Is a culture of secrecy holding back the UK pig industry?
A couple of years ago I travelled to Denmark to make a film for the BBC about antibiotic resistant bacteria spreading from pigs to people on farms. So-called ‘Pig MRSA’.
After weeks of research and phone-bashing I eventually negotiated access on to a farm which was taking part in a research project to build a better understanding of the bacteria and how it spreads.
I hadn’t been on many large-scale intensive indoor pig units and, yes, I admit I found it challenging. The ammonia stung my eyes, cobwebs dangled from the ceiling and I was pushed and shoved around a concrete pen by the most enormous sows I’d ever seen. Now and again a pig somewhere would let out an ear-splitting squeal making us stop filming and wait until the noise quietened down.
I could have made that farm look like a complete hellhole. A few carefully chosen camera angles. Dim the lighting. A poignant close up on those porcine eyes which, if you’re minded towards anthropomorphism, convey all sorts of human emotions. I could have shot it to suit any agenda I wanted.
And that is precisely why so many pig farmers are terrified of letting television cameras on to their farms.
I was only there because the farmer had decided to trust me. He trusted our team to report the facts and portray his farm in a truthful way. Hiding nothing, exaggerating nothing.
The film went out on BBC One’s Countryfile – Sunday night prime-time television. Many viewers had never seen commercial indoor pig production and were appalled. “Thank goodness we don’t have farms like this in the UK,” exclaimed Twitter. Some even vowed to stop buying Danish bacon.
But we have plenty of commercial indoor pig farms in the UK. I was concerned we had inadvertently led people to believe otherwise. This is incredibly dangerous. When consumers are in the dark about how their food is produced it hands the power of enlightenment to those with an agenda.
Yet how can we balance the debate? Anyone who works in the media and has reported on indoor livestock production knows the UK pig industry, in particular, has a reputation for being secretive. I don’t need to labour the reasons why. Fear of fuelling the fire and, ultimately, bad news is bad for business.
It took me a full year to get my first peek under that cloak of secrecy. A year! I passionately made my case to the NFU and the NPA, with no luck. In the end I found a pig farmer through my own network of contacts – but it still took six months to persuade her.
In March 2018, the doors to a British indoor pig unit, complete with slats and farrowing crates, were finally opened to our cameras.
The whole experience was like pulling teeth. How many journalists would bang on the industry’s door for a year? I’m sure most would give up and make do with a banal statement to balance the arguments from the other side.
Not long after that film was broadcast, in April 2018, I left the BBC to set up Just Farmers. It’s an idea borne out of my 2016 Nuffield Scholarship, which studied the coverage of farming in the mainstream media. I had gotten so fed up of the constant battle when trying to persuade farmers to be interviewed, and the distrust swirling between my profession and theirs, I thought: “Enough is enough.”
I had to do something.
Just Farmers is about building confidence among farmers. Our media education workshops give farmers an insight into how the media works, what makes news and what we need to make our stories work.
There are two pig farmers in the first group – Stephen Thompson from South Yorkshire runs an indoor system and David Kemp keeps outdoor sows in Wiltshire. They both have a slatted unit for fattening pigs. And they would be happy to show anyone around who’s interested. You can read about them, and the other farmers who’ve signed up, here.
It has been a complete revelation. The once mysterious world of indoor pig production now feels open, accessible, even familiar. The debate remains of course, and the arguments for and against certain production methods haven’t changed. But at least, slowly and gradually, the people who live and work at the centre of that debate are coming forward and having their say. Which is all we as journalists want. Your side of the story. Your right of reply. Don’t waste the opportunity to tell it.