Telling porkies about big pig farms

Dubious arguments about large-scale agriculture are threatening a proposed megafarm in Derbyshire.

Jason Smith

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Topics Politics

The latest spat between British farmers and animal welfare groups is over a 30-acre pig-production facility in Foston, Derbyshire, proposed by Midland Pig Producers (MPP). The farm will house 2,500 sows and produce more than a thousand pigs for sale each week.

MPP is one of the largest pig companies in the UK, producing over 100,000 pigs each year from 30 farms in eight counties. Size, it seems, is one of the main objections to the company’s proposed farm. Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) argues: ‘We are concerned at the sheer scale and the indoor nature of the proposed pig farm… we urge those planning the farm at Foston to retain their intended welfare standards but to break the proposal up into a number of much smaller farms.’

The Environment Agency has objected to the Foston plans on the basis that its concrete slurry tank could, over time, leak and pollute the local water supply. This objection is similar to the one made by the agency in relation to the proposed dairy farm in Nocton, Lincolnshire, an objection that led developers to withdraw their planning application. If this situation is repeated, it will be a blow to struggling farmers but, more importantly, it could help to halt progress in farming altogether.

Many arguments are now made against intensive-farming units, some practical, some environmental, and some of which boil down to a demand that society should go backward and do things in an inefficient way, like in the old days. Let’s challenge these arguments.

Indoor production

Out of all the controversies over animals being kept indoors, the hoo-hah over the indoor farming of pigs is perhaps the strangest. Pigs are ideally suited to being kept indoors because they are hopeless at regulating their body temperature. The UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is very strict in its guidance to British farmers on how to treat pigs because wide or abrupt fluctuations in temperature can create stress that may trigger outbreaks of abnormal behaviour – ‘vice’ – such as tail biting, or disease such as pneumonia.

Many pig varieties are susceptible to sunburn and heat stress, and all pigs lack sweat glands and cannot cool themselves. Pigs have a limited tolerance to high temperatures and heat stress can lead to death. Temperature regulation is therefore particularly important. This is one reason keeping pigs indoors has become the main method of farming them: it is better for their welfare. Intensive, specialist farms allow the kind of investment in temperature-control systems, such as ventilation and drip-water systems, that are out of the reach of the traditional farmer. A traditional farmer would simply hose the pigs down with a pipe.

Waste

The major environmental issue facing livestock farmers is what to do with animal waste. As farms have got larger, muck-spreading – the traditional way of disposing of waste – has become problematic. The smell it produces spreads over a wide area, contaminating the air. This is one of main reasons for local objections to proposed intensive units from rural residents. As the documentary film Pig Business, made by eco-campaigner the Marchioness of Worcester, points out, it could also be making people ill.

Smithfield Foods, the American food giant has, like most US pig producers, stored waste in lagoons and then spread it over surrounding fields. Residents in North Carolina and Psie Głowy, Poland – where Smithfield has recently expanded its operations – have complained not only about the smell but also about water pollution. One woman was told by local authorities not to drink from or wash in the water coming from her taps after they analysed a sample. A better solution for waste disposal is needed.

A potentially revolutionary solution is being proposed for Foston: ‘odourless livestock production’. Pig waste would be regularly flushed into a sealed biogas reactor (an underground concrete tank) which would render it odourless and produce natural gas (methane) to be burned to produce electricity. The manure substrate produced in the biogas generator would be processed much like in a sewage works and the processed water recycled and fed back to the pigs (much like modern human water consumption). The solids left over would be dried and bagged to be spread as fertiliser on crops that are harvested and milled on site, utilising some of the energy created to produce feed for the animals.

Since the UK does not manufacture fertiliser on any large scale, this scheme would reduce the need for imports. The farm is also in talks with the adjacent Foston Prison to supply it with electricity produced from pig waste.

Welfare

The ultimate goal of breeding pigs has always been to produce the greatest number of pigs per sow per year with the least amount of labour and costs. The goal of any successful business is to produce a desirable product efficiently at maximum profit. Animal-welfare groups argue that these goals are at odds with the need to treat animals humanely. While the potential for cruelty is always there on any type of farm, these fears are largely unwarranted.

The profit margins for a pig farmer are small. His most valuable asset, apart from the farm (if he owns it), is his stock. His livelihood depends on producing a good-quality product and that means looking after the herd as well as he can. Many of the procedures criticised by animal-welfare groups were developed in order to improve welfare and therefore the end product.

Farrowing crates, attacked for not allowing a sow to turn around, were designed specifically to stop movement of a pregnant sow for welfare reasons. A sow is likely to kill the piglets to which she is giving birth simply by moving and accidentally crushing them. While there is evidence that some farmers leave sows in crates for too long, the EU has discussed legislation that would set a maximum length of time that such crates can be used.

The ‘mutilation of piglets’ to which CIWF refers is a similar story. The eight needle-teeth of piglets are clipped (notched) shortly after birth in order to prevent damage to littermates and to the sow’s udder. If they remain uncut, the sow can get an infection if cut by them and these needle-teeth are of no known benefit to the baby pig. This is a traditional farming practice which is not confined to intensive farms.

Scale

The size of a farm is everything to critics of intensive units. The specific issues addressed above may be of concern to them, but what really matters to campaigners are the numbers of animals involved and the scale of the operation. If it were possible to overcome every other objection to factory farming, many critics would still not be convinced because there is just something inhumane and wrong with keeping ‘too many’ animals in one place.

This says more about the critics of intensive farming than it does about intensive farms themselves. Take the Marchioness of Worcester’s Pig Business film as an example. The people she interviews complain about the smell and water problems caused by farms; the interviewees in Poland also complain about a lack of jobs. She interprets this not as a practical problem – the need to find a solution to the unforeseen consequences of feeding people cheaply, and Poland’s need to create rural jobs – but as these people having their lives ruined. Factory farms are said to be destroying the culture and soul of Poland. While filming at a Smithfield Farm processing centre in North Carolina, she tells us with disdain that the company employs 52,000 people, as if that should be a crime in itself.

What she is expressing here is not her anger at the perceived problems of farming but her own sense of a lack of control, of what Frank Furedi describes elsewhere on spiked as an ‘impotent rage’ that pathologises all change as something terrible. What we really witness in this documentary is the Marchioness’s personal therapy session. She is able to express all the anxiety she feels about the modern world through the prism of farming. Tellingly, at one point she says ‘economic development is not being determined by the needs of people but for the needs of large companies to grow’, as if the existence of private profit had come as a shock to her.

Large farms and small ambitions

Penny Thorpe of the Environment Agency says that it is not against the idea of megafarms. Yet out of the two most ambitious, efficient, modern units that have been proposed to date, one – Nocton – withdrew its application, citing a lack of support from the Environment Agency. The other, Foston, is facing difficulties in bringing about a potential revolution in farming because a concrete tank may, at some point in the future, sprout a leak.

Some intensive producers clearly need to clean up their act; polluting the water supply is bad for surrounding communities and for the farms themselves in the longer term. But so many arguments against intensive production are over-emotional and express a more general sense of loss that goes way beyond a particular dairy or pig farm. The opposition to large-scale farming ends up arguing against modernity, against progress and against cheap food. Unfortunately, it seems, the Environment Agency shares much of this uneasiness with new production methods.

The desire to feed the world as cheaply as possible is a positive human aspiration. The intensification of agriculture holds the possibility, if done on an international scale, of fulfilling this goal. We shouldn’t let erroneous arguments or a misplaced sense of unease get in the way of feeding the world.

Jason Smith is convenor of the Birmingham Salon.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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