We are an animal-loving nation. Dogs are as synonymous with the British landscape as wellies. Nigel the Golden Retriever has become the star of a gardening show, and the Queen’s corgis have featured in our Olympic Games opening ceremony. And our adoration doesn’t end at dogs. Horses, cats, rabbits, guinea-pigs, and hamsters fill the hearts of many, many Brits.
It therefore seems somewhat of a paradox that farm animals don’t receive the same affection. Indeed, it is not just a lack of affection we give them, but an unrelenting life of cruelty. Three quarters of the pork we eat in Britain comes from absolutely horrendous, horror-movie-reared pigs. Three quarters. About half of the eggs we eat are from caged hens, 10 to a piece of A4 paper.
There is a sad tendency for environmental and animal rights activists to be viewed as extremist exaggerators, and I certainly agree that there have been cases where activists have achieved nothing but an intensification of the belief that those who care for the natural world are ‘annoying and naive hippy’s’.
But in the case of factory farming, there is no exaggeration. Having begun to volunteer for Farms Not Factories, a group campaigning against pig factories, I now know the facts. Perhaps even cleverer than our beloved dogs, factory-farmed pigs live in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions, with nothing but soiled and barren concrete to sleep on. They are pumped full of antibiotics just to keep them alive (indeed nearly 30% of all antibiotics used in Britain are given to pigs), leading to antibiotic-resistant diseases which are spreading to humans. Deprived of stimulation and the opportunity to express natural behaviours, pigs become stressed and engage in tail-biting. To prevent this, tails are docked – a pig has its tail cut off roughly every second. Sows are confined to farrowing crates for five solid weeks, unable to turn around and nurse their young. All in all, it is not an exaggeration to call this torture.
As Wayne Pacelle has discussed in his TED Talk ‘Animal factories and the abuse of power’, there is an immense disconnect between our beliefs about animals and our conduct. It’s so easy to make yourself forget that this is how the pepperoni on your pizza was probably made. The truth is disturbing, far away, and and very inconvenient. But it is most definitely there, and we must face up to it.
Contrary to the widespread belief that this is a problem too big to change, much can in fact be done. As a society, we need to change our relationship with meat. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has said, “We’re downgrading the role of meat as a food into being yet another cheap sandwich-filler… meat is and always should be a precious food”. We don’t have to give it up, just eat less. We can understand more what labels mean, for example the Red Tractor label is no guarantee the meat is cruelty-free. Farms Not Factories has a great labelling guide (http://farmsnotfactories.org/resources/labelling/).
The common retort to buying high-welfare meat is that it is too expensive. I do believe it is naive to think that we can promote animal welfare while ignoring, or even at the expense of, human welfare. However it costs half a sausage more to buy high welfare pork than factory pork. If you really can’t afford this, then fair enough. But many of us can.
It’s been said that ‘You can judge a man’s true character by the way he treats his fellow animals’, and as things stand, we are far from saintly. If we want to uphold our reputation as animal lovers, without knowing deep-down we are hypocrites, we must find space in our hearts for all animals – with or without a collar.