The implications of Brexit for animal welfare in the UK

Read Time:   |  26th September 2017

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Tony Wardle from Viva! looks at the implications of the Brexit decision for animal welfare in the UK.

I keep getting asked the same question – what will Brexit mean for animals? Just as with every other aspect of this massive constitutional upheaval, I can’t be sure, but the writing is on the wall in letters ten feet tall and it’s not very encouraging.

The over-enthusiastic Brexiteers are claiming that at last we have control of our destiny and can protect British animals from that cruel Johnny Foreigner. They haven’t shown much interest in saving them up until now though, so I doubt much will change.

We love a good myth and one of the most enduring is that we have ‘the best animal welfare in the world’. A very recent investigation by Viva! into conditions on a huge pig farm in Warwickshire exposes that as the cynical marketing ploy it really is – The sad truth is that when it comes to farmed animal welfare, people talk the talk but none of them walk the walk.

Taking the lead

Yes, we (and it was we – animal campaigning groups) did ban veal crates and sow stalls, but boy-oh-boy what a battle it was. People did everything they could to thwart it and did manage to delay the ban on sow stalls for several years.

Yes, the impetus for change has always come from campaigners, with the support of a few politicians such as Norman Baker and the late Tony Banks. But the truth is there are now several European countries that have better animal welfare than we do, and all the recent improvements have come from the EU. It’s too long a list to repeat, but includes a ban on teeth clipping and tail docking and a sickening admission about pregnant sows. It says they are all hungry for their entire lives because they are fed on concentrates that lack roughage to fill them up. It issued a directive saying that to satisfy their hunger and need to chew, all sows must be given a sufficient quantity of bulky, high-fibre food.

The implications of Brexit for animal welfare in the UK

That was 2003 and in all the farm visits Viva! have done since then, we’ve seen not a trace of these or any other improvements. The EU also called for the provision of enrichment materials for pigs to explore, such as straw or hay. The only thing we have seen was a solitary chain hanging from the top bars of a pig battery cage and a deflated football. In 2009, it was the EU not the UK that issued a Directive declaring animals as sentient beings – a vital admission – but again, little has changed.

Unenforced directives

The problem with Directives is that they are enforced (or not) at a national level, so each country can find ways of ignoring them – as we have done. Despite this, the EU has moved forwards – even though at a snail’s pace – because with 500 million people it is strong enough and big enough not to be threatened by other countries, nor to be forced into making concessions for the sake of trade deals. The same cannot be said of the UK on its own.

Remember the furore over the bee-destroying pesticides neonicotinoids? Our government carried on using them when Europe called time. But now, the British Crop Production Council is calling for a different system for assessing pesticides – the much less restrictive (less safe) ‘risk-based approach’ as opposed to the EU’s safer, ‘hazard-based system’ which, they say, is restricting their use of ‘important plant protection products’. Come back neonicotinoids, all is forgiven!

The US has already made it crystal clear what they expect from any trade deal. Farmed animals in the US have almost no protection and several States have now enacted ‘ag gag’ laws in which exposing animal suffering on farms can get you sent to prison. Even as I write, the US Agriculture Department has removed animal welfare inspection reports, enforcement records and other information about the treatment of animals from its website. That’s not a good start!

The implications of Brexit for animal welfare in the UK

In the US, use of bovine somatotrophin (BST) is fairly routine in dairy cows to increase milk production, but it comes at a terrible price to the animals, resulting in severe welfare problems, dramatically increasing the incidence of painful mastitis and laminitis. It follows that antibiotic use also increases to try and cope with these diseases.

There are all kinds of practices in the US which we shun here, including chlorine-washed chickens, unlabelled genetically modified (GM) foods, and cattle implanted with growth hormones. Imports of this beef are banned by the EU but the farm-owners body, the National Farmers Union (NFU), is already repositioning itself.

On Radio 4’s Today programme in February, Bob Young of the American Farm Bureau Federation, made it absolutely clear that any US trade deal with the UK would have to include our acceptance of food derived from all these practices. Martin Haworth, NFU (the farm owners’ body) director of strategy meekly agreed. The proviso was that UK farmers be allowed to do the same! Happy Brexit!

Viva! is a charity working to promote veganism and to end animal suffering. Tony Wardle is a journalist and award-winning documentary film maker. He has been involved with Viva! since its inception 21 years ago.

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