Researcher Network member, Ekaterina Gladkova, from Northumbria University, discusses her current research into pig farming in Northern Ireland and how veganism opens a possibility of challenging predatory capitalism.
Northern Ireland is staring into the abyss of farming intensification. In 2017, it was reported that the country experienced a sharp increase in the number of intensive pig and poultry farms (those housing at least 40,000 poultry birds or 2,000 pigs grown for meat or 750 breeding pigs). The number of farms went up by 68% from 154 in 2011 to 259 in 2017. Environmental NGOs and local campaigners link this alarming trend to the adoption of the Going for Growth (GfG) strategy in 2013. The Going for Growth was an industry-led strategy that endeavoured to expand the agri-food sector and set out a vision of ‘growing a sustainable, profitable and integrated Agri-Food supply chain, focused on delivering the needs of the market’ by 2020.
My research takes the case study of pig farming intensification to analyse this alarming trend. The comparison of The Agricultural Census in Northern Ireland in 2000 and 2017 showcases the evolution in the pig sector concentration and intensification: in 2000, there were 808 pig farms with the total of 413,480 pigs while in 2017 the number of farms fell to 322 but the number of animals increased to 649,120. More worryingly, the 2017 census emphasised that ‘a small number of large, highly productive businesses, drive most of the change in the sector’. Since the adoption of the GfG in 2013, the total number of pigs went up dramatically from 480,317 in 2013 to 649,120 in 2017.
However, intensification has been called into question on the grounds of environmental sustainability. Notwithstanding physical ailment and psychological distress in animals, intensification of farming despoils the environment, as animal waste pollutes water and air, and degrades soils. Critical levels of ammonia from animal manure are already exceeded at 90% of the protected habitats in Northern Ireland, and the per capita average ammonia emissions for the country are over four times that of other UK nations, making a spike in ammonia emissions a very pressing problem. As nitrogen compounds from animal waste mix with air, they form solid particles that can stick in the lung tissue. It has been demonstrated that residents less than 2km from clustered intensive pig farming operations could be exposed to ammonia levels up to 40 times greater than average ammonia concentrations. Other public health consequences include water pollution from animal waste disposal, disease from animal waste, and social and mental health impacts of living in close proximity to livestock production areas.
During my research, I interviewed local communities living in close proximity to the existing farms and vigorously campaigning against the intensification of pig farming in the country. None of them identified as vegetarian or vegan, but the vast majority of them were in strongly favour of decreasing meat consumption and consuming local organic meat. Their argument is grounded in the distinct agricultural identity of Northern Ireland as a country and the need to support small local farmers jeopardised by the recent trend in intensification. Considering that transitioning to a vegetarian or a vegan diet is often seen as a way to address current pressing environmental and social challenges, the dilemma unfolds: should local campaigners adopt veganism or should they continue supporting small local organic farmers that practice more ethical and environmentally friendly ways of producing meat?
The argument in favour of small farming support is linked closely to one’s cultural identity – small farming has traditionally been the prevalent mode of farming in Northern Ireland, which has been reflected in the local landscapes. In his book Fields of Vision, Daniels claims that landscapes provide an insight into one’s identity, and the latter is closely associated with a geographical heritage. Smallholder farming is an indelible feature of the Northern Irish geographical heritage and thus, identity. By consuming local organic meat, the campaigners believe that they try to preserve this vision of Northern Irish geographical heritage, currently threatened by the farming intensification. They argue that consuming local organic meat also supports the integrity of the local food community and strengthens the local economy, where consumers have more potential control over how the meat is made and who is making it. Another argument in favour of the local meat production is in line with Fairlie’s thesis developed in Meat: A Benign Extravagance and finds resonance with George Monbiot. Fairlie claims that livestock has an important role to play in a balanced permaculture system and a certain amount of animal produce is essential for a healthy agricultural economy. Keeping livestock is the best means for capturing the nutrients that find their way onto land that is not being cultivated, and particularly for recuperating phosphates. Moreover, livestock provides biodiversity and harnesses biomass that would have been otherwise inaccessible.
On the other hand, meat consumption results in a higher dietary greenhouse gas emissions – meat eaters score twice as high as vegans with 7.19 kg of CO2 emissions per day for high meat eaters (those consuming more than 100g of meat per day) and 2.89 kg of CO2 emissions per day for vegans. 83% of those greenhouse gas emissions originate in the food production phase. Moreover, ethical veganism provides an opportunity to balance the relationship between non-human and human animals, and challenge the ingrained domination of humans over other species. The exploitation inherent in the processes of animal farming is synonymous with the exploitation inherent in the capitalist economic model. Veganism, therefore, opens a possibility of challenging predatory capitalism.
The dilemma has no solution – arguments articulated by both sides are valid and deserve some attention. Yet, vegans and proponents of local organic farming agree on one thing – current energy- and waste-intensive, highly concentrated, industrialised model of meat production needs to be urgently tackled, both for the sake of the planet and the future of humanity.
The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.