The language of farming

The Sunday farming programme on Radio 4 was depressing listening. It was about pig farmers who have been forced to give up pigs. Piggy welfare has been pushed high in Britain, and this in turn has pushed up the price of bacon. The supermarkets, wanting to sell cheap meat, have therefore brought home their bacon from abroad – Denmark, for example, where pigs don’t have nearly such a good time.

Our attitude to meat is appalling: we demand cheap meat so that we can enjoy it every day, for some, three times a day. We see meat as a right and a staple and not the luxury that it is. But our desire for cheap meat is only one symptom of our myopic and fantastic view of farming as a whole.

The word ‘farm’ and actually refers to the tract of land farmed or rented out, rather than the agricultural activity of the farmer. In keeping with this tradition, the words we use to describe agricultural activity now are nothing to do with agriculture. We describe farming as an ‘industry’, and farmers’ end results as ‘products’, whether they’re animal or vegetable. Sunday’s pig farmers called their pigs ‘products’.

Animals are not products manufactured on some vast industrial conveyor belt: they are sentient and intelligent beings. But by referring to them as products, we can absolve any squeamishness about their lives and deaths. This is similar to totalitarian dictators dehumanising the racial or social groups they wanted to exterminate. We can allow pigs to be brought up in horrid, un-piggy environments (their intelligence, by the way, is akin to dogs’); we can allow chickens to be caged and never see the light of day; we can allow unnecessary and terrifying transport to central abbatoirs or shipping abroad live animals – all by calling these animals ‘products’.

Similarly, we can allow the ripping up of small field systems, the planting of acres of mono-crops, the disastrous tampering with GM, the spraying of plants with various sorts of nasties, all by calling agriculture an ‘industry.’ The principle of an industry is to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible. Whilst this may work in a factory, which is a man-made environment, it does not in the nature-made environment of a field.

It’s time that we changed our attitude to agriculture: to do that, we must change our language.


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