Since the BBC’s Panorama episode investigating dairy farms in the UK was released, the debate has raged on between animal rights groups and those in the agriculture sector, says Andrew Livingston
The farming community is strongly opinionated that the episode ‘A Cow’s Life: The true cost of milk’ (click the preview image below to view the programme on iPlayer) does not give a balanced view or fairly depict what farms are really like in the UK.
Vegan animal rights activists, however, have stated that the programme has shone a light on the true living conditions of the cows that produce the milk that fills our shops and supermarkets.
Both sides of the argument have only been able to agree on one thing – that the treatment of the cows and calves shown in the programme is barbaric.
Lack of balance
The hour-long show released on Valentine’s Day predominantly shares hidden camera footage from one farm in Wales. The staff on the farm are seen kicking cows whilst down, hitting them in the face with shovels and moving them across the farm by lifting them on their hip pins.
Despite the horrific footage, what has infuriated farmers is what they see as a lack of balance.
“I thought it wasn’t good, it didn’t show our industry and the dairy industry in a good light.” said James Cossins, NFU representative for dairy farmers in Dorset.
With a 300 cow dairy and arable farm of his own, Cossins is adamant that scenes like these are not the norm.
He told the BV: “If that is commonplace then… well, there’s no way that I want to be part of the industry if that’s the way people treat animals.”
A vegan view
Some animal rights groups agree that this isn’t the norm. Francine Jordan, an employee at The Vegan Society and host of The Vegan Pod, holds such notions.
She states: “Fortunately, the extreme animal cruelty shown in the documentary will not be how all cows are treated on farms in the UK.
“However, the reality is the practice of running a dairy farm is cruel. Whether it’s intentional or not, all dairy cows are seen as money-making commodities.” One individual who would wholeheartedly disagree that his cows were just there for the money would be local farmer Richard Foot.
When watching the programme, Foot, who recently sold his 200 cows due to staffing issues since Brexit, had to turn it off due to the thought that his cows “ended up somewhere like that”.
The 61-year-old from Caundle Marsh went on to add: “Why’d they want to show that when it’s a very small percentage of farms?“ It’s that tiny percentage that ruins it for all those who are doing good, hard work and producing high-quality food with very high standards of welfare and the environment.”
This is not the first time that the BBC’s coverage of agriculture has come under fire from farmers. Over recent years, the broadcaster has continually blamed agriculture for raising methane gases – even though the number of cows and cattle is currently less than it was in the 1950s (9.36 million now compared to 10.6m in 1950).
In 2018, farmers accused another documentary on dairy farming of misinterpreting the facts to mislead
its viewers. ‘Disclosure: The dark side of dairy’ showed how dairies in Scotland send 5,000 calves a year to Spain to be fattened and slaughtered.
The documentary used footage of poor transport conditions for the calves; even though it was obvious by their ear tags that none of the animals depicted was sent from Scotland. Uproar from the agricultural community caused the BBC to heavily edit the online version, but the damage had already been done. As soon as the episode aired, P&O Ferries banned the transportation of calves from Scotland to Ireland, the route they would have previously used when shipped to Spain to be fattened for slaughter.
Is there an excuse?
If the practices on the farm in Wales are not the industry norm, what went wrong for these animals, to be subjected to this abuse?
A Cows Life suggests that issues stem from the supermarkets – simply, we buy our milk too cheap, causing the farmer to be paid little for their produce. Although both Cossins and Foot agree that milk is bought too cheaply, they both state it’s not an excuse.
James Cossins said: “I think what we saw has a lot to do with training and managing. More money perhaps helps to improve facilities, but from what I could see, improving facilities wouldn’t have stopped them doing everything they were doing,”
Richard Foot agreed: “Regardless of what you are getting [paid], if you can’t look after your animals properly, you shouldn’t have them… Why should a cow or a calf or a pig suffer like that because you can’t afford to look after them?”
Can regulation help?
But who ensures standards are met? Currently, in the UK, the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme ensures farms meet a plethora of standards; they state that their ‘logo means that the food you buy has been responsibly sourced, safely produced and comes from crops and animals that have been well cared for’. In the Panorama episode, the farm in question is a Red Tractor farm.
So why was the farm not up to standard on its animal welfare? Richard Foot says he wasn’t surprised.
“I think Red Tractor needs to be sorted out. I think they drive up our farm drive, they look at the state of the farm and they [just] mark the farms on what they see.”
James Cossins agrees that Red Tractor isn’t working for the protection of the animals.
“They almost seem to pick things that are not so important. When they could just look at animal welfare.”
After the show, the Welsh farm in question had its membership terminated. However for the animals and the industry, the damage had already been done.
For vegans, in their view, whether a farm is Red Tractor assured or not makes no difference. Jordan states that no matter how well they are cared for “they are killed against their will. “It’s tempting to believe that the animals we eat lived happy, healthy lives and experienced no pain or fear.
“Unfortunately, the sad truth is that all animals raised for meat, dairy and eggs – including those labelled free-range or organic or well cared-for – are used and abused, with many ending up in the same slaughterhouse.”
by Andrew Livingston