Bishop of St Albans speaks in a debate on pig farming

On 16th June 2022, the House of Lords debated the state of the pig farming industry. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I declare my interest as set out in the register, as the president of the Rural Coalition, and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for securing this important debate. I come from a farming family, so I have little time for many of the urban myths about the agricultural industry, or for the complacency behind the lack of concern about food security for us as a nation.

We have already heard allusions to grain shortages worldwide because of the war between Russia and Ukraine. It is not having a huge impact on us, as we are fairly self-sufficient, but, fortunate as our position is, the serious shortage is causing huge problems in the developing world. That illustrates how quickly matters of life and death can come about when food shortages occur. The vast majority of countries ensure that they support the production of food to give them security whenever there is a war, a pandemic or exceptional weather conditions.

When it comes to the pig industry, we are facing a crisis and the evidence has already been set out before your Lordships. Just last Sunday, I was up in far end of my diocese in north-east Hertfordshire in the little hamlet of Meesden. As we stood outside in the sun having a glass of something after the service, one of the local farmers who farmed all the land around came to talk to me about farming. When I mentioned that this debate was coming up, his comment was, “We got out of pigs years ago. There is absolutely no money in it for your average farmer.”

Perhaps more than other farming specialisation, pig producers have borne the brunt of the past two years with our departure from the EU and the Covid-19 pandemic. Pig producers’ production costs are now outstripping revenue. Farmers are reportedly making a loss of £58 per pig. In fact, collectively pig farmers have lost £500 million since October 2020. This is not sustainable. Something has to change if we are still going to have a viable pig farming industry.

One of the oddities of my life is that I have to balance all sorts of different things. This morning, I was flicking through what I have to preach on on Sunday morning at my next church, and the reading is about the Gadarene swine—2,000 pigs plunging into the sea and dying. We are looking at the destruction of healthy animals because we have problems with the supply chain. This is devastating for our world-class farmers who are doing their best to produce at very high standards good-quality pork for us.

I know it is an obvious point, but I think some people do not grasp the realities of this. When it comes to securing our future as a nation, we can put in store various pieces of manufacturing and production equipment and so on, but you cannot do that with livestock. We cannot put livestock into storage and get it out in five or 10 years’ time when there is an emergency. Once we have lost production capacity, the facilities and the skills and even the experience of the local vets and so on, it take years to rebuild the industry and get it back to where it was.

The immediate task is to sort out the backlog at abattoirs and meat processing places. There is an urgent need to recruit workers. Like many noble Lords, in the past I have paid visits to meat production plants and have been into abattoirs. Interestingly, in the last abattoir I went into, every sign was in Polish—I can see some noble Lords nodding—because the workforce was entirely from abroad. Very often they are the only people who are prepared to do these quite demanding and sometimes not very pleasant jobs. We need to offer work visas, at least in the short term, while the Government devise a strategy to balance the importation of workers with the training of the domestic workforce to fill these roles. However, the reality is that, with 1.3 million job vacancies in the UK as of April this year, the Government will have to be honest with the public and admit that sectors such as agriculture, and pig farming in particular, require economic migration simply to survive, certainly in the short and medium term and possibly in the long term.

If the predictions of the National Pig Association are correct, 80% of pig producers will not survive another 12 months. Unless the financial situation improves, direct government action will be needed, whether in the form of direct temporary financial support or the organisation of a round table for the major food retailers to ensure they support the domestic industry. But we want more than that. I know the Minister will have read the recent report from the NFU, Growing our Agri-food Exports to 2030 and Beyond. Surely this ought to become an even more major part of our exporting to the wider world.

It is incumbent on Her Majesty’s Government to steer the pig farming industry through this immediate inflationary crisis. Will Defra conduct a thorough investigation of the entire pork supply chain, from farm to retail, so that sensible short, medium and long-term policies can be devised to mitigate against the multitude of factors arrayed against this strategically important sector?


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Bakewell of Hartington Mandeville (LD): There are half a million vacancies across the sector, and labour shortages are not being addressed. Other noble Lords have referred to this. There is a lack of skilled butchers in pork processing plants, with an average vacancy rate of 10% to 15%. During the protracted period of preparing for Brexit, opposition Members of this House expressed concern at the loss of skilled butchers and vets from EU countries. The uncertainty in employment prospects resulted in many returning home, leaving a significant gap in the workforce; the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has referred to the Polish workforce. British vets are trained to preserve animal life and are reluctant to oversee the humane killing of healthy animals to enter the food chain. Vets from EU countries are needed in order to carry out this work.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans pointed out that pig farmers have really borne the brunt of the financial impacts of leaving the EU, Covid and now the war in Ukraine, which, as we have heard, has contributed to an increase in cereal prices, used in feed, of over 50%, leading to prices going through the roof. That is combined with the increased costs of fertiliser and energy. We have also heard that many pig producers will not survive unless the financial situation improves. That is why government support is so desperately needed.

The debate has also raised concerns about border checks on goods moving from the EU to the British mainland and the fact that these have been delayed yet again. This brings a disadvantage to British food producers, who are in direct competition with European farmers, so I am sure everyone who has taken part in this debate will be interested in the Minister’s response on what the Government are going to do to change this situation. (…)

(…) I would now like to talk briefly about abattoirs. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, both talked about abattoirs. We believe the abattoir network is just as much in need of support as farmers. It needs short-term capital investment to get itself match fit for a new, more market-facing world, in which consumers expect high welfare and environmental standards.

One of our concerns is that too many smaller abattoirs have gone. The Government maintain that there is sufficient capacity in the system but it is not just about capacity. It is also about transport costs, animal welfare issues and how small producers can access the services they need. I would appreciate a response from the Minister on this and on whether the Government will consider how they can bring smaller abattoirs back into the system.

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