As we walked quietly through the trees, the water ahead looked like a manmade fishing lake, or maybe a small reservoir. We were in a strip of forest, along a single-track road, making our way towards a huge industrial farm. It was overcast and the high trees made the day even more gloomy.
We had been hired to investigate conditions on farms supplying UK supermarkets for a TV programme and not-for-profit campaign, and that was how we found ourselves at this giant pig farm in Poland. The arrival of foreign meat companies in the country was proving controversial. Local people were worried about the environmental consequences – as well as impacts on smaller-scale farmers – of having a multinational meat firm pitch up on their doorstep.
We had arrived the day before, sleeping very little before driving for hours into the countryside. I was twitchy, a little nervous, head aching from a night on a lumpy, unfamiliar mattress. We knew the farm was around here somewhere, but weren’t sure which direction to take. And then ahead of us, through the trees, we spotted the lake. At the same time the smell reached us: an appalling stench, one of the worst smells I have ever encountered in my life.
This was no lake. It was an open cesspit, a vast lagoon full of waste from the pig farm. Floating beneath the surface were the bodies of pigs in various stages of decomposition. Through the filth we could see snouts and curly tails.
Everywhere was the detritus of factory farming – plastic syringe casings, needles and white clinical gloves – floating in the rancid pool and discarded on adjacent farmland. It was the first time I’d ever stepped on to a factory farm. It was a moment I would never be able to forget.
I grew up mainly in towns and cities. My experience of farming was limited to those compulsory-but-dull school or Scouts visits to the local dairy, or the livestock you might come across during family days out in the countryside.
In the early 1990s, I remember seeing television reports about the BSE scandal and hearing talk about the perils of eating beef. But I was a teenager. I had more important things to worry about. But in 2001, the foot and mouth disaster unfolded across the UK, with its burning cattle pyres and “no entry” signs erected across the countryside. This time I paid attention. The whole episode – devastated farmers, a rural economy in tatters, millions of farm animals culled, political wrangling and endless debates about who or what was to blame – highlighted somehow that something had gone wrong with the way we were farming and producing food.
I went into journalism, working freelance for magazines and newspapers. In late 2003 I co-founded a media outfit – part production company, part detective agency – to carry out investigations into environmental and human rights issues, as well as animal welfare. We wanted to use the tactics of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), who’d pioneered using dummy companies, hidden cameras and undercover agents to expose the ivory trade and illegal logging, to work as journalists and also for not-for-profit groups. Business was brisk. Demand for our work was high, and in 2005 we were commissioned to go to Poland.
Although we were increasingly aware of the way our food was being produced thanks to the work of journalists such as Felicity Lawrence and Joanna Blythman, for me, as for most people, modern farming remained remote abstraction.
Newborn calf separated from mother at dairy farm, Spain, 2010.
But now, here in Poland, I was seeing the reality. In one vast, windowless warehouse, hundreds of young pigs were visible under the artificial lights: moving, squealing, eating, shitting. The unmistakable waft of animal waste and chemicals. Lame and injured pigs – one had an abnormal growth the size of a grapefruit, some looked emaciated, others appeared sick – and dead animals left abandoned on the ground, live pigs rustling around the carcasses. On the wall, charts recording the animals that had died – so-called mortality records – and medication sheets detailing the antibiotics that could be used.
Afterwards, the smell stayed with us – on our clothes, our skin, our hair – seemingly for days.
Why was our food being produced like this? It was shocking and I wanted to know more.
I have now spent the best part of a decade and a half reporting on almost every aspect of the global meat industry. It is a journey that has taken me to farms of all types and sizes, from family smallholdings to vast concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and into abattoirs, livestock markets, ports and food factories in numerous countries.
There is a widespread culture of secrecy and a lack of accountability in the global meat industry, which is dominated by a handful of powerful yet little known corporations. Shining a light on “big ag’s” murkier corners therefore requires months of research, the sourcing of often suppressed data and documents, working with whistleblowers, and undercover investigations.
In reality, quite often it’s about seizing the moment. Quickly pointing the camera through an open window or barn door or locked gate, or under a wire fence. You film what you find, first a scene-setting shot, to give a sense of scale and context, then close-ups to bring details to life.
Sometimes, if you are following up a tipoff about a particularly problematic farm, what you see might be distressing – a pile of dead and dying chickens; a spent dairy cow, sprawled out on the floor taking its last gasps; an injured sheep, still alive, maggots in its wounds – accompanied by a backdrop of ear-deafening squeals or incessant grunts from confined livestock or the nauseating smell of waste as you try to focus.
It always feels like you’ve stayed too long, even if it has only been seconds. You worry you haven’t got enough pictures – farms are inevitably dark and not conducive to cinematic beauty – and you pray the camera has done its job.
Often, there’s simply too much happening to know where to point the camera, such as when a shedload of chickens are being rounded up for slaughter, workers swarming around you in near-darkness.
Some of the farmers I’ve visited over the years are happy to have us; they’ve nothing to hide and welcome the opportunity to talk about the challenges of making ends meet. Sometimes – particularly in the case of large corporate-owned farms or slaughterhouses – open filming isn’t an option. You have to rely on undercover reporting and hidden cameras.
Caged hens, Spain, 2010
In the old days you could do it and worry about the details later, as long as you used common sense, adhered to biosecurity and basic health and safety rules. Now, any covert reporting has to be cleared in advance by editors and lawyers and requires lots of form filling, to make sure there’s public interest and justification. That’s as it should be, but it certainly makes things more complicated.
As a journalist, it’s my job to go and see for myself the worst conditions that I hear about. In Italy, on farms supplying “artisanal” parma ham, I saw pigs held in battery conditions, with animals confined in metal cages – gestation crates, or sow stalls – designed for those that have been recently inseminated. They had no room to turn around: the cages weren’t much wider than the pigs themselves.
In Portugal, I saw pigs being repeatedly hit and dragged by the ears, squealing, on to transporters before starting their journey to slaughter. In Spain, thousands of quails – reared for their eggs – were crammed into filthy battery cages, many having lost feathers and others dead and left to rot. Calves, too – some subject to journeys on trucks that take days – confined in solitary pens as part of the veal trade.
In Bulgaria, I visited primitive horse and donkey farms, including one where animals were fixed to the wall or floor with rope and chains. Some had little, if any, straw or other bedding. At one farm, the corpse of a horse lay sprawled outside, blood visible on the ground. Similarly, in Croatia, I saw cattle tethered day and night in darkened sheds, some never having set foot on grass.
In Chile, I saw vast offshore “floating feedlots” with thousands of salmon packed into underwater cages. In the UK – at one of the country’s biggest intensive beef farms – we saw cows caked in excrement and other waste in flooded, dirty yards with no protection from the elements.
And in poultry units across Europe, time and again I’ve seen broiler chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese crammed into vast, crowded sheds with no outside access. Each morning on these farms, workers remove the birds that have died overnight. Sometimes a handful, sometimes scores of birds, flung into piles on the floor or loaded on to wheelbarrows, and chicks disposed of – some still alive – into skips piled high with carcasses.
These scenes illustrate the virtual worthlessness of individual birds. On some farms, hundreds of birds can die each week – in the UK, more than a million chickens die before reaching the slaughterhouse each year.
A duck farm in Australia, 2017
The chain doesn’t end on farms. Animals have to be processed into meat, and slaughterhouses have faced repeated allegations of cruelty, despite supposedly stringent oversight in many countries.
I’ve been inside poultry and rabbit abattoirs. I worked undercover in Portugal, capturing footage at a slaughterhouse specialising in suckling pigs, usually roasted whole as a popular treat. The graphic scenes we filmed caused uproar in a country where few people had seen how their meat was being produced.
After being unloaded, the pigs were taken to a stun room containing a series of small holding pens where a worker, using what looked like a large pair of tongs, stood among the squealing animals and calmly applied a shock to each one’s head before shackling the bodies on to the moving production line which carried them up through a hatch in the wall.
Some twitched involuntarily after being attached to the moving rail, others appeared to be fully conscious as they moved along the line, eyes open and kicking, into the kill room. Here, a worker plunged a large knife into each pig’s neck, causing a gush of blood to shoot down into a tray below, and holding each pig by the legs as they began to “bleed out”.
The slaughterman offered me the knife in case I wanted a go. I declined.
Where cameras can’t go, you have to rely on other evidence. Unpublished reports by UK vets and hygiene inspectors that I obtained detailed thousands of – apparently industrywide – breaches of welfare regulations, including instances of chickens and pigs being boiled alive after being immersed into tanks of scalding hot water, used to soften the skin and remove hair or feathers.
Broiler chickens, Spain, 2009
The smell and sounds and frenetic activity of an abattoir don’t leave you. The whirring of machinery, the clinking of chains, the animal cries, the shouts of workers, the steam, the blood and offal; carcasses swinging on the line. The animals may be stressed, but you wonder also what impact this has on the workers who do this, day in, day out.
The effects of these industrial systems are not just felt in the farmyards or the slaughterhouses. I have seen the wider impact of the quest for food miles away from the farms. Animals that once lived off the land, or off waste, are now given bags of expensive industrially produced feed; the need to fatten them as quickly as possible demands huge inputs of protein, and that protein is pulled from all over the world.
Soy is one source. I’ve reported on the well-known problems with deforestation but I’ve alsowritten about some of the chilling human rights abuses connected to the industry in Paraguay, where much soy was destined for factory farms in China and Europe. Peasant and indigenous organisations had been protesting against the encroachment of the soy farms on their land. The response from some of the soy farmers – with the backing of police and paramilitary units – was brutal: violent evictions, shootings and beatings, resulting in numerous injuries and several deaths, as well as arbitrary detentions and disappearances.
Fishmeal is another source of protein with its own impact, as I saw in Peru. Yards away from the bustling port of Chimbote, lying on the rubbish-strewn beach, were the carcasses of about six sea lions, quietly rotting in the sunshine. Their normally grey silky skin had turned a rusty, orange hue. One carcass, its eyes long since gone and tongue spilling out from its swollen body, was swarming with flies.
The sea lions had been slaughtered by local fishermen, who saw them as competitors for dwindling fish resources in this part of the Pacific. Demand for anchovy – hoovered up for use in fishmeal and fish oil – had impacted on the sea’s natural food chain, and reduced stocks of previously plentiful species fished for human consumption.
Forty fishmeal factories were processing anchovies caught by the city’s fleet, and the area had become a major flashpoint for conflict. (New fishmeal frontiers in west Africa and Asia have joined the party, bringing fresh problems.)
I visited one poor community where more than a dozen women and children gathered in the dusty, unpaved street to vent their anger at pollution from the fishmeal plants: they claimed they were responsible for asthma, bronchial and skin problems, particularly in children.
Dairy cows wait in line to be milked, Spain, 2010
Footage filmed by residents showed conditions when plants were operational: billowing black smoke drifted through the streets, obscuring vision and choking passersby. It looked like the aftermath of a bomb.
According to environmentalists, the sea in Ferrol Bay off Chimbote was now becoming a “dead zone”, largely due to contamination from the fishmeal industry. The plants were accused of discharging protein, fat and oil into the bay, as well as contaminated marine water used during the process of pumping fish from the ship’s hull to the processing plant.
I remember looking at the ocean stretching out in front of us, and feeling anger and bewilderment that it was being choked of life – quite literally – largely to feed livestock confined in far-off farms.
So how did we end up with this system? Industry chiefs I’ve interviewed argue that factory farms exist because of the demand for cheap meat, and that producing enough of it efficiently to meet that demand is possible only by using intensive systems.
They point out that supermarkets – arguably the biggest champions of cheap food – require reliable and consistent supplies that meet exact specifications, all year round. Sourcing on such a scale simply wouldn’t be viable if they bought only from the smaller, independent family-owned farms run in the traditional ways.
And despite the furore around the spread of megafarms, size isn’t an indicator of the welfare standards they maintain; in fact larger, more modern units are often superior, with hi-tech systems and good veterinary care.
Despite what I’ve seen, experience tells me that the majority of livestock farmers are decent, hardworking folk who do their best to make a living in an industry where money doesn’t readily flow down to the small guys, and where margins are often so slim that any unforeseen event can prove catastrophic.
A North Carolina pig farm with open-air pig waste lagoon
I have spoken to dairy farmers who are trying desperately to keep their businesses afloat but acknowledge that, at some point, their farms will have to close, despite in some cases being in the same family for generations. I’ve spoken to beef farmers – some of whom quietly expressed criticism of the intensive feedlot-style cattle farms popping up across the UK – that have dedicated themselves to offering higher welfare, grass-fed beef sold directly to the public as an alternative to cheap supermarket products.
Many of these farmers are as much victims of the system as their livestock.
In the age of hyper-cheap food you can pick up a whole chicken for a few pounds, and a pint of milk for less than a bottle of water. Yet these prices fail to reflect the true cost of production. The terms dictated by supermarkets and processing companies put too many farmers in the grotesque position of losing money on the foodstuffs they’ve spent weeks, months or years producing.
It’s the sheer scale of production, driven by insatiable demand, that is the problem, fuelling bigger farms and more intensive systems – the more animals you can squeeze in, the more food you can produce, the more money there is to be made.
Megafarms that house thousands of pigs, poultry, beef and dairy cattle are now common. But when things go wrong – fires, floods, disease outbreaks, equipment breakdowns, pollution – the bigger the farm, the bigger the consequences.
Coupled with vertically integrated supply chains and controversial contract farming models – which, critics say, outsource many of the financial risks to farmers – this has unavoidably created a system which has turned farm animals into mere commodities. “Meat machines”, as one campaigner put it.
The language used in the poultry industry illustrates the point: industrially produced chickens are no longer referred to as birds but as “crops”, in the same way as you might refer to a field of lettuces or tomatoes. Chicken producers can be referred to as “growers”, not farmers, and it comes as no surprise that they are not paid for individual birds, but for the weight each “crop” of chickens achieves.
As one UK farmer told me, modern chicken sheds are simply “petri dishes of live protein-on-legs”.
A Spanish rabbit abattoir, 2013
About 70 billion land animals are produced globally for food each year, an estimated two-thirds reared in intensive conditions. Many of the issues this raises, and which I’ve covered extensively – food safety, antibiotic resistance, animal welfare, exploitation of workers, pollution, deforestation – are now firmly on the global agenda and commanding attention.
The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted renewed calls for change: in the US, some politicians are calling for the biggest factory farms to be phased out by 2040. Even the UN is urging a rethink of industrial farming, citing links with zoonotic infections and the widespread use of arable land for animal feed, driving deforestation.
Addressing the question of how the world produces enough meat, safely and sustainably (and humanely), to feed a growing population while safeguarding the environment, is more relevant – and more complicated – than ever.
I’ll leave it to scientists and others more qualified than me to answer this question. But, thinking back to that squalid farm in Poland, and everything I’ve seen since, I can safely say one thing: we shouldn’t do it like this.
This is an edited extract from a longer version of this article, which can be found on Medium.com