A short walk along a public footpath a few miles from the river Wye in Herefordshire brings you to a field where large white polyethene tunnels stretch dozens of metres down a hill. They are met at the bottom by five mammoth sheds - each as long as a football pitch. Tall metal silos rise up from between the imposing units.
It looks like something out of a sci-fi film - but it is in fact a typical modern UK farm. Inside the warehouse walls, nearly 800,000 chickens are being bred for slaughter at any one time.
This facility is one of nearly 1,700 intensive poultry and pig farms licensed by the Environment Agency. A Bureau investigation shows that the number of such farms in the UK has increased by a quarter in the last six years.
Many of these units are giant US-style “megafarms”. In what are well publicised, nearly 800 of these occur throughout the UK. The biggest of these megafarms house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 dairy cows, in sprawling factory units where most animals are confined indoors.
The growth in intensive farms is concentrated in certain parts of the country where major food companies operate and many are in the process of expanding. In Herefordshire, intensively-farmed animals outnumber the human population by 88 to one.
Get the data
Information from the Environment Agency and local authorities to get a comprehensive picture of modern British farming. The two biggest farms we have recorded have the capacity to house 1.7 million and 1.4 million chickens apiece. Behind the data lies a fundamental debate about what we want to eat as a nation, and what price we are prepared to pay for that food.
The big farms say they are led by consumers - people want to buy cheap meat, and intensive farming is the only way to efficiently satisfy that demand. But critics say factory farms blight local communities, subject animals to prolonged distress and push out small producers - and that we do not need the vast quantities of meat we consume.
There have been many calls on the government to review whether the regulations around intensive units were robust requiring of domestic regulations to meet the emerging landscape and to take the place of European Union legislation post-Brexit.
The majority of Britain’s poultry meat is produced by a handful of large companies all of which are privately-owned. A number of the main supermarkets and fast food chains now source meat from companies operating such megafarms.
Most permit-holding intensive farms (86%) in the UK are poultry farms
High demand for low-cost meat
The rise in intensive farming has been fuelled by Britain’s demand for cheap meat, especially chicken. Close to a billion birds are slaughtered each year, almost all of them intensively-farmed. The majority of the UK’s megafarms are poultry units. Growing free-range and organic chickens requires a lot of space - about four square metres per animal for organic birds. Intensive farms typically have about 15 chickens per square metre, or an area about the size of an A4 sheet of paper for each bird.
Space per chicken on intensive farms = 4 square metres
Space per chicken on organic farms
Intensive farming also allows farms to carefully control the temperature and humidity of chicken units, and give just the right amount of additive-boosted feed and chlorinated water for optimal growth in a short time. The lifespan of an average intensively-farmed chicken is 35 days.The efficiency of the system is illustrated in the product prices. A review of five major supermarket chickens shows basic, value or own brand chicken – raised on intensive farms - costs between £1.99 and £2.73 per kg for a whole roasting bird. Organic chicken – i.e. birds kept in a smaller flock, given access to the outdoors, and fed on additive and GM-
free grain grown on that farm - costs between £6.00 and £7.04 per kg per roasting bird.
While demand for free range eggs has risen substantially in the last two decades, free range and organic chicken still only accounts for a tiny proportion of the market - just 3% and 1% respectively.
Some farms producing free-range poultry products - mainly eggs - are actually large enough that they are classified as intensive. But the Bureau has calculated at least three quarters of intensive poultry farms are factory-style units with some or all birds permanently housed indoors - and the figure could be higher as not all records have been made available.
Currently there has been little demand to stop the growth of intensive farms and move to organic farming since organic farms would take up much more space. Intensive farms maintain high environmental, hygiene and welfare standards when they are run properly. I think people think of hens roaming around a farm but that image is no longer the case – sadly, that is not how chicken is farmed any more.
One billion chickens bred and slaughtered for meat in the UK per year
The industry body for pig farmers argue that farmers had to operate intensive systems to compete with cheap European imports. Intensive farms have to meet many different regulations to get an Environment Agency permit, she said, and the biggest farms have excellent resources to maintain welfare standards, such as specialist vets on site. There was also a lack of consumer demand for free-range meat.
Many people like the idea of a family farm but they don’t know what an actual farm looks like and the scale of big farms allow them to afford to invest in green technologies. On large modern farms it’s easier to create and maintain the right environment, meaning that our animals are raised somewhere that is warm, dry and clean, and the risk of air borne diseases, such as avian influenza, is greatly reduced.
Through investing in fewer, larger facilities it may be possible to make the best use of scarce agricultural land and reduce the environmental impact of such farms. For example, the use of energy derived from biomass that can be used on these farms.
Inside a poultry megafarm
A typical megafarm such as the one described in Herefordshire, there are four sheds each housing 42,000 chickens. From this farm nearly 1.3 million chickens a year are produced for the giant food company Cargill, which supplies Tesco.
Inside, the sweet sickly odour is overpowering. You can’t see the floor for chickens. The sheds have some hay bales and wooden perches.
Apparently, there is enrichment: windows so they get daylight and fresh air…
The chickens are bred to grow quickly, provide a good yield of meat, eat little feed and be disease-resistant. They are trucked in as chicks. Each batch of chickens is called a “crop” and he has about eight crops a year, cleaning the sheds in between each one.
Not a single antibiotic has been used since the site was set up two years ago. Instead, a product which changes the birds’ gut flora is used (rather like a probiotic but for chickens). The sheds are heated by a biomass boiler fuelled by recycled timber waste. The hatchery, feed mill, and factory, all owned by Cargill, are within 15 miles. Responding to complaints from neighbours, the farm keeps local people in work, like the truck drivers who deliver chicks, feed and shavings.
An inhumane industry?
The critics paint a different picture, saying cheap meat comes at a cost for society at large. Intensively-farmed animals suffer more disease and other health problems, they say, also pointing to the stress created by early weaning and confinement, which can lead to animals starting to injure and cannibalise each other.
The campaign group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) believes intensive farming is inhumane, and cannot be justified by efficiency arguments. It has launched a campaign highlighting what it calls the UK's factory farming hotspots. According to CIWF there are nearly 17 million factory farmed animals in Herefordshire, 15 million in Shropshire and 12 million in Norfolk.
Bringing animals off the land and cramming them into factory farms is not only cruel to animals but also has far reaching effects on human health, wildlife and the planet and whilst it sounds like a space-saving idea, it ignores the fact that vast amounts of land are used elsewhere to grow food for them – often in huge crop fields doused in chemical pesticides and fertilisers – squeezing wildlife out, as industrial farming methods sweep the planet.
Farms can be breeding grounds for food poisoning bugs such as campylobacter, E.coli and salmonella. In intensive farms the close proximity of the animals can mean diseases spread quickly. This has historically meant the widespread use of antibiotics, the use of such drugs by poultry farmers had dropped significantly in recent years.Industrial-scale farming also produces huge amounts of manure, carcasses, silage and dirty water, all of which can have significant environmental impacts even when disposed of properly. People living in the shadows of megafarms complain of lorries clogging up local roads as they transport grain and waste, and picturesque rural areas being spoiled by foul smells and ugly buildings.
More importantly, the continued overuse of antibiotics on intensive farms is contributing to widespread antibiotic resistance and consequently the biggest human health threat we face.
Unacceptable’ bacteria levels found on US meat may fuel fears over UK trade deal. Samples of pork and poultry showed high levels of salmonella and E coli in new study
Campaigners fear that a failure to protect UK food standards in law means that a future trade deal with the US might allow more cheaply produced meat to flood the UK market. Downing Street has repeatedly refused to agree to any parliamentary restrictions or so-called “red lines” on its negotiating position in US trade talks. Campaigners may feel their arguments are bolstered by the preliminary findings of a five year study being carried out at George Washington University by Prof Lance Price, which tested meat from US shops and found that about 14% of the poultry samples and 13% of the pork had traces of salmonella.
Testing also revealed that more than 60% of the pork products had E. coli on them, as did around 70% of the beef products, 80% of the chicken products, and more than 90% of the turkey products.
Unclean greens: how America's E. coli outbreaks in salads are linked to cows
Meanwhile a review of the impacts of Covid-19 on US livestock found that several poultry plants were given government permission to increase the speeds of their production lines, the amount of chicken meat being condemned and discarded owing to suspected contamination fell 10% from the same period in 2019. During the Covid pandemic some poultry plants were given government permission to speed up their production lines.
A successful farming future rests on how the government shapes trade deals with countries around the world and supports farming in the months and years ahead.
The cocktail of chemicals, carcinogens, poisons, hormones, faeces and other health hazards in American food processing, and the effects they have on the human body and mind, is stomach-churning. So is the way they treat their farm animals.
We live in a society where the wealth of the few is more important than the health of everyone else but many fear that this is where we are heading if we don’t break the Westminster stranglehold.
American pork is SIX times more likely to contain salmonella than the British variety, claims study amid fears over food standards in a US-UK trade deal. Other worrying statistics from a recent programmes aired on Channel 4 Dispatches:
- E. coli allegedly found in 90% of turkey products destined for US supermarkets
- US pork up to six times more likely to have salmonella than UK pork, study claims
- 13% of pork samples tested for salmonella in US meat were positive for bacteria
- E. coli was also found by experts in 80% of chicken, 70% of beef and 60% of pork
European regulators are much more rigorous in their testing of how farming practices could impact the health of consumers. British farmers are rightly concerned that quantities of such products could begin appearing on UK supermarket shelves if standards are lowered in order to strike a post-Brexit trade deal with countries like America.