Environment secretary George Eustice has rejected multiple calls for targeted financial support for the crisis-hit pig sector.
Speaking at the NFU Conference in Birmingham yesterday, Eustice dismissed requests for the kind of government financial backing given to pig producers in other countries.
He instead said the crisis could be resolved by the processors, saying: “At the moment, the reality is, we have a one-week backlog with about 160,000 pigs… it is a significant backlog but one that could be dealt with if only those processors would press ahead and run those Saturday slaughters to get on top of this. It would require farmers to take a lower price in the short term in order to clear that backlog but it would get the market back into balance.”
His comment followed NFU president Minette Batters’ calls earlier in the day for the government to plan and pre-empt crises rather than “repeatedly running into them”.
Eustice stood by the government’s decisions and the support package it first introduced in November. “We judged the best way to deal with this and do what the industry asked for last autumn and have a private aid scheme to deal with that backlog,” he said.
However, in Batters’ opening speech she laid the blame for the crisis squarely at the feet of the government.
“There are currently 200,000 pigs on contract backed up on farm. Forty thousand healthy pigs have been culled and simply thrown away,” she said. “This, truly, is an utter disgrace and a disaster for the pig industry. This is down to the government’s poorly designed change to immigration policy and what I can only say appears to be their total lack of understanding how food production works and what it needs.
“The pain and emotional anger from those pig farmers who feel utterly let down and abandoned is palpable. Some are approaching debts of a million pounds now and every week it gets worse,” Batters added.
Her speech was echoed by Lincolnshire pig farmer Sam Godfrey who, when posing a question on the crisis to Eustice, said that “the last year has been the toughest in a generation for pig farmers”.
But despite the complaints of delegates at the conference, many of whom attributed the main cause of crisis predominantly to the labour shortage caused by Brexit, Eustice instead laid most of the blame on the collapse of the export market to China over the past year and a 7% rise in UK pig production.
“We recognised that labour was a potential issue and that getting more butchers in play [was required] during the backlog. We opened a temporary scheme for up to 800 butchers, but it wasn’t taken up as much as we expected.
“Right across Europe and in many countries in the world there is a labour shortage and actually having free movement with these schemes where you enable people to come in is not the whole answer.”
Eustice also announced changes to animal welfare policy in his speech via a new Animal Health and Welfare Pathway – a programme of financial support for farmers in the pig, cattle, sheep and poultry sectors, based on key animal health and welfare priorities.
This include measures such as reducing mastitis and lameness in dairy cattle, improving biosecurity to control pig diseases endemic to the UK and improving the feather cover of laying hens.
To help farming sectors make these improvements, Eustice said Animal Health and Welfare Grants would be launched within the next year to fund investments such as equipment and technology or larger projects like upgrading housing for dairy cattle.