Heaving with heavy goods, the A67 from Eindhoven barrels through the flat, featureless fields of the southeastern Netherlands on its way to the German border. On a frozen December morning, nothing very much moves beyond the road’s edge; a horse stamps at a trough, a tractor pushes along a narrow track. Every kilometer, behind a stand of poplars, a neat brick farmhouse — raked gravel drive, lace curtains at the windows — slides into view. Next to it is a large, windowless and vaguely ominous shed, the size, perhaps, of a small aircraft hangar.
It will hold, almost certainly, several hundred pigs. In a country famed for the unnatural feats of its intensive farming sector (the Netherlands occupies less than one-thousandth of the world’s surface, but is its third largest exporter of agricultural produce), this area, known as De Peel, is more densely populated with pigs than anywhere else on the planet.
Some of the sheds are multistory; they’re called pig-flats. There’s a fair chance — especially if you’re partial to bacon — that you’ve eaten meat from one of them. A good proportion of the 20 million pigs born, fattened, sent abroad or slaughtered each year in the Netherlands come from here, and the Netherlands has become the biggest single supplier of the UK’s morning rasher.
Hans Baij of the animal welfare group Varkens in Nood, or Pigs in Distress, had told me the day before in his office in Amsterdam: “This is advanced industrial pig farming. There’s nothing natural about this whatsoever. It’s about science, sperm selection, antibiotics, piglets per sow, grams per day, muscle-to-fat ratios. It’s what this country does. Welfare doesn’t come into it.”
Picture, for a moment, a pig. Engaging, maybe. Large, pink, ungainly, certainly — though that’s not how they always were; the original pig was compact and capable of speeds up to 64kph. That strong, muscular snout was designed for rooting around in soil and undergrowth; a sense of smell acute enough to snuffle out buried truffles was plainly intended for forensic foraging.
In many languages, pigs are a byword for anything gross, unpleasant, unhygienic. They’re actually very clean; they hate a dirty bed and will select a latrine area and use it. They are the most curious and intelligent farmyard animals. A professor from Pennsylvania State University has demonstrated that pigs learn problem-solving games faster than dogs and as quickly as chimps and will remember the lessons for three years or more.
Author George Orwell, of course, knew that. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill, a serious pig fancier, saw it too.
“I like pigs,” he said. “Dogs look up to you; cats look down on you; pigs treat you as equal.”
A shame, then, that we treat pigs the way we do. Britons for instance ate 1.6 million tonnes of pork in 2007. They’re so fond of the meat that they now import more than 60 percent of what they eat, including 40 percent of all fresh and frozen pork and an astonishing 80 percent of all bacon. In fact, their pig meat imports — mainly from Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany — have been soaring for nearly a decade. The Netherlands, and those sheds, account for almost half of UK bacon imports. Demand for UK pork, meanwhile, has slumped 36 percent.
There is one very good reason for this, say British farmers. It is that in 1999, the UK introduced standards on pig welfare — regarding the space in which they are reared — that have yet to come into force across the rest of the EU. They have made UK pork a great deal more expensive.