What *is* the blueprint for good welfare?

Surprise surprise – 90 per cent of us say high standards of welfare are important in food production, according to this week’s Countryfile.  I have two questions – firstly, why do only 90 per cent of us say this…and secondly, what is high welfare?

The second point is where we come unstuck because we humans are obsessed with nice tidy formulae.  Whether we’re talking about happiness, or a successful marriage, or the secret of a long life, we like recipes that work.  We search tirelessly for blueprints that will give us the definitive answer and solve our problems in one fell swoop.

But most of us know – or at least suspect by now – that life’s not like that. We find long-lived people in all walks of life, from all backgrounds. We find happy marriages in the most unexpected places. And a little bit of what you fancy can do you good.  The answer is….there is no definitive answer.

So why don’t we all take a step back and instead of vilifying some farming systems which contain a number of excellent examples of welfare and eulogising about those that contain some appalling examples, look instead at the specific outcomes for the animals.  As the RSPCA says: “We believe that it is no longer acceptable to make assumptions about the state of animals’ welfare based simply on the resources provided to them. We’ve therefore been working hard to develop practical, reliable methods for assessing the health, physical condition and behaviour of farm animals to give us a more accurate and direct picture of their welfare. This approach is known as ‘welfare outcome assessment’.”

We can look at generalisations until the cows come home (whether from the paddock or the barn) – but surely the only way of proving anything is in the results?

So – how happy and healthy are your animals?  Are they able to behave naturally, do they interact well with you and their herdmates?  And I’m not just talking about cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, but also cats (did you know PETA says all cats should be kept indoors?), dogs, goldfish….whatever.

Life’s not black and white. There are no rules and there are lots of exceptions.  So let’s put aside preconceptions and hidden agendas, and start really putting the animals first.

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Working with animals – unpredictable, but exciting!

What do a 5am start, freezing conditions, camera-loving owls and a BBC crew mistakenly locked into a farm estate add up to?  A successful BBC Breakfast broadcast, that’s what!

We’re really pleased the Beeb picked up the story about how Conservation Grade farmers are boosting wildlife alongside their commercial crops.

BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Hubball and her camera crew visited Pensthorpe Estate Farm in Norfolk on 12 and 13 January to meet the farm manager and conservation expert, and see Nature Friendly Farming in action.

Two captive-bred owls – Tulu and Rosie – were recruited for an up-close-and-personal look at Barn Owl characteristics and habitat needs.  Rosie, who came with her handler Mark Christian from Norfolk Falconry, then gave us a surprise, doing what owls do and regurgitating her last meal live on camera!

An unexpected highlight has to be when a wild Barn Owl swooped in to feed in the afternoon – chased by a kestrel – which was all caught on camera.

So, in spite of the frosty start and panics over owls too heavy to fly (who’d have known they can put on Christmas weight on too?!), the broadcast was a great success and has generated plenty of interest.  BBC Look East also covered the story as did the Telegraph and the NFU.

Oh, and the late-working presenter and camera man were quickly unlocked from the farm on Thursday night.

For information about the Barn Owl project, visit: www.naturefriendlyowls.org.

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The use and abuse of ‘animal welfare’

Buried in a slightly odd announcement today from the Farm Animal Welfare Committee(FAWC) is a call to incorporate welfare outcome measures into production systems and reward farmers for the costs incurred.

This is to be welcomed – not only that investment in welfare should be supported by the supply chain, but critically, that welfare should be assessed on ‘outcomes’.  This means proper measures that animals are healthy and happy.  Not ‘these chickens are healthier because they have been roaming in woodland’, or ‘these cows are happier because they’ve ripped grass out of the ground rather than foraged it in a feed bunker’, but that they are all well nourished, well managed, free from disease and can behave naturally.

However, FAWC’s announcement goes on to, rather confusingly, suggest farmers should make use of ‘niche welfare opportunities’.

Now I might be missing something, but isn’t an animal either healthy and happy, or not?  And surely poor welfare, where an animal is unhappy or unhealthy, isn’t acceptable in any capacity?  So what does this mean?  That farmers should look for opportunities to publicise when ‘these chickens have been roaming in woodlands’, or ‘these cows are have been ripping grass out of the ground’?

If this is the case, then this isn’t about welfare, it’s about marketing and consumer preference, and FAWC shouldn’t be confusing the two on an already misinformed and ill-debated subject. Surely this is about allowing consumers to choose a preferred production method, safe in the knowledge that whatever they choose, there is assured good welfare behind it?

We need to ditch this misinformed idea that one system necessarily means good welfare and another means bad.  It’s as damning and inaccurate as saying those living in high rise flats will have poorer health or a shorter life.  Good and bad welfare are possible in all systems, and we need more open minds about how we can keep the UK’s fantastic diversity of choice, encourage farming ingenuity and produce the food we will need in the future – all with the right animal welfare outcomes.

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Unpacking that ‘local’ label

Did you know there are strict rules for labelling foods as ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ or ‘pure’? And of course there are certification bodies to ensure ‘organic’ is… well… organic.  But did you know that ‘local’ is completely unregulated?

This might come as a bit of a blow to those busy stocking up on local foods, but aside from farmers’ markets which might impose their own rules, the claim seems woefully open to abuse.

Tesco’s well-documented foray into local milk which drew controversial headlines a couple of years ago first highlighted the issue, but despite this, Kantar says sales of local food grew by around 45% in the last year, kicking organic into touch with a decline of 7%.

Now one theory why local, and in fact Fairtrade as well, are rising, while organic is languishing, is the lack of clarity around what organic actually delivers. After all, it claims a plethora of benefits from better welfare to ethics to additive-free. By comparison, single issue labels probably seem refreshingly simple. But that can only continue as long as they really do deliver their perceived advantage.

It’s great to have more brands, more labels and more points of difference in food. It promotes consumer choice and allows farmers to add value. But for the sake of ensuring ‘local’ retains its strong and attractive position, shouldn’t it be afforded the same regulatory protection as ‘farmhouse’, ‘original’, ‘natural’ and ‘handmade’?

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Beware the cheap, online, headline-grabbing survey

According to a recent survey, more than half of farmers are now turning to social media to ‘communicate with customers and to flag-up farming-related issues’.

Now if anyone out there is raising a cynical eyebrow at this point, join the club.  Most of those in the industry knows this is utter nonsense – other surveys show that it’s only recently that half of farmers have been able to start using the internet regularly.

With the average age of farmers in this country well into the 60s, many forced to live isolated lives thanks to reducing farm incomes and the continuing failure of broadband to reach remote areas, this figure simply doesn’t wash.

So it was clear where the problem lay when it became evident the survey was conducted online.

Now the press release – issued by JCB’s workwear division –  is more carefully worded than its coverage would suggest, but nevertheless this is just misrepresentative.  I don’t really care about yet another badly worded survey trying to sell plastic widgets, but this portrays the wrong picture of the farming industry and the challenges it faces.

Yes it’s great to promote the fact that Twitter use has undoubtedly risen in agricultural circles and there is a new generation of connected producer out there making the most of technology.  It’s also good to have a positive story about farmers, who can all too often be portrayed as whingeing, subsidy-grabbing curmudgeons in the media.  But do we really want consumers to think that all is so rosy and, quite frankly, ‘connected’ in the garden?  Only recently we’ve heard again how promises to expand broadband in rural areas are failing to deliver.

I have long had big reservations about online surveys. They are cheap, quick and useful for some purposes, but they question a self-selecting group in which the elderly, isolated and those in manual work or with lower incomes are woefully under-represented.  Ring a bell?

So using an online survey to ask a group that has, relatively, a very low uptake of the internet, about their use of internet-based technology, is just ridiculous.

So please, PR people, a plea – don’t sell out for the sake of a few headlines.  Accuracy and long term credibility are surely more important than selling a few boilersuits?

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Half of science and industry organisations avoiding social media – new report

A brand new report we’ve just released suggests that over half of businesses operating in industrial or scientific sectors are unlikely to have a strategy for using social media in their PR and communications – despite three quarters recognising that their target audiences are already active users.

This is just one of the findings in our new report, which looks at whether – and how – social media can be used effectively outside of consumer PR campaigns.

We found that while social media has proved its worth in consumer-facing marketing and PR, many are still reluctant to use it for business and staff communications, or to support a positive reputation.

As part of the report, we ran a small qualitative survey of businesses operating in our specialist areas – agribusiness, environment and industry. We found a real reluctance to engage through new forms of media; for example, while almost half these organisations were sending out information through Twitter, only a fifth were using it for two-way discussion.

The reasons given included difficulty measuring the impact on profits and business objectives, lack of knowledge or confidence, and poor support from the senior management team. However, another important factor was a feeling of losing control over what was being said about an organisation on the web.

The irony is these conversations will be taking place anyway, if not on the web then through other forums. Our advice is that you’re better being involved in them and showing how keen you are to solve them than simply pretending they’re not happening. And let’s not lose sight of how critical social media is in crisis situations – it’s where news now breaks and where first opinions are formed.

It’s true that not all social media is right for all businesses, but there are some fantastic opportunities outlined in the report. We’ve suggested a quick way to gauge how useful social media could be to you, what platforms to use and some practical tips for getting going. Click here to download the report for free.

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WI calls time on myths and propaganda

Hoorah for the Womens’ Institute! Yesterday afternoon, for the first time ever, they refused to vote on a resolution at their AGM – because they recognised the ramifications of pronouncing a verdict on a statement they felt was poorly worded, on an issue about which they felt they did not have sufficient information.

Good for them! In this age of click-tivism, it’s all too easy to read a one-liner, hear a few emotive terms, and take in the results of a carefully-worded survey to form a fixed view on an issue. Few of us have the time to investigate in more depth.

Issues are frequently more complicated than first assumed. That is the problem facing the farming industry as it tries to communicate other tricky agendas such as TB and the introduction of new technology like cloning. How can the industry remain accurate and ethical in its communcations while conveying persuasive points on an extremely complex issue? And if it does try to retain the higher moral ground, how can it counter those who are less discriminating?

The good news is that underneath all the arguing and debate on any issue, opposite sides often have similar goals. After all, in the ‘large farms’ issue, everyone wants healthy, happy animals, a thriving environment, good British food and a viable future for all farmers.  Where they differ is in how these goals can be delivered and in the other pressures they are dealing with such as the need to keep members or donors happy; these are the critical factors that end up creating divergent views.

That is why the WI has delivered a precious opportunity to us all. They have shown us that people don’t have to feel pressurised to make either/or decisions on the spot, and that time can be taken to consider an issue in more depth.

We should all take note of this.  After all, campaigns built on houses of cards may create many ‘likes’ and followers, but are not built to withstand the tests of time – or the WI.

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