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In lieu of a sustainable livestock law

Rob Flello, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, failed to get his sustainable livestock bill through Parliament on 15 November, which would have allowed farmers to swap imported soy animal feed for home-grown alternatives. Dependency on imported crop is unsustainable for the protection of the planet, which has near unanimity among politicians and business leaders today, yet opposition to the bill focused on its attempt to forge new regulation on an issue already being addressed by the food industry.

According to Pits n Pots news in Stoke on Trent, the bill enjoyed support from some 55,000 people, Friends of the Earth, and had the backing of 176 MPs, but in the end only managed to secure 62 votes – with some pointing out that many MPs needed to stay in their constituencies that day for Armistice Day Services.

Nevertheless, the failure of the bill to be passed does not spell doom. During the bill debate held in the House of Commons on 12 November, the more thoughtful Conservative opposition noted the work by many individuals and organisations helping to decrease dependency on imported crop and save rainforests in South America.

Tony Baldry for example, the MP for North Oxfordshire and as he refers to himself, the last surviving Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the House of Commons, recognises the benefits of increasing British livestock production, however he is unimpressed with how much “red tape” the bill required.

Like Flello, Baldry wants British reliance on imported soy to decrease in order to lower the nation’s carbon footprint. Additionally he would like Britain to address the problem of chronic poverty in developing nations caused by livestock asset loss (such as losing the benefits of mixed farming methods, livestock consumption of waste products, pest control, fertiliser and food production) however he is confident the industry can bring about the changes itself.

Jim Paice, the Minister of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) noted in the debate that the Dairy Supply Chain Forum’s Milk Roadmap is a good example of where producers, processors and retailers come together and commit to common goals on environmental stewardship, nutrient planning, and recycled plastic milk bottles among other concerns of the day. He reminded MPs that the beef and sheep sectors are also working towards sustainability measures.

While well meaning in their criticisms, they forget that this law was not created to undercut good work taking place, but to ensure mechanisms are in place to stop unsustainable farming and to drive out wrongdoers. The reason the bill enjoyed so much support from organisations as diverse as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, National Heart Forum, and Compassion in World Farming is not in the hope of frustrating self-directed sustainable measures, but to counter unsustainable ones.

A legal framework to combat reliance on soy – which two thirds of all manufactured food products in the UK contain – grown in South American plantations would begin to reduce the amount of rainforest being converted into farmland. Though livestock is not the only sector where soy reliance exists, measures to incentivise the maximisation of local production have not gone far enough; the bill would’ve made a significant difference to local production while ensuring other nations keep more of their produce.

Other criticisms suggested that the bill would place a ban on large dairies, reduce meat and dairy in people’s diets, and set trade barriers on imported animal feed. However if true, this will be the case even if sustainability measures are taken in ways described by Tory opposition to the bill, at least with the first two.

If local production of milk and soy is increased, it will be precisely this, and not cheap foreign imports, competing with large dairies to stock shop shelves. Furthermore, in growing more reliant on national livestock farming, whether through law or through accepted milestones mentioned by Jim Paice, the availability of meat and dairy will be dependent upon production supplying to demand – just as usual. The real problem here, much like that of the price disparity between local produce and cheaper imports in general, is whether people will be able to afford good diets while measures are taken to cut import reliance. Organic and locally produced foods can be up to double the price of imported produce. What had been missing from Flello’s bill were measures to make sure consumers could afford to maintain healthy diets while a reduction in imports took place.

Solving this problem would not mean reinventing the wheel. The Healthy Start vouchers for pregnant Mothers or families with one child under four and who are claiming income support, is a government scheme providing free milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, infant formula, and vitamins. Flello should have taken the opportunity to promote widening this scheme so many more families could be entitled to help. In the absence of the law, yet with willing participants in the farming industry eager to meet the goals of the bill, organisations should call on the government to compensate by extending local produce vouchers to those who will be most affected by the rise in their shopping bills.

As for barriers to animal feed, goods inside the EU are not considered imports, so this will only apply to trade countries outside the EU, and for reasons already explained is an appropriate measure to take in promoting sustainability and reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.

The failure of the bill to be passed will make it a lot harder to ensure sustainable practice is carried out, but not impossible. Individuals and organisations need to continue putting pressure on the government to oversee realistic and effective objectives are achieved in the farming industry, while ensuring people can afford a healthy diet alongside changes to production are made for the betterment of the planet is a national must.

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  1. December 22, 2010 at 7:09 pm

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