Cheap meat comes at a high price

The conditions of pig farms in parts of the EU are atrocious, but the fightback has begun.

Across Europe, a battle is being waged against an agenda that puts the rights of corporations ahead of human health and animal welfare. Against the huge resources of pan-European lobby firms, their advisers and pocket MEPs, there is a fightback that unites those socialists, greens and conservatives who respect and understand rural communities. Between 2005 - 2009, I made a film, Pig Business, about it (which you can watch here).

In it, I revealed the industrialization and corporatization of pork farming in Poland, which has resulted in a tide of cheap meat bankrupting farmers all across the EU. It's not much fun feeling like a modern Canute but the events of recent months have convinced me that industrial pig farming will not prevail in silence. The local and national pressure against mega farms is raging against the case of getting big or getting out.

While the application for a mega dairy in Nocton, Lincolnshire has recently been withdrawn, libel lawyers have been engaged in an attempt to silence objections that the application to build a mega pig farm in Foston, Derbyshire, which critics claim will pose health risks to neighbours.

Poland is, however, where it all started. US giant Smithfield Foods of America, had persuaded the previous government to sell ex-state farms for what their CEO boasted, were "small dollars".Using funds secured from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (paid for by European taxpayers) they "modernised" the farms. Modernisation meant putting as many pigs in as small a space possible. It meant very cheap meat.

Smithfield specialise in this form of industrial farming. It is not without consequence. The effect on local eco-systems from tens of thousands of densely packed-pigs is immense. Pigs produce 10 times as much waste as humans do. The waste is stored in stinking lagoons and sprayed onto fields. This system pollutes the coastline causing massive fish kills, and sickens neighbouring residents. In March 2010 a court in Missouri ordered a Smithfield Foods subsidiary to pay local residents $11m for "odours so offensive that they defied description". Stephen A. Weiss, a New York attorney, who represented the families, said: "These corporations have chosen to invade traditional family farming communities and construct industrial operations that simply fail to respect the community and the land."

The neo-liberal government of Poland in the late 1990s welcomed Smithfield with open arms. The "shock therapy" created a great deal of pain not least in the rural areas and the government was replaced by The Law and Justice Party, which sought to limit the damage of the pro-corporate agenda by making industrial factory farming adhere to regulations.

Smithfield's response was to move the new wave of operations to a more corporate friendly country, Romania. "We have been very disappointed by the way we have been treated by the government in Poland," said Richard Poulson, executive vice-president of Smithfield, the US based meatpacker. "It has been an uphill fight in Poland and Romania is frankly a way for us to hedge our bets. The difference between the way the Polish government treats us and the way the Romanian government treats us is like night and day."

The Polish MEP, Janusz Wojciechowsk, is one of the heroes of this story. Wojciechowsk was one of three MEPs, along with Jose Bove and Dan Jørgensen, who invited me to screen my film Pig Business, and host a debate on Feb 9th 2011, as reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were being discussed in the European Parliament. The Event was held to highlight the hidden costs of factory farming on pigs, people and the planet, as well as the farmers themselves. It could not have been more timely following a "winter of discontent" for pig farmers facing low supermarket prices for pork, high feed costs, a health scandal caused by animal feed contaminated with dioxin, and the recent discovery that flies are spreading antibiotic resistant bacteria from intensive farms to neighbouring urban areas.

José Bové, a French MEP once a farmer himself before becoming a European politician, has for many years opposed genetically modified crops and industrial agriculture. He was arrested for dismantling a MacDonald's restaurant that threatened to destroy his local town's economy. He is clear about the threat industrial pig farming poses to traditional forms of farming. He told the conference attendees of MEPs, their advisers, lobbyists, NGOs and press, that "following the deregulation of markets and open ports, come the big firms, like Cargill, Tyson and Smithfield and with them the concentration of production that is causing the elimination of small farmers. If the CAP supports a system of agriculture that destroys the environment and makes poor quality industrial products, I do not see why Europeans would want to subsidise it. Everyone knows that 75 per cent of CAP aid goes to 25 per cent of farmers. This is unacceptable."

As the big get bigger and drive costs lower thanks to CAP subsidies and externalizing their true costs on to the broader community, small and medium scale farms can only survive by copying the giants and cramming ever more animals into tiny compartments.

A recent survey found that 50 per cent of consumers across the EU believe that pigs are "fairly well treated". The opposite is true. NGO, Compassion in World Farming, found out the reality during a spot check of Europe's farms. Their research showed that up to 75 per cent of EU pigs are subject to such horrendous conditions that their treatment is illegal even with the low threshold of EU regulations.

Consumers should be empowered by being able to find both country of origin and method of production labels on animal products. Just as the EU demands farmer's eggs are labeled if they are from caged hens, the same rule should apply to pigs crammed into barren concrete and metal pens with no access to natural light or fresh air and pumped with antibiotics to keep the miserable creatures alive. When I show consumers the reality of this farming method in Pig Business, almost all say they will never buy factory pork again.

The corporate takeover of agriculture has wrecked family farms in America too. On March 9th, Bobby Kennedy Jr. will co-host the Pig Business US screening for Congress members and staff on Capitol Hill, Washington. Experts from animal welfare, human health and family farm groups will reinforce the film's findings that factory farms across the US abuse the animals, threaten human health by over-reliance on antibiotics and force traditional farmers out of business.

At the congress event, I will explain reforms to CAP that many concerned EU consumers, MEPs and NGO, are requesting and compare these with legislative changes demanded by similarly concerned Americans. Although EU free market rules have allowed low welfare imports to undermine small scale family farms, it is nothing in comparison to the US where neo-liberal policies advocated by a few big corporations that have decimated the small farm economies and with it, quality food and human health. For example, although adding antibiotics to pig feed specifically to promote growth has been banned in the EU since 2003, it is still allowed in the US. This has resulted in 80 per cent of US antibiotics being used in livestock production - not on human health. Doctors and scientists are concerned that this practice is leading to new antibiotic resistant diseases which, like MRSA, pass from pigs to humans. A pilot study in Iowa found the pig strain of MRSA in 45 per cent of the workers and 49 per cent of the pigs.

Also as we in Europe are asking that the CAP ensures animal welfare laws are better enforced and improved, the United Sates has no federal on farm animal welfare legislation.

With Eastern Europe joining the EU, the average EU farm size has reduced to 12 hectares and many are run as small scale family enterprise. In the US, however, the average farm size is 418 hectares. The EU's small farmer champion is the Romanian European Commissioner for Agriculture and he is determined to help small farmers survive through directing CAP subsidies away from large to smaller scale farm enterprises.

This approach is unpopular with the large EU farm lobbyists who want agricultural industry consolidated and mechanized, and who claim to be competitive, while soaking up massive subsidies.

The third option for many EU and US agricultural policy makers is to call for food production to be exempted from trade rules like the EU and World Trade Organisation (WTO) so that all nations and regions have the right to protect their farmers from low cost and low animal welfare imports.

This battle rages across the political divide and between intensive and extensive farmers. In the UK, in the light of the withdrawal of the Nocton mega-dairy application, concerned consumers and neighbouring residents hope that 'Midland Pig Producers' will not re-submit their planning application to Derbyshire County Council to build the UK's biggest factory pig farm bedside a women's prison in Foston, Derbyshire. The company submitted plans for an intensive pig unit of 2,500 sows and around 20,000 piglets which will spend all of their lives indoors. Neighbours are objecting to the planning application in fear of their health and house values and hundreds of small and medium scale UK farmers will have to "get out" while a few producers "get big" to compete with cheap imports.

To help UK small and medium scale pig farmers survive the stream of cheap meat, consumers need to buy high-welfare UK farm produce! Eating smaller quantities of high quality, expensive meat is the healthier, cheaper option.

Tracy Worcester is an environmental and animal-rights campaigner. For more information on her campaign against industrial pig farming, click here.

12 issues for £12

Next Article