European fightback must begin against factory pig farming

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Across Europe industrial pig farming is encroaching on traditional farming methods and putting small farmers out of business, writes Tracy Worcester, director and producer of the documentary 'Pig Business'. Just as the USA is about to enforce higher animal welfare standards, the EU ought to follow suit, she argues.

This commentary was authored by Tracy Worcester, director and producer of the documentary 'Pig Business'. It was sent exclusively to EURACTIV.

"Across Europe, a battle is being waged against a neo-liberal agenda that puts the rights of corporations ahead of human health and animal welfare. But against the huge resources that pan-European lobby firms, their advisers and pocket MEPs can muster, there is a fightback that unites socialists, greens and conservatives who respect and understand rural communities.

In 2005, I made a film 'Pig Business' (you can watch it here) to show the effect of industrial pork farming in Poland. My worry at the time was the Polish experiment with this form of farming was not to be an anomaly, but would herald an unstoppable tide of cheap meat. 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.

Poland is where it all started. US giant Smithfield 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 three times as much waste as humans do, and male hogs weigh 250 lbs. The waste is stored in stinking lagoons and sprayed on fields, a system which 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 $11 million for 'odours so offensive that they defied description,' said Stephen A. Weiss, a New York attorney who represented the families, adding, '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 former government of Poland welcomed Smithfield with open arms. But under a new government that pro-corporate agenda has been slowly undone by legislating to make industrial factory farming far harder. Janusz Wojciechowski MEP is one of the heroes of this story.

Janusz was one of three MEPs including José Bové and Dan Jørgensen who invited me to host an event to open the debate as reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy are discussed in the European Parliament this summer. The event was held to highlight the hidden costs of factory farming on pigs, people and the planet and of course 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, once a farmer himself before becoming a European politician, has for many years opposed genetically modified crops and industrial agriculture. Famously he was arrested for dismantling a McDonalds hamburger outlet that threatened to destroy his local town economy.

He is clear about the threat industrial pig farming poses to traditional forms of farming. He told me, 'following thederegulation 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% of aid goes to 25% of farmers. This is unacceptable'.

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

Consumers should decide. Just as the EU tells farmers eggs must be 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. When I show people the reality of this farming method in my film 'Pig Business', almost all say they will never buy factory pork again.

Finally, America too is waking up. On 9 March, I will be going to the US Congress to speak alongside Bobby Kennedy Jr. The US is considering legislative proposals to improve farm animal welfare and restrict the use of antibiotics. Although adding antibiotics to pig feed to promote growth has been banned in the EU since 2003, it is still allowed in the US.

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% of the workers and 49% of the pigs.

It would be a strange world indeed if, just as America turns its back on industrial pork and the adverse side effects, Europe finally succumbed to the neo-liberal agenda of a few big corporations and let our small farms go to the wall."

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