Come Swine with Us – oh by the way somebody’s left a great big blue cock behind in Trafalgar Square

Note: this post isn’t really one for vegans. Or for fans of fried chicken street food that seems to be taking over the place at the moment, either…

 I say, chaps, here's a rum thing if ever I've seen one
here’s a rum thing if ever I’ve seen one

Ever since I first heard about it, I wanted to go see BoJo’s great big blue cock in Trafalgar Square, and his sponsored ‘Come Swine With Us’ event seemed to be a way of combining that with a free lunch. As an engineer, it really doesn’t matter if I have zero artistic taste, and I do have a penchant for the odd and quirky in public spaces at times. And this is quirky.

It was also a day to go get a free lunch, in the interest of railing against the the daft 2004 EU regulations that prohibit the feeding of swill to pigs.

The whole point of a pig is to recycle waste – as Simon Fairlie puts it in Meat: a Benign Extravagance

8000 years ago, when herds of wild swine were attracted to the settlements of early agriculturalists, an interspecies bargain was negotiated.
‘You give us your waste food and a bit of that extra juicy grass seed you have, and well keep your camp clean and let you eat our surplus offspring, of which we have many’

The trouble is that the pig industry is concentrating. Midland Pig Producers are going to keep 25,000 pigs in a roughly 20-acre site, 100 metres away from existing dwellings near Foston. Apparently it won’t smell. Really. Trust them on that. They can control 97% of the smell. From 25,000 pigs. That’s great, so it will just smell like 750 pigs then – and that’s assuming the sense of smell is linear. If it is logarithmic, like many other senses, then the difference will be less. Now I wouldn’t have an objection to living 100m away from the smell of 50 pigs kept in the open, but the leakage is equivalent to 750 packed all together in an industrial unit? 100m away from some poor sod’s house? And this is good in what way?

I can honestly say that standing from the camera point I can't smell the shit from these guys - but they are moved regularly and it isn't concentrated like a CAFO - the shit is broken down in the soil as is Nature's way
I can honestly say that standing from the camera point I can’t smell the shit from these guys – but they are moved regularly and it isn’t concentrated like a CAFO – the shit is broken down in the soil as is Nature’s way

The industrialising pig industry hasn’t any great use for swill – it’s can’t use it because it’s not homogeneous enough on controllable enough to be used on a large scale, and doesn’t want to use it because they are paranoid about extra disease because a concentrated animal feedlot has no spatial diversity against disease – take one hog down with something serious and you take the lot out, it goes with the ‘concentrated’ part of the territory. This also leads to the regular abuse of antibiotics to manage low levels of disease. You get to eat that in the industrialised pork, and we spike some of the most powerful guns in the medical armoury, all in the name of about 10% off our chow. So do try not get sick in a way that needs serious antibiotics, m’kay…

With those 2004 EU regs that ancient pact ‘twixt Man and Pig is broken, and we feed our pigs on soya imported from South America rather that the waste from the Great Wen’s restaurants, which presumably we get to landfill rather than turn into pork. To give him his due, BoJo groused about this in 2004 and has supported The Pig Idea to try and get some of this rolled back.

It’s a theme that comes all too often when industrial processing meets Life, and the result is never pretty, though it does reduce non-external costs. Automation, standardisation and conveyor belts are a fantastic way to speed up, cost-reduce and produce things that are the product of human ingenuity, from cars to iPods[ref]yes, there’s still a need to control externalities and pollution, it’s not a panacea, but it’s served us reasonably well[/ref]. Industrialisation and automation leads to unspeakable cruelty and shocking levels of pollution when if comes to things involving Life. In the case of vegetable farming there is the pollution in terms of nitrates but no cruelty. In the case of meat farming industrialisation has brought down costs, without a doubt, but the cruelty is ghastly, and the pollution is none too pretty either. In the States they can get away with this because the country is huge and has large regions that are thinly settled, so concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) can get far enough away from people to not stink them out, but 80% of antibiotics in the US are consumed by animals and the US government arm the EPA seems to indicate there are a fair number of issues.

First they came for the chickens…

In 1971 chicken cost 40p/kg[ref]ONS[/ref] so a typical 1.5kg bird would have set you back 60p. According to the Bank of England inflation averaged 6.2% p.a. over the intervening four decades so that chicken would have cost you the equivalent of £7.20 in today’s money. Tesco will sell you a chicken for £2, so industrial agriculture works in bringing down the price – and chicken welfare wasn’t unimpeachable in the 1970s though egg production seemed to hold the greatest excesses. A Tesco free-range chicken is to be had for £8.25, roughly tracking that 1971 price[ref]that ’71 bird was probably not free range, though the excesses of meat chicken rearing seemed to take off in he 1980s.[/ref]

Can’t argue with the improved financial case, though cheap chicken is pretty bland – it’s raised quickly and it takes time and input food variety to build flavour.You local independent dirty chicken shop selling fried chicken has an answer to that blandness – lots of hot spices, batter to pad it out and shedloads of fat, sugar and salt. To be honest they could probably substitute TVP or Quorn for the chicken and their customer would be none the wiser because most of the flavour is not in the meat.

Every time someone buys pretty much any kind of fast food chicken, or a £2 Tesco chicken, they also buy into this.

Which is a shame – we are much richer now than in the 1970s, and perhaps we don’t need to be so beastly to our farm animals. Humans are carnivores and top predators, which is why we have our eyes facing forwards rather than outwards like a bunny rabbit or a cow[ref]herbivores tend to be prey, so they need all-round vision to damn well watch out for the carnivores who are looking to eat their flesh. Carnivores tend to need binocular vision and focus so they can track their prey. Which is why your eyes, and those of your dog or cat are in the front of your head whereas a rabbit’s eyes are either side, all the better to spot the incoming fox[/ref], we have omnivorous dentition and a taste for flesh, though we aren’t obligate carnivores like cats. However, top predators don’t usually torture their prey for most of a lifetime before eating it, so I think humans can claim a first on that, inventive blighters that we are. I can’t help feeling that we ought to be able to do better, particularly in the First World. The RSPCA will go nuts if you mistreat a dog, but set up a company to be incorrigibly mean to chickens, or pigs, and, well, have at it, guys. You’ll probably get a government grant to do it.

The standard riposte is the the poor have the right to eat chicken too and indeed they do, Tesco will be their friend, or any of the zillions of dirty chicken shops that litter the streets of UK towns that caused the Grauniad to weep into their beer. In times of dearer chicken previous generations addressed this by eating meat once a week rather than every day, and also having more awareness of what to do with vegetables. The standard of professional and foodie cooking in Britain is immeasurably better than in the 1970s[ref]for readers too young to have had the pleasure, British cooking was dire – we boiled the shit out of our vegetables for half an hour and stewed meat. If veg held together after cooking it hadn’t been cooked long enough.[/ref], but the awareness of what to do with food by people who just want to eat and don’t take any interest in preparation is a lot lower now than it used to be[ref]I can’t be bothered to cite any particular part of the research for this because this rant would shift from the pigs to the people. Google uk skills cooking public and read some of the stuff that comes back, preferably after pouring a stiff drink and sitting down far away from anything sharp. If you can’t see what the problem is then you are part of it. Our government has to tell people via the NHS that they should sit down with their kids for at least some meals, turn the bloody TV off, and there are courses to teach adults how to cook. Were these parents themselves raised by wolves, FFS?[/ref], because fast food and ready meals are much more affordable and taste better than they used to. However, there are costs – and these are borne in the high levels of fat, hidden sugar and salt in ready meals. And the chickens get the rough end of the deal too.

now they’re coming for the pigs…

And now industrial farming wants to do this with pigs in the UK… The foot and mouth debacle of 2001 seems to have been a turning point, and large-scale farming seems to have been drawn to the concentrated animal feeding operation. This dominates US practice, though we should bear in mind that the US has a lot more land per person than the UK. You can see what one of these operations look like here – from there you can zoom in and see the individual cows. So we have battle lines drawn between the industrial pig industry, who don’t want anybody feeding swill or waste food[ref]Note that it was never mandatory to feed swill to pigs, so they had and will still have the right to carry on feeding imported grain – but presumably some people will ask awkward questions.[/ref], and 10,000 years of pig/human waste management. Plus some celebrity chefs and Boris Johnson. Obviously the Great Wen has got a serious food waste problem. Eight million souls, a shitload of chi-chi restaurants and nary a green space to offload their trash, it ain’t good at all. They’re even having to upgrade the sewerage system to cope with the stuff that’s passed through the humans because they toss 39 million tons of raw logs out into the Thames every year, which is clearly not an ideal situation. Up until recently that historic pig/human pact still held good for commercial food waste – they used to boil up some of the waste in industrial units and feed it to pigs. Then after the foot and mouth epidemic the EU decided that nobody is going to feed swill to pigs in Europe and they iced ten millenia of co-operation between pig and man. And the pig industry saw a chance to industrialise, as well as importing grain from halfway round the world, which cost more, again pushing the the high volume/low welfare agenda.

Some of London’s restaurateurs and foodie glitterati decided to push back on the swill ban and so The Pig Idea was born. They held a shindig in Trafalgar Square on Thursday involving free food, and let me tell you that’s a marvellous thing in Central London. Non-Londoners need to understand something about London restaurants in the centre of town – basically if you need to read the prices on the menu you can’t afford it.

Thomasina Meiers and Sara Cox at The Pig Idea
Thomasina Miers and Sara Cox at The Pig Idea

The Pig Idea is fronted by the fragrant Thomasina Meiers[ref]I vaguely recall having a crush on her in some foraging TV programme from years and years back, think it was wild gourmets[/ref]

Tristram Stuart, Thomasina Miers and Sara Cox cooking up some pork
Tristram Stuart, Thomasina Miers and Sara Cox cooking up some pork

Tristram Stuart sort of sums it all up at the start (~1min)


Thomasina, bless her, comes over all Sloane Ranger with this little quip which bombed with the audience, you could see why. Although there were a fair number of London’s young and beautiful there they all seemed to PR interns – even your mustelid scrivener was asked if he was a member of the press, as I was tooled up with a SLR camera and an audio recorder.


Earth to Thomasina – you may well not need to work, and indeed the one over there with brilliant white fur is also of independent though far less means, but it’s not a common condition in modern Britain, though it may well be in your social circle. We didn’t all go to Mexico on our Gap Yah to come back and found Wahaca. Even seasoned standup comics tremble to extract the yellow stuff from the audience, so don’t rush in there like that 😉

However, despite the foot-in-mouth bit the day went well and the free lunch was indeed mighty fine.

Grub's up!
Grub’s up!
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doing his stuff - with trotters?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doing his stuff – with trotters?

Now to be honest I think this battle is already lost, and it’s a strange sort of thing to be in the same camp as a bunch of folks with upper-class accents. It’s notable that celebrity chefs do seem to live on a separate planet from most people in Britain. I might be a heartless bastard but Jamie Oliver needed to make his point about about the f*ing great big TV in a different way – he has a point that the poor sometimes don’t choose the cheapest way to eat and drink but that is a separate issue from the TV. Then we have Thomasina of the tin ear telling us all that we’re layabouts and doesn’t anybody have jobs these days, well, maybe we believed you when you said it was important to make a stand and took some time out to support you in return for a free lunch 😉

I’m not so hung up on the swill issue though I can see that returning to our millenia old tradition would be good from a waste management point of view in our capital city. But what I really don’t want to see is US-style industrial CAFOs in Britain. Yes, we are going to send our pigs to slaughter and eat them. The only time I hear a pig squeal is when it takes a zap from the electric fence that stops them breaking out, and they are smart enough to learn, it’s a very rare occurrence. Obviously it’s going to happen again at the end – I’ve seen what happens in a slaughterhouse too. Whereas if you take a look at The Pig Business movie, squealing seems to go on all the time in Smithfield’s ghastly operations, and a squealing pig is not a usually a happy pig – squealing seems to be an alarm call. Pigs grunt to communicate with each other – when one of the herd thinks grub’s up, there is a characteristic sound to the low grunt which seems to mean ‘oi, food’s up’. They then charge over to whoever is dishing out the food and then get their heads stuck in, again grunting to each other.

We don’t need to cut off their tails, or inject them with antibiotics either. They serve us well, they clear our waste veg and trimmings, and they turn over the ground without having to put diesel in something – they just get on with it.

pigs, after feeding. They grunt, not squeal
pigs, feeding. They still grunt, not squeal, unlike at Smithfield’s CAFOs in The Pig Business

So while I have sympathy with the view that the poor don’t need to be spending any more of their money on chicken, I am still not sure that the protracted animal cruelty that we prohibit outside farming is a price worth paying without some sort of debate about our inconsistency on animal welfare. I don’t know what the right answer is. Ultimately resolving this sort of issue is a political decision, but I still don’t understand why the RSPCA can prosecute people for keeping their dogs in squalour but not an industrial chicken or pig unit keeping farm animals in squalour.

Oh yes, just to save all of us the trouble I don’t deal with militant vegans. I respect the right of any entity to decide what goes into it’s mouth and require the same civility in return. If you’re of the view that meat is murder then you’re clearly can’t understand the difference between murder and killing[ref]Let’s start with Google, shall we[/ref] and I have no desire to debate the issue with you. Eating meat obviously involves killing things, and I’m easy with that. What I’d prefer not to do is mistreat the animal for a lifetime first, in ways British society has decided is unacceptable outside the farming system.

People queuing for a free lunch under the friendly gaze of a big blue cock
People queuing for a free lunch under the friendly gaze of a big blue cock
pork - pizza anyone?
pork – pizza anyone?

On a lighter note I was greatly taken with Boris’s art commission. That sort of strangeness is what an mayor should be all about, so the rest of this post is dedicated to his fantastic big blue cock. I’m also deeply grateful to Boris for finally putting public toilets at Trafalgar Square -and they’re free, unlike the chiseling barstewards at Leicester Square and Liverpool Street Station.

That cock is fantastic

the cock has a certain regal charm head-on, n'est ce pas
the cock has a certain regal charm head-on, n’est ce pas