in the UK is low but ever present. Government monitors disease outbreaks and incidence around the world assessing risk for the UK and taking action to mitigate risk where possible.”

After being free of FMD since 1968, Great Britain suffered a return of the disease in 2001. The entire outbreak lasted for 221 days and had a devastating impact on the farming industry, rural community and the wider economy across the UK. The UK was officially declared disease free on 22 January 2002.

An exercise evaluation report will be published in the autumn.

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