British farmers can no longer feel superior to supersized US operations, says Joanna Blythman

I feel some sympathy for British farmers in the face of exposés of livestock farming emanating from the US, such as Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and Robert Kenner's Food Inc.

Of the two, Kenner's film is the more sophisticated in that it draws a distinction between more and less desirable models for rearing animals. Foer's book feels more like a generic attack from an ideological vegan, using "worst case" examples to advance his point of view.

Both lambast, with great justification, the most extreme forms of super-sized US factory farming feedlot beef, bovine growth hormones and so on but UK farmers have been able to argue, fairly convincingly, that British farming methods are more animal welfare and environment-friendly.

Of course, this is a difference of degree, and time. The disturbing US factory farming scenarios under the spotlight act as a ghastly warning of how livestock farming could develop in Britain if we follow the intensive path.

You would think that British farmers would want to put as much clear blue water as the Atlantic contains between US and UK farming, but there has to be an honest tale of genuine difference to tell. In this context, Nocton Dairy's proposal for what would be the biggest dairy farm in Europe, housing 9,000 cows in a series of hangars, with cows kept entirely indoors when they are in milk, is lunatic.

The farmers consortium behind it says it will be a "flagship for the industry" but to outsiders, it looks like Kafkaesque, US-style intensive farming.

Yet what is the NFU line on this proposal? "It's an imaginative and positive response ... to invest in such a large, specialist unit". Now this is where my sympathy for farmers runs out. When animals are kept together in large numbers, welfare suffers. It is willfully blind to argue otherwise.

Last year I shared a platform with NFU president Peter Kendall. I told him that UK farmers must decide what side they are on. They must choose welfare-friendly farming methods which means opposing moves towards intensification or they will be left playing mini-me to their hi-tech American counterparts.

If UK farmers decide on the latter course, they should expect to lose any remaining trust from the British public. They will look every bit as bad as their US equivalents.

Joanna Blythman is a food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain.