Comment: John Humphrys: Happy cows make a big difference to our health

Cows are boring. They eat grass, chew the cud and produce milk. That's about it. Except for one morning of the year when they go wild - the morning in spring when they are let out into the fields for the first time since their long winter confinement. It is like watching a gang of excited toddlers released into the playground after hours sat behind their desks.

They tear about the field, kicking their legs into the air, their udders bouncing alarmingly. For six months they have lived in sheds, slept in stalls, stood on concrete. Now, once again, they have the grass beneath their feet. They seem, quite literally, to be full of the joy of spring. It lifts the spirits to watch them.

Hard-headed folk will scoff at this soppy, sentimental anthropomorphism. Dumb animals do not experience pleasure like people. To be content, all a farm animal needs is a full stomach and protection from the worst weather. Well, let them scoff. I have seen it and I know. So does every farmer who cares for the welfare of his animals as well as the size of his profit margin. Good farming is about healthy and, yes, happy animals. There are signs that the government is beginning to recognise part of that - but only part.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is developing what it calls an animal health and welfare strategy. It has set up a consultation process and the deadline for submissions has just ended. What has emerged is a clash of views that goes to the heart of how our farms should be run and how farm animals should be cared for.

Defra's chief concern is "bio- security". It wants a set of hygiene measures that will stop horrors such as BSE and foot and mouth disease happening again with such devastating effect. The aim is laudable. We all want healthy animals. The approach is short-sighted.

Let me go down the anthropomorphic road again and risk comparisons between animals and humans. We all want to protect our children against disease. Sensible parents do it by making sure they eat a good diet, get some exercise and develop a strong immune system. What they do not do is try to throw a protective shield around them so that they are never exposed to nasty bugs. We know the bugs are out there and we know our children will come into contact with them. When that happens we want them to be able to fight them off. What is true for humans is true for animals.

The problem is that the agricultural regime in which most animals are born, live and die is leading in the opposite direction. It is concerned with efficiency. That means intensive production. The cow must give more milk. The pig and the poultry must grow fatter quicker. It is about maximum output for minimum input. The larger the unit, the greater the stocking density, the more efficient the system. The more high protein food that can be pumped into them in their short lives, the better the return, even if it predisposes them to intestinal infections. The infections can always be dealt with by using antibiotics.

A truly "efficient" cow will give 10,000 litres of milk a year. It is double what cows were expected to give a generation ago. Her system cannot cope with that. During her life her udder will be routinely pumped full of long- acting antibiotics and when she is infected with mastitis she will be injected with still more. Defenders of this approach say that if animals were not healthy and happy they would not thrive. It depends what you mean by thrive. A high- yielding cow will be killed off after two or three lactations. In a less intensive system she would still be in her prime.

"Biosecurity" means that you build, in effect, a high wall around the unit to keep out dangerous bugs. It is helpful in treating the symptoms. It does not address the underlying cause of disease. It is the industrialisation of agriculture. There is another approach. It means treating animals as though they are more than units on a production line. It is farming in line with organic principles.

The interesting thing is that the government has accepted the strengths of organic farming and wants to encourage it. So have millions of consumers. Last week the Soil Association reported that sales of organic food have, for the first time, passed the 1 billion mark. Britain is now the third largest market in the world. Revealingly, the fastest area of growth is in organic meat and in baby food.

Even so, it still represents a tiny part of the food market. The number of people who buy organic food regularly is even smaller: 7% buy 70%. The big disincentive is the obvious one. It costs more - sometimes a lot more. Not that the equation is a simple one. So-called conventional food looks a lot more expensive if you factor in the cost of dealing with crises such as BSE and foot and mouth. The tens of billions involved must come out of someone's pockets. They come from ours. What we do not pay at the till, we pay in higher taxes one way or another. Or we pay to clean up chemical residues. And what is the cost of the abuse of antibiotics and the emergence of superbugs? It is incalculable.

So we should subsidise organic food? No. Direct food subsidies do not work. The common agricultural policy has been an unmitigated disaster, riddled with inefficiencies and corruption. It has produced a handful of very rich barley barons and tobacco farmers and almost bankrupted the European Union. It has led to vast prairies of grain that nobody wants and Welsh hills cropped bare by sheep that exist only so that their owners can collect the headage payments.

Britain was one of the first to recognise that. This government has been looking for other ways to encourage less intensive agriculture and farming that is more friendly to livestock and the environment. What it has come up with is an elaborate system of points that farmers must collect to be eligible for the cash. But, inevitably, the system is riddled with anomalies and peculiarities.

A farmer will collect 27 times more points for creating and managing a woodland ride than he would get for managing the same acreage of land organically. That is an odd way of going about things. There's nothing wrong with some nice woodland rides or making sure that ditches and hedgerows and stone walls are properly cared for. They are important in their own right. More important still is more direct encouragement of organic farming.

The Curry commission on the future of farming, which was set up by the government, recognised that agriculture has become "dysfunctional", mainly because it has become seriously disconnected from its market and consumers. It recommended that there should be more support for organic farming.

That was two years ago. Its recommendations were accepted by the government, but you could be forgiven for wondering if its heart is really in it. Small farms in this country are disappearing at an alarming rate. We are losing 1,000 farm workers a month. It is almost impossible to make a living from a small dairy farm. A few years ago 50 milking cows would produce a decent income. Now you need at least twice as many just to survive.

There is no doubt that the rural economy would benefit from more small organic farms. So would the environment. So, ultimately, would the consumer. It follows that prices will come down if more organic food is produced in this country and - in the ideal world - sold locally. Good organic food will always cost more than the product of industrial farming but it would help if we could break what Tony Blair called the "armlock" of the big supermarkets.

Our farm animals would benefit, too. Compassion In World Farming said recently that animal welfare is at the heart of organic husbandry methods.

I don't expect people who are struggling to make ends meet to pay more for their bacon or milk simply to give a pig or a cow a better life. But many of us can afford to. Nor do I expect our politicians to decree that farming practices must change overnight. But it would help if the welfare of animals and the future of organic farming were seen as two elements in a bigger issue. I think it's called joined-up government. *