Destitution and disease: the truth about pig farms

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The Independent Online

In a week when we have all been worrying about what Gordon said about Bernie, about idiotic panic-buying at the petrol pumps and about our heroic pedalers and shooters down in Sydney, it was perhaps inevitable that the unhappy events taking place on pig farms across East Anglia should be virtually ignored in the national media.

In a week when we have all been worrying about what Gordon said about Bernie, about idiotic panic-buying at the petrol pumps and about our heroic pedalers and shooters down in Sydney, it was perhaps inevitable that the unhappy events taking place on pig farms across East Anglia should be virtually ignored in the national media.

Local TV news reports, however, have been revealing some unpleasant scenes. At a typical farm in East Harling, pigs - living pigs, that is - were shown packed together, crawling over one another in all available sheds and garages; some 5,000 pigs were normally kept on the farm; now there were 8,500, a figure that was rising by 300 every week. Other farms are said to be littered with corpses, the result of overcrowding. As feedstuff bills remain unpaid, the threat of pigs going unfed increases every day.

Behind these gruesome scenes, a parable of our sentimental, hypocritical attitude towards animals is being enacted. Pigs, for heaven's sake! Who on earth could become concerned about these waddling, grunting sources of bacon when there are hedgehogs with broken legs to worry about on Petwatch, anti fox-hunting campaigns to support? As for farmers, they are always good for a sneer from metropolitan journalists.

Yet the crisis is one to which we, the consumers, have contributed. When British farmers introduced more humane rearing conditions than were to be found in, say, Holland or Denmark, supermarkets responded by stocking the cheaper foreign pork, and the great animal-loving British public bought it. Having been penalised for good welfare practice, the pig industry was already in crisis before the recent outbreak of Classical Swine Fever in East Anglia.

Under the bizarre compensation terms introduced by the agriculture ministry, it actually pays for a pig farmer to have an infected herd, which will then be slaughtered at full market value. It is those in the "surveillance zones" who are in trouble. Forbidden from selling or moving animals, and receiving no income as they feed and tend an ever-growing herd, their only legal option is to accept a government offer of between £30 and £65 a head - vastly below what the pigs are worth.

Already deeply in debt, farmers are faced with a stark choice. They either keep the pigs, at huge expense, and watch their business decline week after week, or they sell healthy pigs under the government scheme at a loss. "The phone has not stopped ringing," a spokeswoman for the East Anglian Farm Crisis Network, a Samaritans-type organisation, has told a local newspaper. "There are isolated farmers out there in real despair."

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising to hear rumours that some are considering taking the illegal options, infecting their own herds or transporting pigs out of the surveillance zone at night.

There will be many for whom these events will seem mucky, distant and unimportant, but the collapse of the British pig industry will not just affect farmers. An estimated 5,000 jobs are at risk. Areas of mixed agriculture will be swallowed up by the barley barons, who have already turned parts of East Anglia into an environmental wasteland. Country people, who already feel isolated and misunderstood in their dealings with Westminster, will have their most paranoiac worries confirmed.

Compared to the compensation paid following the BSE crisis, the amount of government support to ease this crisis is negligible, and urgent action is needed. As for the rest of us, we should simply buy British pork, if possible from independent butchers who, unlike the supermarkets, have supported local farmers. It is not too late to save our bacon.

terblacker@aol.com

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