Although I cannot call myself a vegetarian, I gave up eating meat some time ago. Not because I dislike it. On the contrary, I was once very partial to a bacon sandwich. Not on health grounds. But because I cannot justify the appalling conditions in which most farm animals are reared. The more one finds out about the treatment of factory farmed animals, the more difficulty it is to justify eating meat.
The last forty years have seen the principles of mass production introduced into the farmyard. In the name of the great god Efficiency, production systems have been devised that inflict unspeakable suffering on calves, pigs, chickens and turkeys throughout their short and miserable lives.
Pigs are locked in crates, where they can only stand or lie, where they suffer great stress, bred to unnatural sizes and forced to produce up to twenty offspring a year.
Broiler chickens, reared for their meat, never see daylight. They are crammed together in huge windowless sheds that are littered with excrement, which is never removed in their forty-two day lives. Forced by selective breeding to grow from chicks to adults at twice their normal rate of growth to the point where they can barely walk.
Hens, reared for their eggs, are confined for their entire lives to battery cages so tiny they cannot stretch their wings, let alone walk.
Cows, selectively bred to produce much high yields, milked to exhaustion, their swollen udders forcing their legs apart. Often in great pain from mastitis and separated from their calves within a few days of birth. And what a terrible fate awaits their calves - or at least it did until the collapse of the beef industry - in the veal crates of France and Holland.
Sheep, whose breeding pattern has been manipulated in response to the demands of supermarkets, so that lambs are produced in winter and not in spring, with the result that hundreds of thousands die of exposure.
What are we to make of the appalling mutilations inflicted by factory farmers on their animals? Lambs castrated either by removing their testicles with a knife or by using a rubber ring to cut off the blood supply so that the testicles drop off. Chickens and turkeys debeaked with red hot blades. Piglets have their tails removed with red hot irons. Some even have their teeth clipped. All these medieval tortures are allegedly made necessary by the need to stop these unfortunate animals turning on each other in the frustration caused by their close confinement.
How can this be morally justified? The truth is it cannot. Agribusiness can only get away with it by hoping that consumers do not find out or that, if we do, we avert our eyes.
Gradually, thanks to organisations such as Compassion in World Farming and others represented here today, the consumer is becoming aware of the terrible suffering inflicted in our name.
I regret that none of the main political parties - my own included - takes farm animal welfare sufficiently seriously. Presumably, because farmers have votes and animals do not. However, I take heart from the fact that a growing number of people, particularly the young - who are otherwise disillusioned with politicians - care passionately about animal welfare.
Even people who are oblivious to the suffering of animals, have begun to notice the potential threat to their health and to that of their children. I take the view that BSE was not an isolated disaster, to be resolved by a few practical measures and the shelling out of huge sums of public money to compensate an industry which has to a large extent brought the disaster on itself. I believe that BSE was nature's revenge on the factory farmers. Rather than continuing down the same old road, we should view BSE as an opportunity for everyone concerned - producers and consumers alike - to learn lessons or a more general nature than any that have so far been suggested.
We need a wholly new approach to agriculture in general and meat and dairy production in particular. We need to restore morality to an industry which has lost its way. We must wean agribusiness off factory farming, away from the overuse of antibiotics and routine barbarity. We need a system of subsidy that encourages good practice and note merely discourages, but actively penalises bad practice.
We must harness the power of the market, through quality assurance and labelling which clearly describes the method of production, enabling consumers to choose how they want their meat reared. The free marketers are always talking about choice. Let us have some real choice. Let us know how our meat was reared. What chemicals it was fed. An important point this. We live in an age where market forces and everywhere triumphant. Certainly we should continue to resist, by proper regulation, the worst excesses of the market, but where possible we should work with it. If the big supermarket chains, whose demands are to a large extent responsible for the degeneration of animal husbandry, were to decide tomorrow that they would no long stock factory farmed meat the whole grisly industry would be transformed overnight. The recent decision by Iceland supermarkets not to stock genetically manipulated food is a very useful pointer to the way forward.
The picture in this country at least is not wholly bleak. Within weeks of taking office, the new Labour government played a leading part in persuading our EC partners to sign up to a protocol to the Treaty of Tome which for the first time recognised that animals are sentient beings, capable of feeling pain, and not merely agricultural products. We must now work to give practice expression to these sentiments.
We have established a Food Standards Agency in order that, in future, there will be a clear distinction between the interests of the public and those of the producers and distributors. Something that hasn't always been apparent when all responsibility lay with MAFF.
At the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Jack Cunningham is playing a leading role in trying to persuade our EU partners to outlaw the so-called "wall of death" drift nets which are responsible for inflicting such carnage on marine life. A final decision will be made in June.
Also at the Department of Agriculture, we have an excellent junior minister, Elliot Morley, who has a long track record of work for animal welfare and who, with the support of Jack Cunningham, is doing everything within his power to raise standards. He tells me that progress is being made on an EC directive that will eventually phase out battery cages for hens. There is to be a directive on pig welfare. Good progress, he says, is being made on a farm animal welfare directive which will lay down minimum standards for all European farms.
There is, however, one ominous development which threatens all the good work of recent years. I refer to GATT and the World Trade Organisation. This is perhaps the biggest threat to farm animal welfare today. Under GATT, as it is presently likely to apply, all that counts is free trade. All other values - animal welfare, the environment, social justice - come a poor second. In the name of free choice. We will have no choice.
All is not lost, however. In Europe at least governments have, belatedly, become aware of the threat to civilised values posed by GATT. Work is now going on to address the problem, but it needs to be given much higher priority. GATT and the World Trade Organisation must become a priority for the farm animal welfare movement and I am pleased to note that it features prominently on today's agenda.
The other area on which we should concentrate - and to which I have already referred - is quality assurance,. If we insist on certain minimum standards for meat and other farm produce imported into the European Community then those who want to export to us will have to clean up their act in order to do so.
Finally, there is a wider issue and it concerns the survival of the human race - or at least a fair proportion of it. That is whether the huge and growing demand for meat makes sense in purely practical environmental terms. In China alone demand for port and chicken - the very meats which most lend themselves to factory farming - has grown massively. In India poultry consumption is increasing by 15% a year. Bad news for animal welfare. Bad news, also, for the global food situation. Factory farmed pigs and chickens eat grain. Already more than one-third of the world's grain is used to feed livestock. As a way of feeding billions it is highly inefficient. China, which used to be an exporter of grain, now imports. It also uses up a lot of water. It takes around 180 litres of water to maintain one battery hen and around 25,000 litres
per kilogramme of beef. I find those figures astonishing and I suspect many people will. If they or anything resembling them are accurate, how much water does it cost to rear the twenty million more pigs born each year in China?
It is our job to make people think seriously about these great issues and then to persuade those who hold political power to take appropriate action.