Examination of Witnesses

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:32 am on 23rd October 2018.

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ffinlo Costain, David Bowles and Simon Doherty gave evidence.

Photo of Phil Wilson Phil Wilson Labour, Sedgefield 10:56 am, 23rd October 2018

We will now hear evidence from Farmwel, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the British Veterinarian Association. The Committee is most grateful to you all, particularly the BVA, which has agreed to offer a witness at very short notice. For this session we have until 11.25 am. Will the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record?

Simon Doherty:

Good morning, I am Simon Doherty, president of the British Veterinary Association. For clarity, I will declare that I have just completed three years’ consultancy as the animal health and agriculture specialist of the Department for International Trade.

David Bowles:

Hi! I am David Bowles, assistant director at the RSPCA, and I have been working on CAP and WTO issues for about 20 years.

ffinlo Costain:

Hello there. My name is ffinlo Costain and I run Farmwel. We work very closely with FAI Farms, which is a sustainability consultancy working with big retailers at national and global level.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Do you think that the Bill satisfactorily addresses either animal welfare or animal health issues?

David Bowles:

It is a very good start. You have to put it in context. The CAP has allowed payments for animal welfare since 2003, so we have had two seven-year cycles. If you look at how many schemes there have been in the UK for animal welfare during that time, there has been one, in Scotland. That is not due to lack of enthusiasm from the devolved Administrations; that is due to lack of money, because pillar 2 has not given that money to open up those particular financial streams.

The RSPCA was delighted when the Bill came forward and acknowledged that animal welfare is a public good. Of course, we would like to see, as the previous presenters said, more clarity that there are duties to give money to animal welfare, because animal welfare has been squeezed out in the last 15 years under CAP and we do not want to see it squeezed out in future.

Yes, it is a good start. We would like to see some ring-fenced funding. We also crucially welcome the fact that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has linked in animal health and animal welfare. Those two are crucial. If you are looking at things such as lameness and mastitis, if you are trying to improve one, you are improving the other. I think there is a huge opportunity for win-wins here on animal health and animal welfare.

ffinlo Costain:

I agree entirely with what David just said but I think there is a real challenge. We would like to see a whole-farm approach to environmental land management schemes, so that you do not have progress on one public good on one part of the farm, but degradation of that same public good on a different part of the farm. Part of the challenge is around understanding the role that farm animal welfare plays, not only in and of itself to improve the lives of animals, but as an indicator of progress on environmental improvements as well. From that perspective—sorry, I am not sure what the second thing was that I was going to say, but that will do for now.

Simon Doherty:

By way of an opening remark, I fully concur with what David and ffinlo have just said by way of introduction. Certainly, the BVA position would be that we feel that this is a really good start. It is a nice piece of legislation. There are sufficient powers contained within it, we feel, to give the Secretary of State the ability to make appropriate changes where necessary within the realm of animal health and animal welfare.

Our overall position is that health and welfare are inextricably linked, but although we feel that there is a lot to be gained by maintaining that link, there are times when we need to separate welfare and look at particular aspects that relate to welfare outcomes—good welfare on the farm is not just absence of disease. There are times when we appreciate that there is a very close link between health and welfare, but there are also times when we need to be able to measure each separately. For both to be public goods, there need to be appropriate measures across the board.

ffinlo Costain:

I have remembered my final point. Our view is that climate change and biodiversity must be addressed together. You can get some quite perverse outcomes, particularly on farm animal welfare, if you simply focus hard on greenhouse gas emissions; you displace some of the environmental impact of the feed production, nitrous oxide production and carbon dioxide production that is associated with those more intensive systems. It is really important that farmers should not deliver some public goods at the expense of other public goods that are part of that. Improvements in climate change and biodiversity must be delivered together, and farm animal welfare is a great indicator of progress in both those areas.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q The premise behind the Bill is that, as you said, animal welfare is a public good, just like environmental outcomes. That is quite a radical, new thing for the Bill to state explicitly. Just as we have environmental stewardship schemes now, we intend to design schemes that could support higher standards of animal welfare for farmers that go above and beyond a regulatory base. What is your view on the design of such schemes, given that this is quite new? Some countries have tried it. Should we emphasise investment in capital to get new housing that is more animal welfare-friendly? Should we incentivise people to join holistic higher welfare schemes? Should we pay farmers for delivering results, such as pigs arriving with intact curly tails at abattoirs? What is your sense of the balance between those, and what type of interventions do you think we ought to consider?

Simon Doherty:

It is probably all of the above—it is the whole piece across the board. In measuring the outcomes, it is important that we do not just reward farmers for doing the minimum legal standard. It is actually about going above and beyond. The overall purpose has to be to raise the bar right across the board. It should not just be about rewarding the farmers who choose to do things above and beyond; it should be about bringing people who are a little bit behind the game on welfare to a point where they improve their end game. That will not just be through a purely financial reward—quite a bit of thought needs to be put into the individual schemes to make sure that we are bringing everybody along. It certainly needs to be right across the board.

David Bowles:

I mentioned at the beginning that the UK has only ever had one animal welfare scheme, but in the EU there have been 50 different rural development programmes on animal welfare over the last two cycles since 2007. They provide a huge amount of rich experience that shows that you can get good welfare outcomes from inputs from financial incentives. The RSPCA would like to see a two-tier system that has both the incentives that the Minister mentioned. For instance, you would have capital costs for rewarding people who build larger lunging spaces for dairy cattle. You would have outcome-based measures—for instance, the number of tails on pigs going through abattoirs that show a lack of mutilation. As Simon said, you should aim for people to go to a higher welfare scheme, such as RSPCA Assured. We believe that if you do so, you will get the incentive to improve animal welfare and animal health, and you will get farmers using a much better farming system than they use at the moment. This gives us a real opportunity to break the mould on animal welfare and get much better animal welfare farming happening in the next 10 years or so.

ffinlo Costain:

I agree with both the previous comments. It is essential to increase standards across the board. We should not only improve those standards as and when we leave the EU, but put in place a mechanism—and metrics are a really important part of this—to enable us to continually review the standards, based on what is being achieved by farmers, not just in the UK but around the world, to ensure that our standards continue improving. I think that at the moment, DEFRA want to provide financial assistance for farmers who are genuinely trying to improve their systems. We support that, and we think that sometimes, that assistance may need to be quite substantial. I think that DEFRA also want to reward particular excellence, and again, metrics are critical to measuring that progress. The best way for Government to achieve this is to work with existing—and possibly new-entrant—higher welfare schemes, schemes like RSPCA Assured, Soil Association and others, and then provide rewards based on particular metrics that the Government agree are critical.

In terms of metrics, we should not just be focusing on inputs. There is often a lot of focus on the inputs—the type of housing, the space allowance, the genetics of the animals, and that sort of thing—but we should also be looking at the outcomes: what is achieved. The inputs give us the key determinants in our ability to deliver improved farm animal welfare, but the outcomes tell us whether that improvement in welfare has been delivered. We need to see on-farm metrics that help farmers improve their day-to-day efficiency, the productivity of their businesses, and their ability to deliver better welfare and better sustainability in the round. There is also a huge opportunity across the nation at the moment that is underplayed, which is in the area of slaughter. That is where most livestock end up. There is potential to gather an enormous amount of helpful data that will help farmers, policy makers, and retailers’ assurance schemes deliver better welfare, and have a much more forensic understanding of where welfare sits across the board and whether attempts to improve welfare are being successful.

Simon Doherty:

Minister, there is also a real opportunity to engage new technologies that are being validated to measure some of these objective welfare outcomes. A huge amount of work is going on, and the UK is very much ahead of the game on this. We have some fantastic research centres across all four regions of the UK that are doing brilliant work on things like thermography, video imaging, wearable devices and so on, which are helping to measure health outcomes, but are also being validated to measure welfare outcomes. We do not necessarily need to cover all of our farms in that technology, but incentivising the uptake of some of these new technologies that can be used to benchmark animal welfare will be increasingly important as we go forward.

We have had a huge amount of engagement recently. BVA produces an infographic on welfare related to farm quality assurance schemes, and there has been a huge amount of uptake right across the board on that, including—as was previously mentioned—RSPCA and Soil Association schemes. As I say, that is going to be really important to building public engagement about this being a public good.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Briefly, because I know we are tight on time, our understanding of farm animal welfare has developed somewhat over the past 15 years or so from the traditional five freedoms—freedom from hunger, pain, and so on—to much more of a notion of a life worth living and animal wellbeing. Do you share that view, and what are the implications for the types of schemes we should be incentivising, versus the types of approaches we should take to a regulatory baseline?

David Bowles:

Absolutely. The uptake of the RSPCA Assured scheme, which the RSPCA sets standards for, is patchy. It covers about 55% of egg production in the UK, about 23% of pig production and about 30% of turkey production, but for the sheep, beef and dairy sectors, uptake is under 1%. However, as part of the scheme, the RSPCA has been doing welfare outcome assessments for the past 10 years or so, which started off with laying hens, dairy and pigs and is also now moving into chickens. We have got a lot more skilled in working out what the animal is thinking and what its welfare outcomes are. The RSPCA knows from its schemes—this is a commercial scheme—that those systems are easy to put in, that they are fairly easy to measure and inspect as part of the audit trail, and that they work. The farmers appreciate them because they need feedback in terms of how their animals are feeling as well.

We already have a lot of the science there to enable us to look at this. We would certainly welcome using those measures as part of any scheme going forward and, of course, welcome anybody coming to any of our farms to see how those welfare outcome assessments work in practice.

ffinlo Costain:

A sustainable farm is, in our view, a happy and healthy farm. It is one where the animals and farmers are making progress and are both having a life worth living. It is not just about the animals; it is about the farmers as well.

I used to run a regional branch of the National Farmers Union. For many of the members that I represented, the main time that they came across metrics was when they sent an animal to the abattoir and were told that it did not quite achieve the grade that they expected it to. That was the feedback they got, and they got less money. That is really negative. We need to change that so that there is a much more positive relationship with metrics.

I take the example of my neighbour’s farm. He has big challenges with his lamb production. We would like to see an assurance scheme that measures his farm in the round—that there are what we might call iceberg metrics that are measured by the Government, partly on a farm and partly at slaughter, where we are looking at low levels of lameness, low levels of ailments such as liver fluke and low levels of antibiotic use, and measuring those things together.

My neighbour is putting in place some really interesting measures around hedgerow management, carbon sequestration and water management, which will improve sustainability at the same time as improving the health and the welfare of the sheep on that farm. If he was achieving against those three measurements together and improving year on year, he would be happier with the farming system that he has, would be earning more money and would have increasing yield at the same time as feeling good about his farm, being able to communicate that with his community and also earning additional money in relation to those public goods. That is the sort of progress that we would like to see, which is very much along the lines that the Minister is thinking of at the moment.

David Bowles:

Of course it is a balance. You have to make sure that you do not make any scheme too complicated. You have to have measurements that are easy to measure and quick to measure as part of the audit scheme. It is a balance between getting that data out and making sure that the audit scheme works properly.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales)

Q A lot of doubt has been expressed around the Government’s commitment to the maintenance, or indeed the improvement, of animal welfare standards in the face of future difficult trade deals. What concerns do you have about that? What commitments might you might like to see placed in the Bill?

David Bowles:

The RSPCA, like the previous witnesses, has huge anxiety about future trade deals. Let us look at the number of countries that we are looking to do trade deals with. At the moment we are obviously looking to do a trade deal with the EU. We have broadly a level playing field with the EU, because we have had animal welfare standards since 1974 and they cover most of the species in the EU. Of course we would like to see them higher, but they are pretty good. The EU and the UK have probably some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, so that means that anybody else that we are trying to do trade deals with has lower standards—the only exception is New Zealand. The USA has hugely lower standards. Not only is it still using methods that are illegal in the UK, such as beef hormones or ractopamine, but it is also using standards that are illegal in the UK, such as the conventional battery cage and sow stalls.

The RSPCA would like to see an amendment to the Bill that was rejected by the House of Commons on the Trade Bill—that any trade deals would allow in only products that are produced at least to the standards in the UK. If we do not have that, we have a race to the bottom; we are just exporting our good animal welfare standards to somewhere else and we do not want to see that. We want to see a vibrant, healthy farming community in the UK, producing at higher welfare standards and giving the consumers what they want, not the bringing in of products and food that are produced to illegal or worse standards than here.

ffinlo Costain:

I echo what David said, but I would also say that, in my meetings with Ministers and officials at DEFRA, I think there was a genuine commitment to improving farm animal welfare. I have been really heartened by that as we have been going forward. At the same time, there are some really challenging balances, exactly as David said. However, at the heart of this is what is the market in the UK, not only for our farmers at home, but abroad, and it is about quality. If we have lower standards coming in, it undermines our marketplace and our rural economy. It is essential that we recognise that we are never going to win a race to the bottom; we cannot. We can win a race to the top. We already have good quality products that could be much better quality in terms of welfare and the environment that we can sell as a story, as a whole product, whether that is branding, as Tom was talking about before—Cumbrian lamb or whatever—or whether it is selling branding at home; whether it is building the business case through public goods to our local communities and to the taxpayer for additional assistance in terms of land management and public goods; or whether it is underpinning the British brand and selling and promoting that quality around the world.

In addition, if we are building a market based on quality and reviving our rural economy, whether it is small, medium or large farm businesses, we will be developing new technologies and new machinery that we can also export. We want to see not only a growth in improved welfare and environmental standards, but a revival in the countryside. The Bill is a fantastic step in the right direction, but it is just framework legislation. We need to see more work in the future—for example, the gold standard work that DEFRA is engaged in.

Simon Doherty:

I agree with the two previous correspondents entirely. I will not repeat everything that they have said. We have had some very encouraging, strong lines from DEFRA. The disappointment has been that there have been weaker lines from the Department for International Trade. We need to make sure that there is a join-up across Government to make sure that we are all singing off the same hymn sheet in relation to welfare, so that we do not have one part of Government saying one thing and another part doing another. Obviously, I will say this as the president of the British Veterinary Association. We feel that we are absolutely at the juxtaposition of animal health and welfare. We are here today because the role of the BVA is to represent the veterinary profession to Government. We hope that one of the outcomes across the board will be a recognition of the role of vets in veterinary public health, in animal welfare, in animal health, and ultimately in food security for the country.

David Bowles:

Of course, the other way to stop this, apart from in trade deals, is to give the consumer information. At the moment we only have one mandatory method of production label, which is on eggs, and we know that that has worked. It has driven the market up to 55% now for free range eggs, because the consumers wanted that. We hope that in the Bill we get some mandatory method of production labelling going into other areas. There is a chance of getting that. I know the Government share some of that enthusiasm, and that would be really good. The consumers always say they want higher animal welfare, but some of the time they are confused because the label does not show that.

ffinlo Costain:

The evidence shows that, where method of production labelling exists, at least 50% of consumers choose the higher welfare option, which is often a little more expensive. Method of production labelling is not only important in terms of helping to drive that market, but is really about improving communication. There is a big disparity between, particularly, people who live in the city, but also often people who live in the countryside as well, and the way that food is produced; I do not know whether that is driven by CBeebies. I have a four and a six-year-old and they constantly see one model of farming that does not necessarily reflect the way that farming is. Labelling and communication in general builds the case for improved prices and for commitment to local farmers, or farmers at a British level, and across the board. I think it is really important.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

Q I note what you say about the positive comments from DEFRA on the animal welfare that we have at the moment, but the Bill needs to be future-proof, and not all future DEFRA Ministers might be as cute and cuddly as the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth. You talked about a level playing field with the European Union. We need to make sure that we maintain at least that. I am told that we have probably the best animal welfare standards in the world. How can we make sure that the Bill stands the test of time and that we maintain that position? Some people argue that we ought to be almost pegging our standards to those of the EU so that we do not fall behind, and future Governments might experience pressure in the light of trade deals that might come in future years.

David Bowles:

One of the most exciting things about trade deals at the moment—if I can use the words “exciting” and “trade deals” in the same sentence—is that we are starting to see language in them about equivalence on animal welfare standards. The EU has been a driver for this. It started with South Korea and has now got it with Chile, and it is looking at getting it with Mexico as well. That is a real incentive. We want to see similar language on equivalence with the EU, as well as with others. RSPCA Assured has shown that raising animal welfare standards can be done on a commercial basis—consumers will vote with their purses if they are given the right information and if there is enough transparency on the retailer market shelf—but some specific language on equivalence needs to be put into trade deals.

ffinlo Costain:

Being in the lead is not something that continues unless you keep working at it. There are areas in which other countries are catching up with the UK, and possibly one or two in which they are starting to move ahead. It is therefore critical that we have metrics to measure the inputs and outcomes, and to understand at a national level where we want to be and how successful policy is at making that progress. We should be leaders—this is our opportunity. We will not win the race to the bottom, but we can win on quality by selling at home and selling abroad.

Look at Origin Green in Ireland. It is a unique national brand, although its climate outcomes are nowhere near as strong as what I would like to see. If we had a national brand based on metrics for climate change and biodiversity, with farm animal welfare used as a critical indicator of progress in both areas, it could be part of our gold standard work. It would underpin our progress and ensure it continues, and be a national brand that we could sell abroad. Origin Green is a really good place to look for an opportunity that we could quickly overtake and surpass in export and home production.

Simon Doherty:

There is a huge commercial advantage from other parts of the world opening up to exploring improved animal welfare. We have consultancy firms such as FAI Farms that are working globally to help other jurisdictions to raise their standards towards those that we work at in Europe and in the UK.

I mentioned the underpinning research and development that is going on in the field of animal welfare. There are certainly other parts of northern Europe that are working on curly tails on pigs, for example, or improving health indicators such as mastitis or lameness in dairy cows. We have that world-class expertise across the board, and we need to continue to build on it. We also need to ensure that the funding is there to underpin that research.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

Q I know that we are almost out of time, but I have one more question. The Government are looking to simplify some aspects of inspection regimes and so on through the Bill. In the areas that you are responsible for in animal welfare, do you have any recommendations that are not already in the Bill for improving but simplifying things?

David Bowles:

We have been working with Dame Glenys Stacey on her review. Slightly worryingly, she has said that its recommendations will not be published in time for the Bill. There is a mismatch in terms of how we ensure good enforcement, particularly now that cross-compliance is ending, so we would like to see a commitment in the Bill to implementing some of the Stacey review’s recommendations on enforcement. The Government’s own research has shown that those who farm under a welfare assurance scheme, particularly one such as RSPCA Assured, are much less likely to break the law. We would like to see payments given to higher welfare assurance schemes, not just because they produce animal welfare benefits, but because they improve enforcement.

ffinlo Costain:

We would like to see a reduction in the paperwork that farmers need to do. Reducing that burden is important if farmers are to become more productive and efficient, but we also want to see an increase in what is measured. We can achieve that by promoting self-assessment on farms and farmers’ participation in assurance schemes, and by increasing the measurement of data collected on use of technology to assist farmers, so that they feel the benefit day to day. We also need to work with slaughterhouses on livestock to ensure that we are doing much more measurement and standardising it. By pinning all that work together—self-assessment, technology, use of data and use of slaughterhouses—we can measure more, measure more effectively and reduce the burden.

Photo of Phil Wilson Phil Wilson Labour, Sedgefield

Order. I am afraid that that brings us to the end of the time allocated for the Committee to ask questions. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the witnesses for their evidence.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.