Animals Farmed: Mink Covid cull, Dutch livestock protests and net zero farms

Tom Levitt
·6-min read

News from around the world

European farmers are on alert after recent outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza among wild and domestic birds in western Russia and Kazakhstan. When bird flu was detected in the same area of Russia in the summers of 2005 and 2016, epidemics followed in northern and eastern Europe. EU officials have warned poultry producers to step up surveillance against possible outbreaks of avian flu among wild and domestic birds.

At least 2.5m million mink are being culled in Denmark after outbreaks of Covid-19 in as many as 63 farms. Denmark is among the largest mink exporters in the world and produces an estimated 17m furs a year, most of which are exported to China. There have also been recent outbreaks on mink farms in the US. After the culling of a million mink on Dutch fur farms over the summer, the Netherlands brought forward its ban on mink farming by three years to 2021. A ban on fur farming has also been proposed in Poland.

Millions of mink are to be culled in Denmark after Covid-19 outbreaks at farms. Photograph: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP/Getty

US livestock sector has been given about $2bn (£1.5bn) in US government support during the Covid-19 outbreak. The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program provides financial assistance to farmers to help them cope with lost sales and increased marketing costs associated with the pandemic. So far, more than $1bn has been given to the cattle sector, $600m to dairy and $300m to the pork industry.

Livestock numbers will not be reduced significantly in the Netherlands, a Dutch government minister promised farmers this month. Environmental groups have called for a reduction in cow and pig numbers in the country, which is struggling to safely dispose of its animal manure. However, agriculture minister Carola Schouten reportedly told farmers she would not agree to a halving of livestock numbers, as some have proposed. Instead, a new report from the Netherlands Environment Agency has called for more efficient production, as well as asking consumers to eat less meat.

New Zealand sheep and beef farms are close to being carbon neutral, claim researchers. The study, commissioned by the trade body Beef and Lamb New Zealand, estimates the woody vegetation on New Zealand sheep and beef farms is offsetting between 63% and 118% of their on-farm agricultural emissions.

Only two countries – Finland and Sweden – have banned routine tail docking in pigs, it has been revealed, despite an EU ban on the practice since 2008. Although most pigs still have their tails docked in the UK, it is only legally allowed as a last resort after improvements to the pigs’ environment and other management options have proved ineffective, or at the recommendation of a vet. A Guardian investigation in Italy last year found 98% of farmers in the main breeding regions – many of which are destined for the prestigious prosciutto market – still relied on the practice.

Most pigs in the UK still have their tails docked. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty

News from the UK

UK supermarket Waitrose has said it will only buy meat, dairy and other food products from net zero carbon farms in the UK by 2035. The National Farmers’ Union had set a target for UK farming to become climate neutral by 2040. It argues that this can be done through growing energy crops to use as biofuel in power stations and capturing carbon dioxide, rather than needing to cut beef or dairy production.

Researchers have criticised US and UK media outlets for a relative lack of coverage of the link between the climate crisis and animal agriculture. A study found that the volume of coverage between 2006 and 2018 remained low, and that when the issue was covered, consumer responsibility was mentioned more than that of governments or large-scale livestock farms.

Cattle exported from Northern Ireland has been shown being slaughtered in the Middle East in sub-standard conditions, according to animal welfare charities. In footage, animals are shown being hacked at repeatedly until they die at a facility in Lebanon, according to Peter Stevenson from the NGO Compassion in World Farming. The cattle are believed to have been sent to Spanish fattening farms, but later resold to the Middle East.

From the Animals Farmed series

Livestock farming and water pollution have been in the spotlight over the past month. In Ireland, some scientists fear a surge in milk production is to blame for a fall in the number of pristine rivers and a rise in phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. In Wales, river pollution has led to calls for a moratorium on planning approval for new intensive poultry units. And in France, the country’s largest dairy company is alleged to have polluted the country’s rivers repeatedly over the past decade. The company said the regulations do permit one-off overruns, and these do not necessarily imply that pollution has occurred.

There has been worrying news from the US meat sector: pork and poultry with high levels of salmonella and E coli, evidence of aggressive animal abuse and cows being passed off as organic, plus increased fears over worker safety at meat plants.

Cattle grazing
Cattle graze against a blazing backdrop in the Chaco region of Paraguay last week. Photograph: Jorge Adorno/Reuters

Mixed news this month from South America, where Brazilian meat giant JBS has pledged to axe suppliers linked to deforestation – a major turnaround after a period of increased pressure from international investors and other countries. The urgency of the need for change has been highlighted by the wildfires tearing across the region. We have reported on the damage from Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil.

Farmers are already replacing one of the commodities linked to deforestation: soy. We visited one farm breeding live insects and feeding them to its chickens as an alternative source of protein. The method has brought a host of other benefits, including a reduction in pecking by birds that are instead encouraged to carry out natural foraging behaviours. Meanwhile, UK retailer Marks & Spencer says it has eliminated the use of soy by its dairy farmers after admitting it could not guarantee that soy from deforested areas was not present in its supply chains.

Nine out of 10 EU citizens want their governments to ban the slaughter of animals that have not been stunned, according to the results of a survey, as a legal case against the practice moves through European courts.

Finally, we had a photo story about how owning goats is transforming and empowering women in Ethiopia and Uganda. For many women, the goats are the first property they have ever owned. “It used to be only men in my family who owned animals,” said Longoli Paska. “When we get more milk we will look for a market and use it to buy more food for the children.”

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