A campaign has been launched to stop plans by Midland Pig Producers (MPP) to build a gigantic pig farm at Foston in Derbyshire. Covering 28 hectares of land, the mega factory farm will house 2,500 sows and 20,000 piglets in vast indoor sheds. An estimated 1,000 pigs a week will be sent to slaughter.
Opposition is being spearheaded by a coalition of organic farmers, the Environment Agency, Soil Association, animal welfare advocates and local residents.
The planning application, currently before Derbyshire County Council, has prompted big worries about the impact of such a vast industrial-scale farming project on human health, animal welfare, the environment and the local community.
Protests against Foston pig farm have won the backing of Dominic West, star of television police drama The Wire. He visited the site of the proposed farm and criticised the plans:
"The Foston proposal signals a fundamental shift in British farming towards the US and EU system of giant, corporate-owned factories confining thousands of pigs in buildings and feeding them antibiotics to keep them alive," said West.
"Treating pigs as industrial production units on such an intensive level is not only shameful but also unsustainable. It is the antithesis of what people want the British countryside and farming to be and it poses a potential threat to human health and the environment, as outlined in the Soil Association's and Environment Agency's objections," he added.
Peter Melchett, the Soil Association policy director, is another prominent critic:
"The Soil Association is against the introduction of mega farms into the UK and our objections are largely based on health: the risks to pig health and indeed human health. There are real concerns that unless antibiotics are used more sparingly we'll find a range of human diseases that we just can't treat. We'll go back to a period - which none of us are old enough to remember - when all sorts of common diseases were lethal, and that'll be true for animals as well as people," he warned.
MPP claims that its plans, which have provoked thousands of objections, are 'eco-friendly'. It promises to capture the methane produced by the pigs and use it to create green energy. There will be, MPP insists, no pig farm stench and the slurry will be disposed of in environmentally safe ways.
Even if these claims are true, which many critics dispute, there are still major concerns about the unnatural and cruel industrial conditions in which the pigs will be housed.
Pigs are intelligent, social animals, argues PETA. At the Foston factory, sows will be treated as mere breeding machines. They'll be impregnated again and again in an endless cycle until they are unfit to continue and then slaughtered.
When the sows give birth, they'll be confined with their litters to tiny farrowing units. They won't be able to nurse naturally. The piglets will be separated too soon from their mothers and penned in filthy crowded units that prevent their spontaneous, natural exploring, rooting and playing.
In this constrained, oppressive environment, pigs often display neurotic behaviours, such as chewing the air, bobbing their heads, rolling their tongues and trying to root around on the concrete flooring as if they were outdoors in a field. Some pigs are driven to cannibalism and tail-biting.
This is no way to treat intelligent social animals. PETA points out that pigs don't just mindlessly oink and squeal; having more than 20 different vocalisations to communicate with one another in different situations. "Pigs," according to Professor Donald Broom of Cambridge University Veterinary School, "have the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly three-year-olds."
According to MPP's own briefing, the largely automated, industrial pig factory is expected to hire as few as 20 staff to manage many thousands of animals - not nearly enough to monitor and safeguard the pigs' health and well-being.
How can we claim to be civilised when we abuse animals as industrial production units, and then kill them in degrading ways - all for the sake of our taste buds?
Human rights and animal rights are two aspects of the same struggle against suffering and injustice. Cruelty is barbarism, whether it is inflicted on humans or on other species. The campaigns for animal rights and human rights share the same fundamental aim: a world without suffering, based on compassion and care. The abuse of animals in farming, sport, circuses, zoos, the fashion industry and medical experiments is a blot on humanity.
Foston pig farm? Just say no!
Follow Peter Tatchell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/petertatchell