We’re not world class at many things, but looking after animals is one

The Danes, as they never tire of telling us, are famously happy. Whenever there’s a global wellbeing survey, Denmark sits smugly at its summit while Britain skulks in the gloomy foothills between Estonia and South Korea. There is, though, one area of human behaviour in which we are considerably more evolved than the cheerful Danes, and it is an important one. When it comes to the welfare of the animals which provide food for humans, British farms are incomparably better run than their counterparts on the Continent, and specifically in Denmark.

This is not because we are blessed with unusually tender-hearted farmers, but that British consumers are increasingly buying according to their conscience. Our awareness of welfare issues has even begun to disturb the Danes. At a conference last month of the country’s pork producers – held, somewhat gruesomely, in a slaughterhouse – one of their leading lights declared that it was time to improve Danish standards of farm welfare. In Britain, their second biggest export market, consumers were being influenced by the question of how animals were treated, said the speaker. Instead of seeing this as “a threat to our current production methods”, the trend should be treated as a business opportunity.

It is a pleasing thought that morality – British morality, even – can influence the behaviour of tough foreign food producers. As a nation, we tend to be embarrassed about our alleged sentimentality towards animals, but empathy towards other breathing things is not so contemptible. Ten years ago, some supermarkets exclusively sold Danish bacon and pork. Publicity and consumer pressure have redressed the balance in favour of British farmers and their higher standards of animal care, but last week provided two reminders that the “production methods” favoured by Denmark are not too far from our own food production.

At the annual Oxford Farming Conference, the Agriculture Minister, Jim Paice, urged farmers to “set the industry on fire” by competing with multinational agribusinesses. More cheap food must be produced by intensive methods, the argument went. UK farm output may have increased by 42 per cent between 2005 and 2010, but even more productivity is required. In other words, the Government is likely to look the other way when the giant factory farms, in which animals are kept out of daylight and away from fields, go through the planning process. Localism can have its uses.

Then– the second reminder – there remains the disturbing trade in live calves, sheep, pigs and goats, which are exported, under inhumane conditions, to the Continent, where less stringent welfare conditions are enforced. Launching a publicity campaign, Compassion in World Farming has pointed out that exports in 2011 were around 80,000 animals, an increase of 25,000 in one year.

There is no justification for this trade in misery, and it makes no sense environmentally: when New Zealand lamb is being flown into the country, our own lambs are being herded into trucks to be driven to the Netherlands and beyond. As any farmer knows, transporting animals long distances is as stressful to them as anything which happens at an abattoir. For government, and the vast agribusinesses, questions of animal welfare are no more than an irritation. In times like these, there is only one winner in the battle between money and morality.

It is up to conscientious consumers again to support decent farming practice, sourcing meat locally where possible, rather than from the Continent. The pressure which has encouraged Danish pig farmers to treat their animals better should be turned on government and business. Other countries may scoff at British attitudes to animals, but it is an area where we should be proud to be world leaders.

Alastair Campbell’s transformation

It is always fascinating to see how the powerful alter when the power has gone. Some (Ann Widdecombe, Neil Hamilton, John Prescott) become TV personalities – jollier, more camera-friendly versions of their former selves. Others (Margaret Hodge, Jack Straw, Peter Mandelson) seem more at ease with themselves, more human, when out of office.

There can have been few more radical re-inventions than that of Alastair Campbell. The busy diarist and tweeter, once the most embattled man in Britain, has been eager to show his vulnerable side. He has explored his mental health issues. He has discussed booze problems. No one spoke more sensitively about the death of Philip Gould.

In his new book, The Happy Depressive, Campbell makes a rather convincing agony uncle, dispensing gruff, if not sparklingly original, items of personal advice. “To me, happiness comes from a sense of fulfilment over time, a sense of belonging, relationships that endure, experiences that teach lasting lessons.”

Independent, 10 January 2012