School farm visits are growing apace. They are hailed for putting children in touch with the countryside and helping them understand the origin of their food. Obviously suitable types of farms vary with age. Cuddly, baby animals seem appropriate for very young children. And farms run in a traditional manner are good for familiarising children with farm animals and demonstrating that milk comes from cows not cartons, and meat from animals not packets.
But the unpalatable truth is that the overwhelming majority of the animals used for food are reared intensively, that is, on an industrial scale, on farms that are of an entirely different type than those that belong to farmers who welcome school children.
All over the countryside are vast sheds. The silos beside them are a sign that inside there are animals crammed together, utterly remote from the countryside that the children are learning about. These animals are kept in their thousands: poultry (chickens, ducks, turkeys and quail); pigs, lambs, rabbits, cattle and calves bred for meat; pheasants and partridge reared for sport; goats, sheep and cows reared for milk; and hens, geese, ducks and quail for their eggs.
However if schools - or teachers, parents or pupils - were to apply to visit these types of farms it is likely that their request would be refused for a raft of reasons, not least health and safety and bio-security (this latter - protection against disease - being of paramount importance when animals are kept so densely and in such unnatural surroundings).
But on the internet there is no shortage of information about how intensive animal production works. Cross referencing can leave no doubt that farms run on a traditional basis work in a completely different way from the farms that are closed to visitors.
Traditional farmers have relationships with their animals and treat them as individuals. Their animals are free to roam in fields; farm crops are used to feed the animals; and their dung fertilises the ground. This is the old fashioned method and it follows a natural cycle in which the rhythm of farming life keeps in step with the seasons.
The difference for animals reared on an industrial scale could hardly be more marked. These systems are, by design, unnatural; their inputs imported and chemical and the animals treated as mere agricultural products rather than sentient beings. So profoundly unhealthy is their environment that to ensure they stay alive until their slaughter date they have to be routinely fed with antibiotics and sprayed with pesticides. Profit is all for the vast agri-corporations that run them. They have no regard for ecosystems, nor local livelihoods, nor animal welfare,
Yet, like the children that are being enlightened and the adults that teach them, surely these animals would prefer to have space to do their own thing: scratch in the ground if they are hens; turn over the earth with their snouts if they are pigs; keep their calves by their sides if they are dairy cows? And just as surely would they not prefer to be free from anxiety, pain and fear?
Never could a subject be more amenable to 'Compare and contrast'. Take for instance animal welfare. On traditional farms animals live in an environment that suits their needs, are fed a natural diet and treated if they fall sick. On so-called factory farms animals are fed alien fast-fattening diets and have no space to exercise. They live out their brief lives in abject misery, diseased, crippled and as far removed from a natural existence as can possibly be imagined. In their stress they turn on each other - called cannibalism by the industry. To prevent injuries they are (depending on their species) de-beaked, de-horned, castrated, tail docked or have their teeth filed. The worlds of factory farmed animals and the those reared on the farms that welcome visits from school children could not be further apart.
These children would not treat their pets the way animals in intensive conditions are treated - nor would the law allow it. So is it - they should be asked - right to rear animals in factory farms, in conditions that are so utterly unnatural?
Unless the children on these visits are encouraged to think how farm animals might feel in conditions so unsuitable to their needs, has not their lesson been incomplete?