Is a culture of secrecy silencing our voice?

Anna Jones is a farmer’s daughter from the Welsh Borders, a freelance journalist and broadcaster and Nuffield Farming Scholar. She covered rural affairs at the BBC for 12 years before leaving the corporation in 2018 to set up Just Farmers

A culture of secrecy is holding back the UK pig industry, but it has the power to change. I saw intensive, indoor pig production in the USA, Denmark and Belgium long before I was ever permitted to see it in the UK.

In Illinois I walked along rows of sow stalls, photographing a system that’s been illegal in the UK since 1999. In Belgium I saw pigs on slats for the first time. In Denmark I filmed sows in farrowing crates for BBC One’s Countryfile.

Many viewers had never seen commercial indoor pig production before and were appalled. “Thank goodness we don’t have farms like that in the UK,” exclaimed Twitter. Some vowed to stop buying Danish pork.

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 dangerous. When consumers are in the dark about how their food is produced it hands the power of enlightenment to those with an agenda.

It happened recently when 200 activists descended on a Lincolnshire pig farm and staged a peaceful protest inside a farrowing house. It didn’t matter that it was clean; that the animals looked healthy and well cared for. They were focused on exposing the system. They wanted to show the public what a standard farm was really like. The hidden brutalities! The cruelty behind closed doors! If only people could see, they would ditch bacon forever. All they had to do was grab the attention of the national media.

Except it backfired. The twist in this tale came not from the activists, but from the farmer. Sylvia Hook went on the record and gave an interview. Named, identified, filmed for all to see. What a scoop for that local news reporter.

I was flabbergasted, because anyone who works in the media and has reported on indoor livestock production knows the UK pig industry 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.

When I worked for Countryfile, it took me a full year to get my first peek under that cloak of secrecy.  A year! Pleading with the NPA and NFU – begging for transparency. 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. In fact, that’s the way it usually goes.

But Sylvia Hook decided to do things differently. Visibly shaking, her voice wobbling – she defiantly defended her farm. And she hijacked the story. The headlines were not about indoor production systems but her claim that activists had caused the death of two piglets, which the group denies.

Whichever side of the debate you’re on, no one who believes in free speech could ever deny or refuse a farmer’s right to reply; the chance to have their say. So why sacrifice that right?

Empowering individuals to tell their own stories is why I set up Just Farmers. It’s a grant-funded communications project that builds confidence among farmers through media education, while helping colleagues in the media find independent farmers who will talk to them.

Two pig farmers volunteered for our first workshop. Stephen Thompson from South Yorkshire runs an indoor system and David Kemp keeps outdoor sows in Wiltshire. They both finish pigs on slats.  And they’ll happily show anyone around. You can ask them about farrowing systems, antibiotic use, tail docking, tail biting – anything.

Pig farmers are not instinctively secretive. It’s a defence response when they feel under attack. We stand a better chance of having a proper, balanced debate about how our food is produced if we can deliver two things:

Transparency – let the public see.

Openness – let farmers be heard.

Slowly, gradually, the pig industry is opening up – but we have a long way to go. Join us? http://www.justfarmers.org/for-farmers

 

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