Celebrities like Brian May should not set the agenda for pig mega-farm
The Ulster Farmers' Union is calling for science and local legislation to guide the debate on planning issues related to on-farm developments. This has come to a head over plans for a new state-of-the-art pig unit in Co Antrim, which has become something of a cause celebre with campaigners against intensive livestock farming.
I believe celebrity views from overseas should not be allowed to take precedence over those of people in Northern Ireland. I believe that, with robust planning and environmental controls here, there is no need for pressure groups to use this development as a vehicle to seek publicity for their views.
There can be no question that their involvement attracts media attention, but at the end of the day, the views of campaigners like Brian May, Martin Shaw or Jenny Seagrove should not weigh more heavily than those of people who live in the area, or the thousands who work in processing jobs that depend on supplies coming from local farms.
I can understand the concerns raised by people over issues such as smells, traffic, noise and environmental pollution. These are all justifiable concerns and it is right that these and other issues are addressed as part of the planning process - as would be the case with any other business.
A campaign is being orchestrated against the development, simply because of its scale. However, with demand for food set to grow, creating opportunities for farmers and food processors - and with the potential to bring new jobs to the biggest sector of the economy - I believe policy-makers here cannot ignore the reality that scale, efficiency and high animal welfare standards can go hand in hand.
The recent Agri Food Strategy report said that pig production in Northern Ireland needed to increase by 40%. That has to come from expanding existing units, making this an issue that is about the future of the entire industry and not a single pig farm.
While the focus and activist group criticism has been of the scale of this unit, it is, in fact, not particularly big in a global context - and Northern Ireland needs to be globally competitive.
There are, for example, individual units in Brazil producing more than 100,000 pigs, while, in North America, units produce more pigs than Northern Ireland - even allowing for this new unit going ahead.
As someone who has been a pig farmer for many years, regardless of scale, one thing is certain. If livestock are not happy in their environment, they will not thrive and that applies whether they are in units with tens, or thousands, of pigs. That is a key reassurance when it comes to animal welfare standards.
I understand the concerns people have expressed about the scale of the unit and animal welfare. But everyone needs to have confidence in the planning system and other controls in place in Northern Ireland.
People should be reassured by the Government oversight of animal welfare and environmental controls on farms, which are tougher than anywhere else.
While the Ulster Farmers' Union welcomes a debate of the issues, this must be driven by local people and their concerns and not based around an agenda set by celebrities and activist groups with no interest in the Northern Ireland economy.
At the same time, we need to believe in our own planning process and the technical and agricultural advice officials will seek before deciding one way or the other about this development.
- Ivor Ferguson is a pig farmer and deputy president of the Ulster Farmers' Union