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01 August 2000

Pigs and politics


It's a brave feminist who climbs willingly into a sow crate for a photo-opportunity.

But Green MP Sue Kedgley not only jumped at the chance recently, she reportedly had to elbow aside some of her Green colleagues for the privilege.

The result: the use of sow crates on pig farms is now a national issue, up there with Speight's coup and the latest child bashing outrage.

Kedgley is a politician with a passion for protest. In recent years she's been the country's most publicly visible opponent of pesticide use, food colourings, layer cages and now sow crates.

Her striking looks, her history as a feminist and the single dimensioned fervour she brings to the issues she espouses assure her of wide media coverage.

Her success inevitably ruffles feathers among her fellow travellers; some of whom have campaigned thanklessly for years on causes like animal welfare where Kedgley is seen as something of a Jenny-come-lately. But none begrudge her ability to get their causes on to the political agenda.

On the other side of the cattle stop, Kedgley's ability to reduce complex issues to bumper-sticker slogans can render grown men mute with frustration.

Ban toxic pesticides. Ban cruel layer cages. Ban inhumane sow crates.

The slogans are simple. The supporting arguments emotive and often unsubstantiated.

But try fashioning a publicly credible response in less than 100 words and you will understand the fury of executives who find themselves in the Kedgley firing line.

Twenty years ago I became a sideline pig farmer while doing a stint as the editor of the pork industry journal. At the time, there was a strong drive to get pig farmers to bring their sows indoors.

The industry, which had been built on by-product feeding - mainly whey and garbage - was the least productive in the developed world. Some pig farms were appalling eyesores and health risks.

The logic in favour of housing, in terms of animal welfare, human health and the control of vermin and disease, was overwhelming. In nature, pigs can be extremely aggressive, are prone to cannibalism and are a reservoir for several diseases which can (and still do) kill people.

There were also huge productivity benefits arising from taking pigs indoors.

When sows farrow (give birth) in crates, their piglets are less likely to be crushed to death by their mothers. By feeding sows in individual stalls, it is possible to ensure that all animals - not just the aggressive ones - get a decent feed.

But perhaps most importantly, the housing of sows enables farmers to easily monitor individual animals. Invariably this leads to farmers becoming better managers of their animals.

Personally, I never liked dry sow crates or, for that matter, layer cages. I wouldn't want to manage animals in that environment, either for the animals or for myself.

But then, neither would I dream of outlawing these systems in favour of the Pollyanna dream of free-range farming.

Why? Because there are more risks and costs associated with free-range pig and poultry production.

Just visit a free-range operation in July when it's been raining solidly for a couple of months and see for yourself. The farmers who make a success of these operations - and some do - are very skilled indeed.

Indeed, New Zealand has some highly skilled stockpeople who have the ability to reduce the reliance on crates and cages, if this is what the market wants. Yet these are the very individuals Kedgley alienates so carelessly.

If lobbyists and pork and poultry consumers genuinely want to improve animal welfare, then improved animal welfare is what they should be advocating. Not remedies which, if adopted, could have the opposite effect to that intended.

Any other approach is intellectually dishonest.

And just in case pig and poultry farmers are feeling smug having read this far, they shouldn't be.

For more than 30 years, consumers in northern Europe have become increasingly disquieted by factory farming systems. New Zealand attitudes to animal welfare and environmental issues, as all food marketers should know, have much in common with those in that part of the world.

Yet for most of those years the pork and poultry industries chose to ignore the smoke on the horizon.

Back in the early 1980s, the pig industry rejected a proposal from a certain young journalist to establish an on-farm QA scheme to give credibility to its Trimpork brand. Only in the last five years has such a scheme been adopted and it still accounts for less than a third of total production.

The farmers who now feel aggrieved about Sue Kedgley and that pig crate should have double cause for being upset. They helped put her there.

Published in the New Zealand Herald, 14 August 2000

- Trevor Walton

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