I love my life on the land and my animals, but the price I have to pay to maintain this lifestyle and my herd of lovely cows is to sell their progeny. This, of course, is the business of farming. But I console myself that I do my utmost to give my animals the happiest life I can while I have them; and ensure humane treatment thereafter.
The other day, I was speaking to a man who loves his horses, dogs and chooks; an honest, hardworking man. He was looking puzzled. “I don’t know,” he said, referring to a recent ad against intensive farming on our TVs. “Those chickens looked OK to me. Their combs are red, their eyes are bright. They’re just moulting, that’s all.”
I had to agree. I felt the same way about the pigs. They were in good condition, bright-eyed, took a healthy interest in the cameras; showed no fear; and their skins looked pink and unblemished. We weren’t shown their housing, so I don’t know how much room they had.
It is easy to believe what we are told, especially when accompanied by images that tug at the emotions. But what if we are shown only one side of the story?
As a researcher of history, I have become accustomed to looking at the big picture. So before we demonise the farmers, let us take a look at the other side.
We are fond of romanticising nature – freedom, fresh air and sunshine: bliss! But take a closer look. Nature is not pretty: It is the survival of the fittest – a harsh concept. It’s the heartbreak of a tiny wren almost dying in the effort of raising the chick of a much larger cuckoo that has smashed its eggs. It’s struggling for sustenance in a bad season. It’s living every second in fear of predators. It may look beautiful to us, but it’s something else for the creatures trying to survive in it.
Susceptible farm animals must be protected from the vagaries of nature.
Chickens, for example, cannot survive in nature: There are no feral chickens. They are at the mercy of predators such as foxes, dogs, feral cats, hawks, eagles, snakes and goannas; and subject to diseases carried by birds, rats and mice.
Pigs need shelter, climate control; they must be kept warm in winter, cool in summer. Sudden changes in temperature make them susceptible to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. There are deadly pathogens out there for pigs. To protect them, they must be housed in a biologically secure environment, with enormous costs. Unauthorised visitors to these places can bring untold suffering to the very animals they wish to help.
So, how have we come so far from protection to what is often seen as little more than a production line?
Back in the middle of last century, in the fifties, sixties and seventies, farmers actually made money. Everyone was into production lines, town and country. Farmers were anxious to have the latest in housing for their animals; to be seen as stream-lined and efficient; hospital clean and hygienic in their husbandry. Doing the best that they could for their animals.
Workers on production lines, realising how soul-destroying it was, soon objected; and were replaced by robots. It wasn’t that easy for the farmers. (And I am not saying it was easy for the workers!)
Farmers wishing to upgrade their housing are faced with a harsh reality. Changing infrastructure involves 5-6 figure sums. Whenever prices approach a level to allow it, cheap imports flood the market, forcing down farm gate prices. (Does anyone ask how these animals have been treated?) With escalating costs and returns of 10-20years ago, farmers can do no more than hang in there. (If they are lucky!) They cannot afford to upgrade.
So, how can farmers make these changes that they themselves would wish for? It sounds impossible, doesn’t it?
The people with movable hen-houses allowing their chooks to scratch daily on fresh ground have all my admiration, but their infrastructure and time investment is huge.
Some friends of mine, passionate animal lovers, toured the world to find the ideal environment for their chickens, finally settling on a concept from Israel. Their investment is also massive.
Do we, as consumers, reward these caring souls for their time and dedication? Or do we buy the cheapest supermarket specials, thus forcing them out of business?
We consumers do have the power to change the lives of our animals: not by spending money on emotional ads that promote negative feelings (despite being presented by kind and well-meaning celebrities like Pat Rafter); but by doing something positive; something we can all do.
Negatives divide, destroy, achieve nothing; only adding tension to an already impossible situation.
Positives unite, simplify, show us the way. Positives make the difficult easy; the impossible, possible.
And now we see: how simple is the answer!
Here is a positive that I guarantee will work: Ignore the cheap supermarket specials and pay a premium for food produced from livestock raised in a proven animal-friendly environment.
The farmers will be only too happy and relieved to have the funds to comply.