On 23 February 2015, some five years after it began, the epic saga of Foston Pig Farm commenced its final act.
Nose firmly wrinkled, the Environment Agency refused Midland Pig Producers a permit for the pig farm it wanted to build, saying it couldn’t see how it could happen “without resulting in significant pollution of the environment due to odour, which will result in offence to human senses”.
After spending so long waiting, and even longer drawing up the plans to begin with, MPP wasn’t about to just give up. “This is not the end of the matter, but the beginning of the second stage,” said a defiant spokeswoman.
The second stage lasted a relatively swift 23 days. On 18 March 2015, MPP scrapped its application and retreated, vowing to “consider the options available” and calling for a “fundamental overhaul” of the planning system to prevent such a “long-winded situation from occurring again”.
The plans the EA pored over for so long concerned 30 acres of greenfield in a village called Foston, some 30 miles north of Birmingham. MPP planned to house 25,000 pigs there, plus an anaerobic digestion plant and a biogas combustion facility for manure and slurry. The press swiftly dubbed it the ‘Mega Pig Farm’.
“It’s not mega,” bristles MPP CEO James Leavesley. “It’s large. In the States, ‘mega’ means 50,000 sows. We are talking about 2,500 sows, so we are a fraction of the size. There are pig farms in Italy that have 15,000 sows, and in England there is one farm with 4,000 sows and one of 3,500 sows that have grown organically by adding another 500 sows here and there. We were going for 2,500 in one go and it caused such a problem.”
“It’s been a long slog but it looks like the threat has finally been lifted from our community. Families that have felt the stress of this application can sleep a little easier tonight”
For Leavesley it’s a “great shame” for the British pork industry, both as a way to “compete with imported meat” and also to “future proof” UK pig farming.
“You can’t go back to tight 1960s and 1970s buildings,” he says. “You’ve got to use clean fields and new buildings with no build-up of historic bugs which are easy to clean. The old breeze block buildings have anything and everything in them because they are porous. So would it be good for the industry? Yes, because UK consumers are worried about antibiotics in meat and we would have used fewer antibiotics, if at all.”
He also highlights the sustainable credentials of the planned farm. “We would flush our building every day and use the muck to produce electricity. This way we weren’t wholly reliant on feed prices or the supermarkets’ whims of how much they would pay for pork. So the volatility of pig farming would be reduced.”
The new factory would have processed “around 1,000” pigs a week. “MPP is currently doing 1,200 a week, so one farm producing 1,000 seems like a large increase in percentage terms,” says Leavesley. “But in the process we would have closed a lot of smaller inefficient farms, which would be perfect for redevelopment into housing. And the UK needs housing. So we could have cashed in and reinvested in British agriculture.”
All solid, positive, reasons. However, not everyone saw MPP’s proposals in quite the same light.
Animal rights organisations opposed the factory. Viva! dubbed it a “pig prison” because the pigs would never venture outside. Peta went further and described it as a “Guantanamo Bay” for pigs, and slammed MPP’s proposals as “detrimental to the environment, causing unpleasant odours, noise, increased traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s been linked to human health problems, including antibiotic resistance.
“Finally, it’s highly offensive to anyone who recognises animals deserve respect and compassion. The level of cruelty represented by this facility is shocking enough. But it has a wider significance: if the application goes ahead, it could usher in a new wave of massive, US-style factory farms.”
Leavesley is pragmatic in his response. “If you don’t eat meat, I’m sorry, but I’m never going to be able to convince you. If you do eat meat, and accept your fellow human beings will too, I will convince you by showing you what we are doing and why.
“We spent 10 years designing this farm. We went around the world to see what works, and more importantly what doesn’t, and amalgamated the best practice. I want to make sure, when you raise an animal for human consumption, the life they do have is commercially acceptable but welfare friendly.
“Mega? It’s not mega. It’s large. In the States, mega means 50,000 sows. We were going for 2,500 and it caused such a problem. Which was a great shame”
“If you have a grumpy pig in a pen with others, they will fight and kill the weakest, so we have to make the animals as content as possible. They have to be able to forage, they have to have quality food, and they have to live in a consistent temperature. I’m not knocking outdoor pig farming, but we provide the pigs with a consistent temperature 365 days of the year.”
Compassion in World Farming has taken a long-running stand against poor welfare on pig farms and Leavesley admits MPP is not meeting “all CWF requirements”. However, he also claims CWF CEO Philip Lymbery told him the group would adopt a neutral stance over MPP’s plans for Foston (despite the fact it objected to plans for a mega dairy farm in Nocton). “They didn’t support it, but they were prepared not to object because of the leaps forward we are making on animal welfare,” says Leavesley.
A spokeswoman for CWF says that is an accurate summary. He adds that although CWF had concerns over the scale and the indoor nature of the farm, “we could see a genuine attempt to improve the welfare of pigs in a large-scale intensive unit.”
A string of welfare accolades appears to back this up. In January 2013 MPP was awarded a Good Sow Commendation from CWF. In December 2013 it won the Food & Farming Industry Enterprise and Innovation award for ‘advancing welfare standards and enhancing pig production techniques’. And in May 2014 MPP MD Martin Barker was appointed as an advisor to the government on animal welfare.
A long slog
However, MPP also had opponents more concerned about their own environment than the pigs. The nearest residential homes are within 100m of the proposed site and the village as a whole continuously demonstrated against the farm, using Facebook as a central hub to coordinate their efforts from when planning application CW9/0311/174 was lodged with Derbyshire County Council on 8 March 2011 (replacing MPP’s original application, 9/2010/0311, filed in March 2010.)
“It’s been a long slog but it looks like the threat has been lifted from our community,” reads the celebratory final post on 18 March. “Families that have felt the stress this application has caused can sleep a little easier tonight.”
The Ministry of Justice also objected to the farm, because HM Prison Foston Hall, which houses about 300 inmates and staff, sits within 250m of the proposed site. The Soil Association, which backs natural farming methods, has also been a long-term opponent. All of them contributed to the final decision by the EA, which devotes over 4,000 words in its 55-page final decision document to the issue of unwanted odour and its detrimental effect on nearby residents.
“They say ‘we don’t believe the filters can provide odour reduction’,” says Leavesley. “Well, we have proved they do by putting filters at our Wheaton Aston farm and showing it works by independent measures. We aren’t just making it up. They have been used on pig buildings in Denmark and Germany for the last six years and what comes out isn’t offensive. And the EA took four years to make this decision. It’s disgraceful.”
Leavesley also reserves particular ire for the Soil Association. “We had private meetings with the SA’s policy director Lord Peter Melchett. I am not allowed to tell you the outcome, because we agreed it was Chatham House rules, but I am astounded by the approach of the SA. I really am. I believe they were only objecting because their membership numbers and income are reducing and we represented a lovely football to kick very hard.”
The suggestion the SA only got involved to justify its existence is laughed off by Melchett as “nonsense”. He says initially the SA put in a “short objection based on evidence of risk to human health” for people living near the proposed site. This was met by a letter from solicitors Carter-Ruck “ordering the SA to withdraw our evidence, but we knew it was based on solid scientific papers. We put as much effort into the objections as we did because they got lawyers to say we weren’t telling the truth when we were. If you’re an NGO with a reputation for speaking the truth and being guided by science, and someone gets Carter-Ruck to say ‘withdraw your evidence because it’s all wrong or else’, of course we reacted by reinforcing the science. And the science has grown stronger every year.”
In particular, evidence of antibiotic resistance from animals in human beings was “more or less non-existent in the UK when they applied,” adds Melchett, “but now several instances have been found. And in Europe, where they have looked harder, it’s mounted every year. In Holland they don’t allow you to build that close to where people live. It’s considered too dangerous. And it ended up adding to the weight of evidence put in front of the planners, and influencing the EA and the MoJ.”
Yet as important as the scientific evidence is, Melchett says the SA’s main objection was founded on the “future direction of British farming. We felt if it were to go ahead it might set British animal farming in completely the wrong direction. To meet public expectations, and for the good of the agricultural industry and animal welfare, we need to go smaller. At the very least, pigs should be able to spend part of their time outdoors. They should also be able to root on the ground. And sows make nests to give birth. They carry straw around for days before giving birth, much like a bird does. That’s denied in all indoor systems. These pigs were going to be on concrete or metal floor their whole lives. Is that where we want British farming to be in 20 or 30 years? I hope the general direction is higher quality and higher standards, and that means more outdoor-reared and outdoor-finished pigs. And we certainly shouldn’t be turning backwards with pigs locked in huge units for 20 or 30 years into the future.”
But what of the benefits a production facility of this scale might bring, particularly a reduced reliance on pork imports? The UK already imports 60% of all pork it consumes, and MPP argues that modern farms like the one it proposed in Foston would reduce that figure.
“Well, either that or it would displace current UK production,” argues Melchett. “It was the same argument used for the Nocton Dairy, which also failed: that this was terribly important to UK production, when actually the likely impact would be to knock more medium or small factory-based dairy farms.”
CWF also “urged” MPP to consider a number of smaller farms, instead of one large one, to reduce the impact on “the livelihoods” of smaller producers.
Melchett also gives short shrift to the suggestion the EA dithered over its decision. “The length of time the EA took shows the planning system working well by listening to a wide range of opinions. And it took the scientific evidence into account, which is why this application failed. The MoJ didn’t object because they want pigs outdoors and the EA has no view about how pigs should be farmed. What MPP doesn’t want people to say is this was a great victory for a long-running determined local campaign by local people.”
Gone for good?
However, not unlike a pig, there could be a twist in the tail. MPP has withdrawn its application but an EA spokesman confirms it has six months to appeal the EA’s decision. And when it comes to his next move, Leavesley says he is “waiting to see what the political spectrum is after the election on 7 May” before announcing what that might be.
More ominously for his opponents of large-scale farming, he says the “design of farm we have created will reappear somewhere, absolutely. Otherwise, you may as well say, let’s import all our meat. And because consumers are demanding animal welfare, and demanding British meat. So it’s not going to be scrapped in any way, shape, or form.”
But it won’t be back in Foston, right? “I don’t know,” he replies, after a pause. “I’m going to wait and see what happens.”
And so the saga continues…