Factory farms, welfare and a load of bull

When farmers involved in large-scale developments protest tender concern for animal welfare, it is prudent to assume that they are up to something. When they make promises of bringing money into the community, one should become even more wary. In their rough-hewn way, they are schmoozing us. Any moment they will be promising to plant lots and lots of trees.

A new proposal to develop what is cheerfully known as a “super-dairy” at Nocton Heath in Lincolnshire has all the hallmarks of a project well-fertilised with PR bullshit. The eight buildings, covering 22 acres and housing 8,100 dairy cows, will, we are told, be the most modern in Europe.

The plan represents “a massive investment in the local economy”, and the cows themselves, although they will not see light nor eat grass while in milk and will be bedded on sand, will be blissfully happy: the plant, after all, has been, “designed to a level beyond the highest animal welfare standards ever seen in the UK”. Not only will Nacton be economically profitable, producing 24 million pints of milk a day, it will also make that all-important contribution to the global environment. Waste will be removed from the hangars and fed into an anaerobic generator which will produce energy for the local community. The lucerne and maize on which the cows will feed will, of course, all be locally grown.

A factory farm, though, is a factory farm. At a time when the Government, indeed the EU, has committed itself to improving animal welfare, Nocton may be a tough sell. Farming is the victim of the market’s dishonest presentation of it, as one of the farmers behind the new project has virtually admitted. “Campaigners,” he says, “think cows should be like in the Anchor butter advert, with 50 or 100 cows dancing in a field. It is a lovely idea, but not the reality.”

The reality is Nocton, and the industrialisation of agriculture. The market demands cheap milk. With Britain the ninth-largest milk producer in the world, the dairy industry is economically important.

 There is less and less space for old-fashioned agriculture. As environmental concerns grow, the case for using anaerobic manure digestion as an energy source will become irresistible. There will be arguments for reducing cows’ own emissions – 800 to 100 litres of it a day, including methane – and that, too is more is easy to accomplish if they are incarcerated. Factory farming makes more money for investors. It takes up less space and may even be good for the environment.

 Beside the arguments of profit and efficiency, the humanitarian case risks seeming simple-minded and over-idealistic, but is more important than ever. We now have a better awareness of what constitutes and causes animal stress and suffering. If we mistreat living creatures on a grand, institutional scale, all the while allowing sleazy advertising to peddle reassuring lies about industrialised agriculture, we have no claim to be a morally aware society.

Nocton, and the developments which will surely follow, presents a choice. While humanity continues to consume more and more cheap meat, eggs and dairy produce, then factory farming will be an essential part of the process. All the pretty pictures of contented animals grazing in a field will not change that reality.

If we are genuinely concerned about animal welfare – and there is little evidence, apart from outbreaks of tabloid-led hysteria that we are – then we should set about changing our own way of life.


Hitch would be his own best parodist

Has there been an English writer of modern times so ripe for parody as Christopher Hitchens? A boastful boozer and literary scrapper, Hitch (or does he call himself “the Hitch”?) writes in a style which is an unintentionally hilarious cross between Clive James and Wallace Arnold, the windy, self-important essayist created by Craig Brown.

His favourite comic trick, endlessly repeated, is to combine gamy content with a fancy, fat-bottomed prose style.

For the Hitch, prostitution is “the unlawful carnal knowledge industry”, whisky is “Mr Walker’s amber restorative”. As an example of his “inexhaustible conversation about womanhood in all its forms and varieties and permutations” with his pal Martin Amis, he re-counts how they discussed “the possibility of enjoying two young ladies at the same time.” Their hilarious term for this “remote but intriguing contingency” was “a car-wash”.

 When his friend gets a woman pregnant – that is, when “the subsequent pregnancy was almost certainly a consequent one” – and father and daughter meet many years later, their bonding, “is one of the most affecting things I have ever dreamed to see.”

Perhaps, on reflection, no parodist could quite compete with the Hitch himself. Independent, Wednesday, 3 March 2010