Today's Independent has, as its front page exclusive, a report on abuses in the British pig industry. There are some pretty gruesome pictures, taken by Animal Aid activists, which imply that senior members of the British Pig Executive (BPEX), the industry's governing body, are in breach of their animal welfare obligations.
There is always a risk, when images like these are circulated, that they are taken out of context. Are the pictures typical of day to day conditions? Are there unusual circumstances that need to be factored in? We, the readers, don't really know. So, perhaps the response of the farmers might enlighten us. A BPEX spokesman started off well, "If Animal Aid wants to send us the names and addresses of those pig farms then we would be more than happy to investigate.". If only he'd stopped there... Unfortunately, his next sentence was a doozy, "However, the most concerning factor is that this vegan campaigning company should be jeopardising the health and welfare of English pigs by breaking into private property.".
Firstly, their status as vegans is an utter red herring. Animal Aid don't appear to want to kill off the British pig industry. In a country of animal lovers, accusations of animal cruelty are always likely to be believed, especially given the urban view of the countryside. Given that the evidence suggests that farmers are mistreating their livestock, the notion that the Animal Aid campaigners were jeopardising the health and welfare of the pigs is a bit rich.
The image of farmers as stewards of a bucolic scene, animals wandering around in fields and milkmaids flirting has been replaced by a more cynical view of rapacious agri-industrialists, ploughing up hedgerows, factory farming cute animals in dark, satanic sheds. The truth lies somewhere between the two.
In truth, the problem is the fault of you and I, the consumer. We want more protein, and we want it cheap. Free range pork isn't as cheap as factory-farmed pork, supermarkets drive harder and harder bargains with farmers, and thus shortcuts are taken. We want to have our bacon and eat it too.
My newly-adopted Suffolk is a stronghold of the pig industry. A drive along the A14 will encover fields full of corrugated iron huts, each open at one end and big enough for a boar or sow and her litter. They are able to wander around the field, interact, root around in the earth, wallow a bit if they so choose. They look happy and contented, and probably are, right up until the point where they are slaughtered.
I like pork. I love bacon and ham and sausages. In Suffolk, I am able to buy these things from local farm shops where the pig is slaughtered nearby. And yes, I pay a bit more than I might do at Sainsbury or Tesco, but the taste is better and I can be fairly certain that the pig was well-treated. It is, however, something of a middle class luxury, and perhaps we need to remember that when we browbeat the farmer for merely trying to give us what we as a society demand. Cheap food has its cost, and it's the farmer and his livestock that are paying.