Pig farm owned by Midlands Pig Producers. Photograph: Caters News Agency
What on earth is Carter Ruck doing sending threatening letters to the Soil Association? As reported by the Guardian: Soil Association given libel warning after objection to huge pig farm. For objecting to what is described as a mega-pig farm something as ominous as Darth Vader and his ever so friendly Death Star seem to be hanging around the Soil Association doing some heavy breathing.
The story in a nutshell -
The organic farmers’ group the Soil Association objected to an application from Midland Pig Producers (MPP) for an intensive pig farm in Foston, Derbyshire, last summer, raising concerns in general terms about disease, antibiotic resistance and animal welfare in large pig herds. The application to South Derbyshire district council was withdrawn after it was ruled that it needed to go to the county council instead. MPP expects to reapply in the next few weeks.
In the meantime The Soil Association receives a letter, marked “private and confidential, not for broadcast” from Carter-Ruck, acting for MPP, saying the Soil Association objection is defamatory and should be withdrawn,
the letter said that the Soil Association’s objections should not be further disseminated and that to do so “would risk incurring considerable liability”. A Carter-Ruck solicitor, Magnus Boyd, told the association that it should instead withdraw its objection from the planning process and meet the company. In a paragraph seen as particularly vicious by the association, Boyd also included a veiled threat that its share in a Â£16.9m Big Lottery Fund grant for improving school food could be jeopardised.
No one likes a bully
And of course this is where this entire story takes on a significant ethical dimension. As, if you have never experienced the joys of a letter from a lawyer essentially threatening you, you cannot quite understand the effect that has. And so good for you Lord Melchett for standing up to companies that wish to stifle democratic process, and the voice of objection. And its sad that law firms are not prepared to weigh the ethical dimension rather than the weight of the purse. As the Guardian reports:
MPP and Carter-Ruck deny that they are trying to silence opposition and maintain that MPP’s main concern was that debate should be accurate. The company says the association’s objections are not relevant to its proposal and are defamatory. MPP plans to house 2,500 breeding sows and as many as 25,000 pigs and piglets on one site. Following applications for mega-dairies in Lincolnshire and elsewhere, Foston is becoming the focus of a fierce fight over fundamentally opposing visions for British farming. By trying to use British libel laws, which are themselves the subject of heated debate, the pig company has raised the stakes.
The other side of the argument is that the overall economics of pig farming is becoming unsustainable, the pig herd in the UK has collapsed, in similar fashion to many small holders who were locked into an economic model and way of life that was unsustainable when asked to compete against the industrial scale farming in countries such as Canada. Shortly after the Second World War the UK was importing 60%+ of its grain, diary, meat and vegetables, fuelled bizaarely by the left-over nitrogen stockpiled during the war for munitions, and re-created as a miracle grow fertiliser to exponentially increase agricultural output, but with a deadly endgame of extracting more of natures goodness than we could put back, ultimately leaving the earth unable to give what we currently take for granted.
This is important as Yeo Valley has one of the biggest organic sustainable diary herds and businesses in the UK. It has turned itself away from an oil based economic model as Tim Mead believes this is unsustainable too for a number of interlocking problems. So the real problem is a design problem, and the reality is MPP have a particular design approach which includes a particular economic model which is for many â€“ out of step and out of time. For the Soil Association to be told they are libeling their opponents is simply ridiculous. For the Soil Association and there are many who agree, megaâ€“farms represent the quintessential opposite of a sustainable future â€“ Yeo Valley and its continuing commercial success is the perfect example of that.
The Guardian writes that intensive pig farming has also attracted global criticism for its capacity to pollute on a grand scale, the greenhouse gases it produces, the outbreaks of disease from swine flu to foot and mouth in which it has played a part, and its abuse of animal welfare. MPP thinks its proposals have the answer to those criticisms while setting out an economic model that would enable British farmers to survive.
And I know happy, outdoors, free range piggies, taste a lot better than those battery farmed – as we are then eating the pigness of a pig vs. eating a carcass that looks like a pig. Richard Young, the Soil Association’s expert on livestock disease is quoted as saying
Our basic concern is that there is lots of research showing that the more pigs you have together the greater the risk of disease and the greater the potential for amplification of any problems. In theory they are proposing a very clever system, but it’s gold-plating a fundamentally flawed one. Past experience shows this brave new world approach to problems usually goes wrong and when it does the consequences for humans are very serious.
The industrial age is over, industrial age thinking is over, green, sustainable, the respect of all those that walk this planet can be combined with commercial success – but not within the paradigm of straight line thinking, the cold economic logic that fails to see the bigger picture. Joel Salatin is Americaâ€™s most celebrated pioneer of chemical-free farming (see post system failure – agriculture) and he asks us to take stock, and evolve out thinking and approach to solving what are seemingly intractable problems. Will Mega Farms really be the antidote? What would the working conditions be like? Would it dehumanise those working there? What about the pigs – surely they know outside is better? Can everyone afford meat – should we be eating so much of the stuff? The case for food security has been well made by I am sure another Bete Noir of the Soil Association Patrick Holden.
Lord Melchett says he is very happy to met MPP, but has this to say
It’s the first time to my knowledge that a group like ours has been threatened for taking part in the democratic planning process, which is meant to be where citizens and those who represent different interests have the opportunity to air their case. If [big companies] are going to use libel laws to silence opposition, it does not bode well for the future of our food and farming industry.