Industry fury as arrogant Prime Minister throws crisis-torn pig industry under a bus

In an astonishingly arrogant and ignorant interview, Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismissed the crisis-torn pig sector’s plight, telling Andrew Marr the pigs are going to die anyway. 

Mr Johnson made it clear he has no intention of offering any support to the pig sector, as it faces up to the reality of tens of thousands of pigs potentially having to be slaughtered on farm and incinerated due to staff shortages in processing plants. 

The interview, which has already prompted a furious backlash from the farming community on social media, will pour further oil onto the fire as the pig sector grows increasingly exasperated with the Government’s lack of interest in what is happening. 

You can view the car crash interview HERE (via @JoeWStanley)

A well-briefed Mr Marr suggested to the Prime Minister that 120,000 pigs are going to have to be killed and incinerated if there is no answer to the shortage of abattoir and butchery workers in the next 10 days. “That would be the single biggest cull if healthy animals ever to happen in the history of British agriculture. What are you going to do?” he said. 

But rather than treat the issue with the gravity a messy mass cull of pigs and the decline of an entire industry deserved, Mr Johnson saw it as an opportunity for a light-hearted spar with Mr Marr and to reassert his Brexit ideals, heaping all the blame on the industry. 

“I hate to break it you Andrew, but our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals. That is the reality. Your viewers need to understand that is what happens,” he said, going on to blame the industry for not providing the pay or conditions to attract enough domestic workers to the job. 

“You are talking again about a shortage of a particular type of workforce,” he said. “What I think needs to happen… there is a question about the types of job that are being done, the pay that is being offered, the levels of automation, the levels of investment in those jobs.” 

Mr Marr then challenged him again on his response to ‘pictures of all those pigs being killed on farms and in incinerated, rather than being sold for food’ given that he clearly had no short-term answers. 

The Prime Minister warmed to his theme. “They are also going to be killed. That’s what you need to understand, Before you try to obfuscate this point, the fact is, Andrew…” 

At which point Mr Marr stressed again that the issue was about pigs that should have gone into the food chain, but are getting too big and being culled early and incinerated. 

“Right,” Mr Johnson responded. “If I may say so, the great hecatomb of pigs you describe on farm has not taken place. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see what happens.”

Things then got even more bizarre as, when Mr Marr tried to put it to Mr Johnson that it might be the PM’s fault, he replied:  

“I am not saying it’s your fault, Andrew. I wouldn’t dream of blaming you. But what I would say is that we can’t do in all these sectors is go back to the tired old model, and reach for the lever called uncontrolled immigration, and get people in at low wages.”

“There will be a period of adjustment but that I think is what people need to see.”

Mr Johnson had earlier adopted a similar stance on the lack of HGV drivers, blaming the industry for not providing suitable conditions for workers. 

Pig World view

Having covered farming politics for more than 20 years, I have never seen such an appalling, ill-judged and ill-informed interview. It seems astonishing that it came from a man deemed worthy by some of holding the role of Prime Minister.

The industry is in depth or arguably its biggest crisis and the backlash on Twitter and in my inbox has been predictably furious. But this is likely to be only the start.

“In all my years of political viewing I have never heard a PM be so poorly briefed that was an embarrassment. He just threw the pig industry under a bus,” wrote one trusted and veteran pig farmer via email.

Mr Johnson’s comments clearly indicate has no intention of facilitating new short-term temporary visas for butchers to ease the backlog – even though his reference to ‘uncontrolled immigration’ is completely at odds with the short-term measures the meat sector is seeking. 

But even more worrying is the rhetoric, matched by the deafening silence from Defra as the industry spirals into crisis – the Government, from the top down, seems unaware that there is even a crisis or, more worryingly if it is aware, prepared to let animals and the industry suffer, rather than being seen to compromise on its misguided Brexit ideals. 

Nobody in the pig industry and wider food chain is suggesting that all the current problems are about Brexit, or that the Government can wave a magic wand and solve the problem. COVID and wider, in some cases, global, industry factors have also contributed to the ‘perfect storm’ we now see. Rest assured, the industry is working hard in its own solutions and urging retailers to play their parts, too. 

But Brexit has – undoubtedly – been a significant factor, not least the loss of access to EU workers in in our plants that has left them short of capacity and unable to process the pigs that are coming through on farms. And this is not about wages or conditions.  

There is much the Government could do to help, starting with a basic acknowledgement and understanding of the true problems the industry is facing through to the immediate issuing of temporary butchers’ visas to help ease the backlog. 

The Prime Minister’s stance is telling and deeply concerning, not just for the short-term future of our pigs and pig farmers, but for the longer-term as new regulation comes down the line and new post-Brexit trading arrangements are negotiated that could, if the Government wish, see UK pork replaced with cheaper product from elsewhere produced within vastly different systems.

But if, as appears increasingly likely, the Government is prepared to sacrifice the British pig sector in pursuit of wider ideological goals, this proud industry will not take it lying down. It will, as it has done in the past, fight for its future. 

The Government is going to learn more about how the pig industry feels over the next few days. 

“Let’s see what happens.”


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About The Author

Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.