There has been much comment about importation of cheap meat products from America as a part of a post-Brexit trade deal. What is the risk?
Ethical farming methods and accepted animal welfare practice in Northern Ireland are vastly different from routine practice and procedure in America and across much of Latin America, including Brazil. In those countries, the injection of growth promoting hormones in beef, the widespread use of antibiotics to control disease and the washing of chicken carcasses in chlorinated compounds are both lawful and necessary. Why? The relentless pursuit of profit by meat processors and cost-cutting by American and Brazilian farmers results in the prevalence of disease in American and Brazilian animals from birth all the way through the supply chain. Poultry raised in humid, poorly ventilated conditions are prone to respiratory diseases and to Campylobacter infection – an infection which, when passed to humans, results in severe, often bloody, diarrhoea. Rather than address the welfare problems at the farms, American and Latin American meat processors use a chlorine wash on meat for export.
Examination of frozen poultry products in the freezer section of any supermarket reveal that the country of origin is: China, Thailand or, the developing Eastern European countries. Currently, these imports are required to meet EU quality standards. Trade standards are at the heart of trade negotiations with the United States and with other countries.
In contrast, Northern Irish poultry farmers, like their counterparts in GB and in the Republic of Ireland, have almost universally adopted warm water heating systems which heat the poultry sheds using a combination of fan-assisted hot-water radiators and hi-tech boilers fuelled by wood chip or pellets. These replaced the naked flame liquid petroleum gas burners that had previously heated the sheds. Gas burners whilst effective and speedy, had multiple drawbacks and disadvantages – they added vast amounts of water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to the environment. Moisture and bacteria act on poultry litter to produce ammonia – yet another green-house gas. Damp litter in the poultry shed will enable bacterial growth – including those that cause animal and human diseases.
Effective, financial incentives in GB and Ireland defer the cost of generating the heat essential to the survival of day-old chicks and to sustain healthy conditions for what are termed “high welfare” conditions. NI poultry producers supply about 20% of all fresh poultry meat in the UK market. Unlike their competitors in GB and Ireland, our local farmers are paid a fraction (generally 1/10th) of the rebate that they were guaranteed to offset the additional costs of operating biomass systems. The price of the fossil fuel alternative has fallen through the floor. Reversion to using fossil fuels is inevitable. An additional 2 billion litres of oil will be burned if the RHI Scheme is closed.
The theory and practice of hot water heating is proven. The barriers to change were the additional costs – costs of plumbing, pumps and fans, costs for new boilers and costs of additional fuel – less humid sheds need to be kept warmer if the vulnerable chicks are to survive. Ethically, it is unsound to replace one fossil-fuelled system with another which produces green-house gases. For a whole host of reasons, ethical farmers accepted the government-backed renewable heat incentive for what it was. Now, much derided and vilified, these farmers carry the whole additional cost of the capital investment and carry the additional cost of using renewable energy with the hot water system – in the absence of the index-linked rebates that were guaranteed. Repossession of plant, foreclosure and the sale of farms is an everyday event. Why? The business decisions made between 2012 and 2016 when the Scheme was suspended, were made based upon guarantees that have twice been welched upon by the very Department that made them. The Public Inquiry has exposed all of the deficiencies in our government systems and departments. It was a “project too far for the government of Northern Ireland.”
Politicians in the Assembly face all manner of decisions – not least BREXIT. Westminster must reshape the national economy and the style of trade, in order to pay for oil imports and the now critical need to be able to switch financial services from a European customer base. Stormont could act to maintain our ethical, agri-food economy or, they could follow the American and Brazilian government examples and set conditions for a race to the bottom in animal welfare, environmental and public health by closing the RHI Scheme and hanging the participants out to dry.
Renewable energy should be a core component of our island economy in a post COVID-19 response. It is of huge importance to our rural economy, to forestry, wood processing and to farming. Only six of the ninety renewable energy engineering firms now remain in business.
Renewable heat is important: it helps to keep our food supply chain safe, chlorine and antibiotics free.
For the sake of our environment, our economy and our health, politicians please sort it out.
(Andrew Trimble is a qualified microbiologist. He is the Chair of the Renewable Heat Association, Northern Ireland, a group representing the interests of users of renewable energy)