Farmers protest as Boris Johnson accused of failing to take action on staffing crisis
4th October 2021
Following weeks of mounting concern and frustration, pig farmers have taken to the streets to protest, gathering outside the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on 4th October to highlight the current sector crisis.
The situation stems from an acute staffing problem in the sector, with well over 100,000 pigs currently stuck on-farm, and no solution to the crisis in sight. The National Pig Association (NPA), with the support of several other farming bodies, has been asking for emergency visas to help those with experience in butchery and pig handling enter the country. Despite emergency visas being issued for poultry workers, the government has not taken similar action for the pig sector.
Sadly, the crisis has already reached the point where farms are having to destroy their pigs, with comparisons being made to the foot-and-mouth crisis as farmers are forced to burn livestock that cannot go to the abattoir. Industry leaders are warning that the country could be facing the largest ever healthy animal cull if urgent action is not taken.
The protest comes the day after the British prime minister received a backlash for comments made on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, in which he downplayed the crisis, and was criticised for appearing not to understand the difference between animals going to slaughter, and a major cull. In the interview, being described by many as a “car crash”, the PM said:
“I hate to break it to you Andrew but our food processing industry does involve killing a lot of animals. That is the reality. Your viewers need to understand that. That’s just what happens.”
Mr. Johnson is now being criticised for the comments which many felt were out of touch and showed a lack of understanding of one of the UK’s biggest industries. Many have said there was an attempt to shift the blame onto the farming industry, with Mr. Johnson suggesting the problem was due to pay and conditions, not addressing any of the issues which have been raised by the pig industry over the past several weeks.
The interview also concerned farmers as the PM seemed to make it clear that he had no intention of taking action on the crisis: “The great hecatomb of pigs that you describe has not yet taken place, let’s see what happens.”
There has been a furious response to the interview, especially from the pig sector, who are being supported by other farming bodies.
National Sheep Association (NSA) chief executive Phil Stocker describes the interview as being “crass and insensitive and ignored the problems that UK pig farmers are enduring.”
Whilst the sheep industry has not been affected to the same extent, the NSA has described itself as highly concerned that British agriculture is being forced into a transition without any clarity over the future vision for food, farming, and trade, and an absence of any strategy to make that transition.
Mr. Stocker says: “[The prime minister’s] comments completely ignored the fact that in the main, livestock farmers in Britain are compassionate and respectful and are focused on producing food in a responsible manner. Any farmer faced with a mass cull of animals on-farm is going to make sure the job is done humanely but an event such as this will undoubtedly compromise the mental welfare of the farmer and staff involved and this must be recognised. To raise animals and then have them disposed of as ‘rubbish’ when supermarket shelves are bare or filled with imported products is morally incomprehensible.”
Now, under the banner of Save GB Bacon, the industry has taken to the streets. Protesters have been outside the conference throughout the morning, talking with both the press and members of the Conservative Party, with the events being broadcast around the country in real-time via social media. Within just a couple of days they have already gained several thousand followers on Twitter, and it’s hoped it will raise awareness and put pressure on the government to take action.
Speaking from the protest, chair of NFU Scotland’s Pig Committee Jamie Wyllie commented: “Staff shortages across pigs farms, haulage, abattoirs and meat processing is the biggest issue across the sector and one that NFU Scotland, alongside other stakeholders, has been repeatedly calling for the UK Government to address. We need an immigration system that fully recognises the acute need for staff up and down the whole food supply chain and that butchers and food processors are every bit as deserving of visas as some of the industries currently listed on the Government’s Shortage Occupation List.
“We urge consumers to keep standing by and supporting our high standard, high welfare, local Scottish and British pork, and the many family farms that produce it.”
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