Government Health Agency Agrees Mega-Farms Are A Health Risk (In The UK)

It’s very odd sometimes watching how the same issues play out in different parts of the world. The French environment ministry confidently ascribes the growth of seaweed choking its beaches to farm runoff. The European Parliament denounces the establishment of very large-scale “meat factories.” China (China!) enacts a ban on growth-promoting uses of antibiotics in agriculture.

Here in the United States, on the other hand, the government gropes unsuccessfully for a way to put controls on confinement agriculture, despite evidence of its environmental harm, while at the same time those farms grow by an estimated 4,600 hogs and 5,800 broiler chickens per day.

For more of that difference between Europe and the US, look this week to England, where the Health Protection Agency has just rejected the zoning application for a hog farm that was small by US standards, with a plan for only 2,500 sows producing about 20,000 piglets. The HPA said:

… those living up to 150 meters downwind of an intensive swine farming installation could be at risk of adverse human health effects associated with exposure to multi-drug resistant organisms. (this .pdf, p.30 of 44)

Now, if you’re new to the ongoing argument over the human-health impact of very large-scale agriculture, the HPA’s observation may seem self-evident. After all, there are decades of evidence demonstrating that antibiotic over-use in agriculture fosters the emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms that move off farms and threaten the health of farmworkers, their communities, and the wider world. But if you’re at all familiar with the endless back-and-forth on this issue, the HPA’s clarity is both refreshing — and, coming from a government, slightly gobsmacking.

In the US, after all, one lone legislator — Rep. Louise Slaughter, MPH, the only microbiologist in Congress — has been struggling for a decade to pass a bill that would place some controls on the agricultural misuse of antibiotics that are critical drugs for human illnesses.

Here’s a little more about the UK situation:

The zoning application was for a farm that would be sited in Foston, South Derbyshire, a historic village in a countryside area north of Birmingham that has a power-systems plant and a women’s prison nearby. The proposed operators, Midland Pig Producers, currently raise 100,000 pigs a year on about 30 farms.

The plan has been controversial. It has been opposed since last year by the nonprofit group the Soil Association, and according to the Guardian, 13,000 letters against the proposal have been submitted, along with 10,000 signatures to a Soil Association petition started by the nonprofit group and documentary producers Pig Business. (Apologies for the misidentification. Pig Business’s page on Foston is here.)

Nonetheless, the planning-process dossier shows that a whole raft of agencies at varying levels of government — a parish council; the Staffordshire County Council; the East Staffordshire Borough Council; Severn Trent Water, the local utility; the UK Highways Agency; even English Heritage, charged with protecting the beauty of the countryside — did not object. It took the proposal making its way up the ladder for the HPA to raise not only the possibility of antibiotic use on the farm creating resistant organisms, but also air quality, noise, odor, and releases of ammonia and what it delicately called “bioaerosols.”

The HPA’s assessment, however, was not the final word. Neither was a Tuesday night vote not to approve the farm, taken by  the local governing body, the South Derbyshire district council. The final up-down will come in the next few months before the Derbyshire County Council.

A company representative who spoke to the Guardian after the decision seems not to have understood the criticisms, or the science — or even that there might be reasons to be concerned about the local impact of large-scale farming. Opposition to the farm, she suggested, came from vegetarians:

“Disappointingly, in making their decision, members of the planning committee decided to ignore the recommendation of the professional planning officers. The report considered by the planning committee recommended no objection. However, the final decision is not the gift of SDDC…

“The SDDC’s decision will of course be included in Derbyshire county council’s deliberations, but the final outcome is not dependent on one, albeit important, consultee. We are aware that a handful of local people are opposing the plans, but the vast majority of those objecting are not local residents. As we have pointed out previously, we have never expected to have the support of those activists who do not eat meat.”

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