Happy new year to all our readers and welcome to our first farming news roundup of 2021. After Covid-19 outbreaks linked to meat plants, live export catastrophes and ever-clearer links between meat and Amazon deforestation last year, what can we expect from the next 12 months?
Three million birds have reportedly been slaughtered in Japan after multiple bird flu outbreaks. In Europe, there have been bird flu outbreaks in poultry in the Netherlands, Poland and France, while the UK has ordered all birds to be kept indoors in a bid to prevent further bird flu outbreaks in the commercial poultry sector – Northern Ireland recently had its first outbreak in a commercial flock since 1998. The UK’s free-range producers will get a derogation allowing them to carry on labelling their produce as free-range until early April.
Germany’s pig sector – the EU’s biggest – has been hit hard by cases of the deadly pig disease African swine fever (ASF) in wild boar, with China responding by banning German-sourced pork imports. The Schwarz Group – which operates the supermarket chains Lidl and Kaufland – said it would pay €50m (£45m) into a government-sponsored “animal welfare” fund, to help farmers affected by ASF and coronavirus.
China has stepped up its recovery from its own outbreaks of ASF – which have destroyed a large chunk of its industry since 2018 – with the world’s biggest ever pig farm under construction in Henan province in central China. The farm aims to produce more than 2 million pigs a year and can house upwards of 80,000 at any one time.
Meanwhile it seems pigs can’t actually fly, after news of a ban on pigs being allowed onboard cabins on US airlines. The animals are taken as emotional support for passengers, but the pork industry said if any pig produced a positive test for ASF then all pork exports from the US could be banned.
The US meat giant Tyson Foods has sacked seven workers after allegations they took bets on how many employees would catch Covid-19. As hundreds of employees fell ill during the outbreak, managers and supervisors at a pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, placed bets on how many of their employees would contract the virus, a lawsuit filed against one of America’s largest meat producers alleged. Tyson Foods said: “We were very upset to learn of the behaviours found in the allegations, as we expect our leaders to treat all team members with the highest levels of respect and integrity.”
Parliamentarians in Taiwan threw pig guts at one other after a recent decision to lift a ban on US pork and beef imports. The ban related to pork products with residue of the feed additive ractopamine, used by some farmers in the US to promote lean meat, but which is banned in Europe and China.
The ongoing drama that is coronavirus cases in mink took a further twist last month after Denmark was forced to dig up and incinerate millions of culled mink to prevent groundwater pollution. Denmark, the world’s largest exporter of mink fur, had announced it would cull up to 15 million of the animals after discovering a mutated version of the virus that could have jeopardised the efficacy of future vaccines. But unable to incinerate such a large number of dead animals at once, authorities buried millions in vast, shallow pits in a military training area in West Jutland, from which some began emerging as their bodies filled with gases. Meanwhile, Canada has now joined the list of countries with confirmed mink farm cases.
Singapore has approved the sale of lab-grown meat produced in bioreactors without the need for animal slaughter. Guardian journalist Oliver Holmes gave his own take on the innovation after visiting a test restaurant near Tel Aviv, Israel, to try a lab-grown chicken burger.
England and Wales are planning to ban the export of live animals on welfare grounds. The ban will not as yet cover Scotland. It will also not apply to Northern Ireland, which will continue to follow EU legislation on live animal exports. Any ban would exclude poultry, with tens of millions of chicks exported mainly for breeding purposes every year in a trade worth £139m in 2018. A consultation on the proposal will end next month.
The issue of Covid-19 cases among meat plant workers has resurfaced after reports of an outbreak at a meat plant in Aberdeenshire. NHS Grampian said that more than 80 cases had been associated with the Kepak McIntosh Donald plant in Portlethen, but praised the level of support and cooperation it had received from the plant operators and staff. Kepak has said it continues to work diligently to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of staff and suppliers throughout the current pandemic.
Thousands of farmers in England face earning less than half the national minimum wage or their farms running at a loss by 2024, after subsidies were cut by at least 50%. However, farming minister George Eustice has said that livestock farmers who go beyond regulatory baselines on animal welfare can expect to be financially rewarded.
Tesco has committed £10m over the next five years to fund a new initiative to help farmers transition to producing deforestation-free soy in the Cerrado region in Brazil. It comes after a Guardian investigation revealed supermarkets and fast food outlets, including Tesco, were selling chicken fed on imported soya linked to thousands of forest fires and at least 300 sq miles (800 sq km) of tree clearance in the Brazilian Cerrado.
We had a beautiful long read on how small-scale farmers in the UK are learning new ways to survive in an age of industrial-scale competition. The piece includes three short video interviews and farm tours with small-scale producers thriving against the odds.
Romania has been accused of “silence” over its failure to publish an investigation into the sinking of the Queen Hind in November 2019, which resulted in the deaths of more than 14,000 sheep.
A troubling story from Japan, where a decision to resist international pressure to improve conditions for egg-laying chickens is under scrutiny after allegations of bribery involving a former agriculture minister.
Undercover footage appeared to show pig cannibalism and other serious issues at a supplier for a Nestlé-owned brand of frankfurter sold by most major supermarkets. Nestlé announced that supply from the farm to Herta had been suspended pending an investigation to determine the appropriate next steps.
In good news, dairy farmers have until the end of this year to prove they are no longer killing male calves on-farm under new rules which will apply to nearly all UK farms from this month. The death of close to 100,000 calves each year within a few days of birth was the subject of a Guardian investigation in 2018.
We also had pieces on how automation is allowing Chinese pork farms to spot signs of illness in animals earlier, a new artificial pollen to safeguard honeybee colonies lacking natural forage in California’s almond monoculture, and US FDA approval of GM pork for human consumption.
And finally, we had an important longer read on a movement towards black-owned farms in the US, seeking to address the lack of land ownership and fresh food in many communities of colour. Black or African American people account for just over 1% of farmers in the US, despite making up 13% of the population.
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