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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era