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Factory Farming Is Sweeping the U.K.

In the United States, factory farms—also known as “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs—have been around for decades. While they enable the cheap meat that many Americans take for granted, they also receive criticism for their effects on the environment, animal welfare, human health, and rural communities. In the U.K., however, the largest factory farms are a newer phenomenon. Last month, the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) published a series of in-depth articles called “The Rise of the ‘Megafarm’: How British Meat Is Made,” which uncovered the rapid growth of British intensive farms over the past 15 years. There are currently almost 800 U.S.-style “megafarms” in the U.K., and since 2011, the number of intensive pig and poultry farms has increased by 26 percent, the investigation revealed. The largest farms hold more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs, or 2,000 dairy cows. (Poultry is by far the biggest sector, comprising 86 percent of the permit-holding intensive operations.) During the process of reporting the stories, the journalists gained access to at least one poultry megafarm where they were able to document their visit with photos—a rare occurrence in the U.S., where farms are generally closed to the press. In some states, in fact, ag-gag laws aim to prevent employees, undercover or otherwise, from documenting factory farm operations without their employers’ consent. Civil Eats spoke with BIJ reporters Andrew Wasley and Madlen Davies to learn more about the state of industrial-scale agriculture in the U.K. and how the U.S. version of the practice has shaped its evolution. What did the areas where intensive animal farming look like before they moved in, and what does it look like now? Madlen Davies: It hasn’t gone from a green-and-pleasant land to an industrialist state. But they are quite visible, often from roads and railway lines, and lots of local residents are angry that so many have been allowed to be erected in a short period of time. There are different opinions about them. Cargill is the biggest employer in the area. It brings a lot of jobs. But it’s an area of outstanding natural beauty. Groups representing people who have had broiler sheds erected near their houses feel it’s a blight on the countryside. Davies: In the 1950s, chicken was quite expensive. Most people only ate it about once a week. Then a company called Buxton Chickens imported factory-farming models from America, and the first fast-processing poultry unit was opened in Aldershot [a town in England]. Once those U.S.-style, intensive models were imported, farmers were able to create more crops, and that drove down the price quite a lot. That increased demand. There were also lots of government campaigns in the ’70s and ’80s advising people to cut down on red meats that were considered fatty. Chicken, on the other hand, was considered a lean meat. Andrew Wasley: Poultry is now Britain’s most popular meat. It’s absolutely everywhere. The sector is expanding year-on-year. Ultimately, [the proliferation of megafarms] is being driven by consumer demand. How hard was it to get access to farms? Did you find the industry to be secretive and hard to penetrate? Davies: The British Poultry Council is very forthcoming and wanted to speak to us and was very helpful. We did approach quite a few dairies and asked to visit them, and none of them got back to us. Richard Williams [who appears in the story]—we asked to visit his farm because we had interviewed a neighbor of his who’s very angry and made a whole lot of statements about what it was like to live next to a farm. When I contacted him for his reply to those statements, he invited us there. Wasley: We did try to approach this in a very even-handed, data-led way. It was driven by the figures that we’d obtained. We gave a lot of space to the farming industry for their viewpoint. It wasn’t a welfare scandal or food safety scandal, and I think the industry recognized that. When you went to Richard Williams’ Penhros Farm, you saw windows and hay bales and wooden perches, and Williams said the birds got enrichments,...

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