More than a quarter of a million pounds of taxpayers’ money is being spent on improving productivity at “cruel” caged chicken farms in China.
The Telegraph can reveal that the Newton Fund, part of the foriegn aid budget, approved a grant for an autonomous robotic system that will help monitor the factory farms.
One of the aims of the project is to enable the Chinese farmers to feed their broiler chickens less while achieving the same or better output.
“Even a very small reduction in feed can have a significant positive effect on productivity,” according to government documents.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the government body overseeing the grant, is facing calls to explain why taxpayers’ money is being spent on helping an economic rival boost its competitiveness over British agriculture.
It comes as British farmers face mounting pressure because of a shortage of workers, rising costs and supply chain problems.
Meanwhile, animal welfare charities denounced the funding of a project involving caged chickens.
Caged farming – often referred to as battery farming – was banned across the EU from 2012 for egg-laying hens, although “enriched” battery cages are still permitted in some circumstances.
Grant to be spent on robotic systems
The £266,570 grant – matched by the Chinese government – will fund a robot fitted with an “e-nose” that will give a 3-dimensional picture of temperature, humidity, air velocity and CO2 in the chicken warehouses. The machine will also include an on-board camera to allow visual assessment of the meat-producing birds’ conditions.
The data it collects will be analysed by Applied Poultry and academic partners.
The UKRI grant says lessons from the project, which include “improving bird welfare”, could be rolled out to caged egg-producing chicken farms.
Combining the data from the robotic system should, the grant says, allow farmers to detect diseases before symptoms are seen in their birds, as well enabling predictive models of environmental control to prevent disease.
The grant documents describe a “significant opportunity” for UK organisations to help increase productivity within China’s poultry sector, as well as “addressing the currently poor reputation of the poultry industry in China”.
Chicken factory farms ‘cruel and environmentally destructive’
Peter Stevenson, chief policy advisor at Compassion in World Farming, said: “I am appalled that UK taxpayers’ money is going to be used to support the keeping of chickens in cages in China.
“This an inhumane system which is illegal in the UK and totally incompatible with UK values regarding animal welfare.
“I call on the UK to withdraw this grant and to urgently review its policy in this area so that in future research grants are only provided for systems that provide high standards of animal welfare.”
Sam Armstrong, from the Henry Jackson Society think tank, said: “The public are told that foreign aid goes towards alleviating poverty in the developing world, it should not be helping Chinese farmers boost their competitiveness over British farmers – especially when they are employing cruelly intensive methods like cage-farming.
“Investing in Chinese agriculture neithers alleviates poverty nor encourages it to become a democratic state.”
Elisa Allen, of the animal rights group Peta, said: “It beggars belief that UK taxpayers are being made to deliver a handout to China to prop up a rightfully declining, cruel, unhealthy, and environmentally destructive industry like chicken factory farming.”
A UKRI spokesman said all grants were subject to a “rigorous” peer review process.
“This project, using a roving autonomous platform to help farmers monitor poultry, will improve the health and welfare of managed animals,” he said.
“China and the UK benefit but once a solution is developed it is also applicable to other countries, thereby helping to address the global challenge of enhancing sustainable agricultural production.”