Liberal Prejudice or Conservation? Alberto Garzón and Spanish Pigs


Controversy has erupted here in Spain with left wing Podemos Minister Alberto Garzón, in his role of Consumer Affairs minister, stating in the Guardian that Spain is exporting “poor quality meat from ill-treated animals.”

Predictably, many of Spain´s nominally conservative and right wing parties are in an uproar, calling for the minister to resign and Partido Popular (PP) Leader Pablo Casado stating that the ´macrogranjas´ (mass produced or intensive farms) don´t pollute or contaminate.

Now as someone from the shire (Shropshire to be specific) and not a great fan of liberalism in any of its forms, I should be eagerly diving in to say this is a classic example of the liberal left not understanding the countryside, harvest the clicks and move on. Sadly though, there´s more to this story than meets the eye.

Firstly, the attempt to make this yet another weapon in the culture wars doesn´t wash. For a start, the EU commissioner for agriculture has stated that there is a clear environmental problem with intensive farming, especially in livestock sectors. Oh, the EU, those liberals. Well normally yes but the commissioner in this case is Janusz Wojciechowski of the Polish Law and Justice Party. There are many names you may give the Law and Justice Party but liberal isn´t one of them.

Looking to the shores of the UK, the Environmental Audit Committee (the Parliamentary Select Committee with a majority of Conservative MP´s) has also drawn attention to the polluting effects with their report on water quality this January. It states: “Intensive livestock and poultry farming appears to be putting enormous pressure on particular catchments, such as those feeding the river Wye running through Wales and the south-west Midlands.”  Again, this isn´t some communist conspiracy, merely the acknowledgement mass production is doing damage to the rivers of the UK.

In Shropshire, the total number of poultry sheds has doubled in 15 years and that is finding its way into the rivers and brooks. The protection and improvement of the land for the enjoyment of all and future generations should be a fundamental article of faith for all conservatives. I don´t see why the Wye or the Severn should be turned into open sewers to meet the demand of people sitting in KFC or Nando´s and no amount of screeching ´you don´t understand the countryside´ from people who spent their lives sitting in think tanks in London or Madrid is going to convince me otherwise.

It is telling that Casado chose to give his little speech in front of an extensive (in terms of land required), non-intensive farm (the kind that the Minister had absolutely no problem with and stated “is an environmentally sustainable means of cattle farming and one that has a lot of heft in parts of Spain such as Asturias, parts of Castilla y León, Andalucía and Extremadura”) and not in front of the farms that people were actually complaining about.

Perhaps the most damning of all was that Casado´s own Party of PP had a region which stated via Twitter that the ´macrogranjas´were causing an emergency to public health due to their methods. The region was Castilla-La Mancha, where the Podemos minister had criticised the exact same issue that PP had been drawing attention to, before a regional election next door was on the horizon.

No, the real reason that Casado and PP are now pretending that macrogranjas are some noble Spanish institution and not a bastardisation of farming is that (surprise, surprise) there is an election in Castilla y Leon in February and there´s nothing like screeching “Mas Ganaderia Menos Comunismo” to get the voter base out.

There is an honest point here that Casado and many others choose not to tell and that is that making good quality meat is incredibly expensive. Plus, increasing population globally means that bar some mass social engineering meeting demand for meat is going to be impossible with the methods I´d prefer. If this had been 20 years ago, it would seem a trade-off would have to be made between quality over quantity and if Casado had stood before the giant pig stys whilst saying this is the inevitable side of meeting demand, it would at least be a defensible position.

Perhaps more importantly, countries like the UK or Spain need security over food just as much as over energy. We only have to look at how dependency on other nations for energy (see Germany yielding to Russian aggression in case they turn the lights off), to show that shielding your country from the whims of other countries is vital.

So a conundrum then: we aren´t going to stop eating meat here in Spain, Europe or anywhere else (in fact, the rise of demand for meat in parts of Asia means the demand for meat based products will only increase) but we are running out of land and resources to meet that demand in an environmentally friendly way. Lucky though, there is a solution and it will come from a Petri dish, not the macrogranjas.

The technology to take meat from the stem is already being developed and with time will clearly become cost effect to produce on a mass scale, the kind of mass scale that is the only serious answer to the demand we are seeing. The benefits of providing a mass producible meat source without needing to leech the land or, globally remove vast swathes of forests and wildlife to make way for cattle farms, could be transformative for the environment and clawing back land for nature or high quality farming. This is where any serious government either in Spain or UK would be looking to invest their energy, not standing before a farm that no one complained about because they are too intellectually challenged or disingenuous to tell the difference between a micro and macrogranja.

Fewer mass produced farming methods protecting our streams rivers and brooks, food security enabled and the establishment of a significant reared premium for our farmers.  Those slobbering in McDonalds can still get their cheap meat-fix and if affluent city dwellers still want the real thing from Shropshire and Asturias? Well, they can bloody well pay for it.

Born and raised in Shropshire, Edward was peddled onto a worthless degree in Sociology and now currently resides in Madrid, having previously lived in Santander and Barcelona. He currently covers Spanish and European politics, having previously been on the ground in Barcelona for the Unilateral Declaration of Independence and subsequent election.  His work can be found in a wide variety of places, from Red Pepper Magazine and Left Foot Forward to Comment Central and is a regular contributor to Bournbrook Magazine. He is currently studying for his Spanish qualification so he can do a web development course and go back to the north of Spain, where they have trees. He can be found on Twitter @HomelessEd3