Taking on Pig Business

Tracy Worcester's fight against the excesses of industrial pig farming reaches Brussels.

Tracy Worcester has spent years campaigning against intensive pig farming -- see her powerful and disturbing film Pig Business on YouTube here -- and she has now taken her fight to Brussels.

Today, she and an alliance of MEPs are presenting evidence that European taxpayers are subsidising industrial farming -- and squeezing out more responsible, smaller-scale farms -- despite the worries over its effects on our health.

It all makes for grisly reading (put down your bacon buttie/sausage sandwich/lentil and pancetta soup before reading on). First, there's excessive antibiotic use. Flies and cockroaches around pig farms have been found to be resistant to the antibiotics routinely used there and the fear is that transmission to humans is also a possibility.

Then there was the scandal in Germany in January over cancer-causing chemicals (called dioxins) that were found in pig and chicken feed. This caused the closure of 1,000 pig and poultry farms and the destruction of 100,000 eggs, in an effort to stop the dioxins entering the food chain. Somewhat unhelpfully, one of the manufacturers involved was found to have hidden the full list of outlets it supplied, which one minister described as "a scandal within the scandal".

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly to animal welfare campaigners, research by the European Union suggests that 67 per cent of European pigs are housed in substandard, fully slatted systems, without straw in which to root, and up to 90 per cent have their tails docked illegally. Castration without anaesthetic and clipping of teeth also take place.

This (and more) has convinced a group of MEPs to use this summer's scheduled reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy to push for the greater regulation of pig farming and an end to subsidies for intensive farms. They have six "big asks", which include better labelling on pork products, higher welfare standards and a ban on prophylactic antibiotic use. There's also the small but important suggestion that all local and national bodies use only "high-welfare pork".

Pigs might not be the easiest animals to love but they're highly intelligent and therefore highly stressed by being kept in cramped, antisocial conditions. As it stands, farms that have high welfare standards are at a competitive disadvantage because the pork they produce costs more.

And, as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says here, that includes all British farms, because our welfare standards are higher than those of other countries. EU subsidies go to less well-regulated farms in places such as Poland and Romania, so we're paying to undermine our own progressive stance on welfare.

The EU has the power to change that. As Tracy Worcester puts it:

Now, lawmakers can decide for themselves if this industry should be allowed to continue to flood the EU with 'cheap', polluting, dangerous, socially and economically destructive and low welfare meat, while EU small farmers, who respect higher environmental, animal welfare and health standards, are struggling to survive.

If you're short of time, there's a ten-minute version of "Pig Business" available here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Why divided Brussels is the perfect hideout for jihadists

Counterterrorism requires on-the-ground policing in tandem with centralised control. Belgium’s fragmented political set-up is not conducive.

In Belgium, Santa Claus comes to town early. Children get their presents on 6 December, so that, on Christmas Eve, parents and grandparents can devote themselves single-mindedly to eating and drinking.

Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, arrives, logically enough, on the feast day of St Nicholas. He is dressed in the cope and mitre of a bishop rather than the fur-trimmed flannel of his anglophone counterpart and has come, not from the North Pole, but from Spain (a throwback to the Spanish Netherlands).

This year, however, there is no telling if St Nicholas will be allowed in or instead kept in a holding bay at Antwerp docks. And, if he does get through, will anyone be around to greet him? Last Saturday, Brussels was put into a state of suspended animation. In the days after the Paris atrocities, connections had been established between the perpetrators and the Brussels district of Molenbeek, but a series of raids had failed to locate Salah Abdeslam, who, it was believed, had escaped from Paris and headed to Brussels.

In response to a warning of a “very serious and imminent” threat, the city was subjected to what Twitter calls #LockdownBrussels. Soldiers patrolled the streets. Armoured vehicles parked outside train stations and central squares. Markets, sports fixtures and concerts were cancelled. The Metro was stopped and bars were instructed to close early.

For the most part, residents greeted the developments with their customary phlegmatic good humour, comforting themselves that the weather was so bad it was good to stay indoors. But when the government announced that public transport, schools and kindergartens would not open on Monday, grumbling intensified. How long could this departure from normality be sustained? On Monday, having chaired the national security council, the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, announced that the security threat level would be maintained for another week but public transport, schools and other public buildings would be reopened progressively from Wednesday, once defences were in place.

Before the lockdown, I made myself unpopular with the locals by writing that Belgium’s political set-up is not conducive to counterterrorism, which requires good on-the-ground policing joined to centralised, specialist expertise. Beset with linguistic and territorial divisions between the Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and the French-speaking south (Wallonia) – a roughly 60-40 split – the political class embarked more than 40 years ago on successive waves of decentralisation, weakening the federal government, pushing responsibility and money down to the regions but also to the provinces and 589 communes (units of local government). In 1989, Brussels became a stand-alone bilingual region between Flanders and Wallonia, a point of uneasy stalemate: West Berlin in Belgium’s linguistic cold war.

Although Brussels is the capital of Flanders, Dutch speakers are outnumbered by French speakers and by the large ethnic minorities from North Africa and Turkey. (Before Wallonia’s coal and steel industries declined in the 1960s and 1970s, companies encouraged migration from the Mediterranean basin.) Most Dutch speakers who work in Brussels commute from outside and so pay their taxes elsewhere. The division of federal income between the regions is fiercely contested. To make matters worse, this city of only 1.2 million is subdivided into 19 uneven communes. Their populations vary from 21,000 to 175,000 and their size from little more than a square kilometre, in St Josse and Koekelberg, to 23 square kilometres in the leafy Uccle – home to so many Parisians escaping the high wealth taxes of France.

Some town halls provide efficient services; others have become bywords for mismanagement and worse. Above them, the regional government, weakened by factionalism between and within language groups, is incapable of imposing uniformity. It was no surprise, then, to see confusion and disunity under lockdown: mixed messages from mayors and ministers over whether public crèches would be open, how many terrorists were at large and when the Metro might reopen. Brussels residents are, however, for the most part tolerant and resourceful.

Economic and security logic might suggest that, if and when the threat subsides, Belgium would address dysfunctions in Brussels. Sadly, they are hardwired into the Belgian political settlement of the past half-century. Even Santa Claus would be hard-pressed to find a way out. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State