When I took up my post as the RSPCA’s Chief Executive in August, one of the first documents in my in-tray was a briefing about how Brexit will affect animal welfare. I suspect for many people, they have never simply thought about how Brexit impacts animal welfare. When asked, 80% of the public said they do not want to see welfare standards watered down.
But with 80% of our welfare laws made in Brussels, of course Brexit hugely impacts animal welfare. And for no animals is this more true than for farm animals.
Brexit is the defining event for farming and farm animals in the UK in a generation. Last month MPs debated the Government’s suggested independent agriculture policy. Amazingly this was the first debate on agriculture policy since 1947, before many of the current intake of MPs were even born, although one MP followed his grandfather in discussing the policy. Since 1973, it’s been the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that has defined British farming.
No matter how you voted, we can all agree that the CAP has not delivered the best outcomes for British farmers and farm animals. Why? Because as its name suggests, it is common to 28 countries but is not specific to any of them. It remains a policy that spends 80% of its money – your money – solely on ownership of land. The more land you own, the more money you get. You are not even expected to produce much, and only have to comply with the baseline legal standards.
The CAP has certainly not delivered animal welfare in the UK. Although funding for animal welfare has been around since 2007, budgets are tiny: 0.5%. In England, no funding has ever been provided for animal welfare schemes. It’s not surprising that in England the CAP has resulted in negative impacts on both the environment and animal welfare. By failing to support higher welfare systems it creates conditions allowing more intensive, lower welfare farming methods to flourish.
Brexit allows us to move away from this approach, tailor our own agricultural policy based on our own world-leading animal welfare standards and properly recognise and encourage British farmers who want to follow better systems for their animals.
The Government’s new approach to farming, set out in the Agriculture Bill, is a system based on public money for public goods; public goods which crucially include animal welfare. A first, big step forward. In some areas, British farmers already farm to some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, but in others they have fallen behind. They need a leg up to make improvements to their farms to deliver higher standards of animal welfare.
They also need the consumer to know this which is why we support – and the Government are looking at – mandatory labelling of how our chicken or beef got to our plates. We know this works. Mandatory egg labelling has made a huge difference to the numbers of free range eggs as consumers vote with their wallets.
We can do so much more. Brexit also provides us the opportunity to deliver this on a wide range of issues, including banning live animal exports, improving how we slaughter farm animals and reducing the times taken to transport animals from the farm to the slaughterhouse. No longer will our hands be tied by European rules. I hope that the Government is prepared to seize this opportunity with both hands. The signs are good so far that they are.
However, Brexit is not all sunlit uplands for British farmers and their animals. It will only work if we ensure we are not undercut by cheaper imports produced from less humane standards – in other words we need to keep our high standards, not lose them to other countries. The great unknown that is our future trading relationship with the rest of the world. As we approach B-Day it is absolutely essential that any future trade deals the UK strikes keep our standards intact by not allowing cheap, less humane imports to undercut our farmers. We must approach trade deals with the same standards we enforce domestically. We must ensure that these trade deals have language in them relating to animal welfare. We cannot allow the drive to become an international trading nation to undermine our animal welfare standards and threaten the livelihoods of British farmers. And it’s not just us saying this. Voices from across British agriculture – including the NFU – agree.
It’s been heartening to hear ministers from across Government commit to protect our animal welfare standards as we leave the EU. They must now deliver on these excellent intentions. High welfare standards will be an integral part of the appeal of British food and vital to the British competitive farming. The animals, farmers and consumers alike demand it.