Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

I'd never been this far up the other end of a bacon sandwich before. It felt like I had stumbled into a parallel pig universe that stretched forever in all directions. Strange place. They were lying down, most of them, decorating a big, cosy cloud of straw like plump sultanas in a cake, with their huge, mad faces all turned in my direction, eyes staring back wherever I looked. One pig's face is quite enough food for thought, but I was completely overwhelmed by the countless expressions and endless variations of form: a sea of swine.

I found out later there were only about 200 sows in the barn, but that was enough to create a good impression of infinity. I've never glimpsed the immeasurable quite so clearly as in the middle of a couple of hundred pigs at their ease. It takes three months, three weeks and three days for a sow to produce around a dozen tiny piglets. They suckle the piglets, spend a couple of weeks resting in the straw and then they're off again. Time means food and food is money and there's not much money to spare.

The breeding sows get to wallow in straw, but the porkers live on slats, which is less cosy, but more hygienic. There were corridors and corridors that gave on to little rooms full of sets of perfect pigs. It was quite haunting but this is just the way pigs have it these days: better probably than ever before. You do wonder what they're thinking about, though.

What was interesting about this operation was what happened with the muck. Where there's muck, there's gas. The muck falls through the slats and is piped into a huge cauldron. The temperature inside the cauldron is warm enough for bacteria quickly to break the stuff down into methane and weapons-grade fertiliser. This methane, which would usually escape into the atmosphere, is siphoned off and used to drive a big engine. It looked like a tractor engine, but instead of driving a gearbox, this one drives a generator that feeds enough power back into the grid to supply 12 houses. Just from pig muck. The fertiliser is sprayed back on the fields where they grow the pigfeed.

There aren't many farms that are this efficient in this country. It's a German innovation. If you've ever had a German sausage, you might say they've been concentrating on the wrong end of the pig.

It's hard to see how anything could be more efficient, yet the farmer is still losing £20 a pig. He can't stop now. It takes nine months to stop this huge pig machine, by which time the price of pork will have gone up, so he's hanging on. I don't see how pork could be any cheaper. You wouldn't want it to be, really.

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