Neither scare-mongering nor sentimental attachment to days gone by has any place in developing a sustainable poultry industry or giving consumers what they want. 

I am as keen on heritage as the next man, and am probably one of the least favorite residents with my neighborhood's property developers, but alongside the need to preserve the past the needs of the present must be taken into consideration, and done so in an honest way. 

And this brings me to a recent story in a UK newspaper claiming that so many UK consumers are now buying British poultry that the country is running out of space to produce enough chickens. If this is the case, then the “Buy British” campaigns must have worked really well and the country’s supermarkets — so often the target of criticism from livestock farmers — must have turned over a new leaf and become incredibly faithful to the local industry, both of which I doubt. 

The article went on talk about food security and self-sufficiency and said that ministers were being urged to speed up the planning process for new poultry farms, otherwise they would have to face up to importing more birds just to keep up with demand. The piece was illustrated with a very nice photograph of some free range chickens with an attractive wooden hen house in the background.  

It attracted a good few comments. Some readers were persuaded that more should be done to allow business to flourish, adding that there was always an overseas producer ready to jump in and make up for any shortfall. Other readers questioned the statistics detailing how self-sufficient the UK is in poultry meat.

Other comments, however, referred to a recent campaign to stop construction of a new poultry farm. One reader noted that the population of seven villages in the county of Worcestershire were celebrating following the local planning committee’s refusal of plans for construction of an 80,000-head broiler farm, and that the timing of this article was no coincidence. The choice of photograph accompanying the article was described as “disingenuous to say the least.”

The posting went on to say: “Change the planning rules and have them in industrial estates if they don’t smell or make a noise, instead of industrializing the rural landscape. Three chicken farmers recently bought land around Upton Snodsbury and if they all develop it to the extent they would like, 10 football pitches worth of sheds will dominate the landscape.”

Whether the piece in the national newspaper was related to the planning defeat in Worcestershire I cannot say, although only few days passed between the announcement of rejection and the appearance of the article. But I think that on all sides there are a number of issues — and I agree there is an issue with the choice of photograph. I fully accept that consumers like to think of birds roaming about in countryside, but this is not what a lot of modern farming is about, and misleading the consumer in this way does nobody any good and ultimately takes away informed choice. 

But equally, there is a lack of understanding from the complainant about industrializing the rural landscape. A rural landscape, in many cases, is an industrial landscape, but in most cases, in much of Europe at least, a very out of date one. Forests were not cleared by a divine hand, or hedgerows constructed by Mother Nature — this is the work of human beings and human beings with the objective of producing food, i.e., engaging in production. 

From an environmental viewpoint, the suggestion that new poultry houses be built in what the reader called “industrial estates” may be a valid one in that, in theory, being close to large centers of population ought to mean that food is transported a shorter distance. But land close to towns and cities tends to be more expensive, and whether the complainant would be prepared to pay for such expensively produced chicken is another matter.

Keep Calm and Carry On!

There are a lot of issues that this tale raises, not least of which is how to reconcile growing demand for locally produced food with a refusal to accept that the methods of the past are not the way to do it. Clearer arguments, openness to both sides of the debate and more informed discussion between producers and consumers may be one way to achieve this. Without it, we may be able to fool ourselves that we are buying local and supporting our own communities, but in reality we will be doing ever less.