Compassion campaigner Jonty has just returned from a trip to the frontline of industrial farming in Germany – a chicken-processing factory that plans to double its output from 200,000 to 400,000 birds every day. There, he joined thousands of protesters to form a human chain around the factory. Here’s his story.
The sun is shining in Wietze, a small town located in the rolling countryside of Lower Saxony in north-central Germany. I’m here to join a protest against plans to double the output of the town’s chicken-processing plant – a factory that currently slaughters, prepares and packages 200,000 birds a day. Plans are afoot for this figure to be pushed to a staggering 400,000 chickens a day, an almost unbelievable scenario.
The event is being coordinated by a diverse group of organisations – from farmer and farm-worker unions to environmental NGOs to animal-welfare charities – all of whom share an unwavering desire to bring an end to the spread of the intensive-farming model. The name of this peaceful protest – "Wir Haben Agrarindustrie Satt!" ("We’ve Had Enough of Industrial Agriculture!") – spells out our shared objective in no uncertain terms.
I pitch my tent along with hundreds of others in a meadow beside a field of grazing cows (an ironic scene, given the theme of the event), and take a look at the programme. Ahead lies a series of debates, workshops, presentations (including my own), film viewings and concerts leading up to a spectacular finale – the formation of a human circle around the offending factory, in a show of solidarity against the very idea of factory farming.
This is the first speech I’ve ever given in a big tent (think the yellow-and-red stripy sort that you’d see at the circus), and I’m excited. I tell the story of Farmageddon – why factory farming is such bad news for us, animals and the planet. My audience is shocked to hear some of the stories and statistics, but we all leave with a keen sense of hope. We can change things for the better; that’s why we’re here.
A circus atmosphere
As the formal events of the day draw to a close, the area around the campfire becomes a hive of industry. Campaigners settle down to make banners, customise T-shirts and create elaborate costumes for tomorrow’s demonstration and the Menschenkette ("human chain"), which is the talk of the camp.
Before long, the banners are gone (stashed neatly away for the next day) in favour of chopping boards, sharp knives and root veg, and music is blaring out from the big top. We’re now onto the "disco soup" – a style of preparing food en masse (in our case, for the thousands who are due to turn up for tomorrow’s demonstration) to a soundtrack of music and chatter. I grab a knife and get involved.
It’s my final morning and the main event is finally here – the demonstration and human chain. We march the hour-long trip to the factory, picking up thousands of campaigners along the way. Whistles, vuvuzelas and the rhythmic patter of footsteps create a rousing soundtrack.
In the end, around 10,000 of us descend on the formidable, windowless factory (complete with menacing guard-dogs and barbed-wire fences). We hold hands to form a chain around the site. It’s an incredible, breathtaking scene – the countless banners, costumes and props providing some much-needed colour against the eternally grey backdrop of the factory walls. Not even a heavy rain shower is able to dampen our spirits.
A hopeful homecoming
On the journey home, I reflected on the unusual, but massively inspiring, experience I’d just had. Even with my inadequate grasp of German, I’d been able to piece together the arguments of the speakers I’d listened to and the campaigners I’d marched alongside, and I was struck by how articulate and passionate they all were.
The event confirmed my long-held belief that factory farming is no single-issue cause for animal-welfarists – far from it. This system of agriculture is at the sharp end of our food, our jobs, our economy, our environment, our countryside and our communities. In fact, there is very little that isn’t shaped in some way by the production of the food we eat.
Steph Roth, campaigner-extraordinaire and one of the event’s organisers, encapsulated the general mood, saying: "It’s when you start connecting people from different backgrounds, with different knowledge and skills and passions, that the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. It’s all very well doing your own thing, but it’s when we create shared stories that the real magic starts to happen". I think she’s absolutely right.
The ripples created by the demonstration could be profound. National elections are being held in Germany at the end of September, and the human chain provides a undeniable "show of force" that Germans are fed up of the stink of factory farms and slaughterhouses, of empty rural communities, and of corn deserts. The hope is that those who come into power in September will focus on policies that promote good food and farming, rather than blindly following the demands of the industrial-farming unions. Watch this space!