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Opinion: West wrong to let go of meat production

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Agrimoney.com is based on the farm where Hereford cattle were bred by the Tomkins family a little over 200 years ago. A portrait of one of their original cows, Silver, used to hang next to the fireplace. Now, there isn't an animal on the place - living or painted.

If this picture isn't already familiar with you, it soon may be - unless you live in the likes of China, where beef production will rise 49% over the next decade according to the US, or India, where poultry output will more than double.

Producing meat is, like making cars or ball bearings, becoming a developing world game.

That's more than an aesthetic issue.

Reasons to give up

It's easy to see why Western producers would want to quit. Currency movements may prove the last straw. The 20% fall in Canada's pig herd since 2005 is blamed on the strength of the Canadian dollar.

Or they may be undone by stubbornly high costs. That's one reason why the UK dairy herd has shrunk 30% in the last decade.

Then there's the wildcard of disease, which can really twist the knife. Even when, as with (non-)swine flu, animals aren't the problem. Prices of Chicago hogs remain up to 15% below pre-flu levels, a margin which for some producers will mean the difference between profit and loss.

Foot and mouth, which the United Nations warned today is spreading in the Middle East, cost the UK £15m a week in lost exports in its last visit, two years ago. The 2001 outbreak cost, across the whole economy, £8bn.

Moral question

But that doesn't mean Western governments are doing the right thing by letting meat production to go abroad. Or even encouraging it to, as the UK appears to be doing by wrapping producers ever tighter in red tape.

The future for Western carnivores will taste increasingly of foreign meat. That may appear a low-hassle answer to the hazards of raising livestock. It is not, however, a moral solution.

Livestock reared beyond the reach of Western scruples is just as worthy of the decent husbandry which governments in developing countries claim to be in favour of. But it's not clear they always get it. A report earlier this year from UK MPs estimated that two-thirds of imported pork may have come from pigs reared in conditions banned domestically.

It looks like the West is trying to ship responsibilities for animal welfare to Asia, just as it already has for a big chunk of its factory pollution.

At least the US pig industry is still big enough to matter, as their government support following the flu epidemic showed. It would be a great shame for hog-kind if that industry too headed East in force, sending its lobbying muscle with it.

By Mike Verdin

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