This is the first in a three-part series written by Emma Silverthorn who reflects upon her grandparents, Peter and Anna Roberts, and today’s work by Compassion in World Farming.
It’s fitting that Farmageddon should open with a focus on mega-dairies and then move on to the plight of the battery hen. Cows and chickens were the roots of Peter—we were asked to call him by his first name so that the moniker granddad could not age him!—and Nan’s activism.
The central family story celebrated at every party in the home of my grandparents, Peter and Anna Roberts, was the highly-romantic one of their engagement. She was on a horse when they met. He proposed within 24 hours. They were married for 50 years. Together, they became the force that gave up farming to found Compassion in World Farming.
After less than a year studying Medicine at Kings College in London, Peter quit to do what he loved and became a farmer. He was good at it, and loved the land in Froxfield and then Greatham, in Hampshire. This foundation meant that CIWF received strong support from the farming community and wasn’t written off as just a vegetarian organisation. Privately, Nan and Peter did make the choice to go vegetarian in 1961, and raised their three daughters accordingly.
Peter always saw the inherent sentience of his animals. He would accompany his cows to the abattoir to make sure their slaughter was quick and as humane as possible. This was a rational decision and not just a sentimental one.
In the early 1960s, as Philip describes in Farmageddon’s Preface, a man from the farming ministry knocked on my grandparent’s door and told them to ‘boost business’ by moving into ‘intensive chicken rearing’. Thus, the seed was planted that led to their outrage that became their lifelong campaign. Peter momentarily weighed up the pros and cons of such system. Nan instinctively said no. I remember years ago Nan becoming angry with a house-guest when ordering take-away. He’d made the error of choosing a chicken tikka masala. She wasn’t being a militant vegetarian but wished to inform him that as he could not trace the meat’s source, he should not be ordering it as his dinner could well be the product of a broiler system.
At his funeral in 2006, the eulogies focused on Peter’s role as a visionary and pioneer. He had a broad knowledge and a great deal of foresight. As a child, I thought of him as ‘the cleverest person in the world’. But he never saw his views or CIWF’s ethos as radical or revolutionary. He felt what he had to say was common sense. It was right and just that all animals should enjoy daylight. Cows should eat grass. Suckling pig shouldn’t be caged.
Peter’s response to a State Veterinary Service inspection on factory farms that claimed to find no evidence of pain or distress in the animals serves as testament to his commonsensical yet empathetic approach.
‘The fact that these myopic gentlemen’, he said, ‘visited 4,000 units is entirely irrelevant’. He went onto ask, ‘Was not the fact that the animal is kept in darkness sufficient evidence of cruelty? Or that it is unable to turn around? What has happened to us that we have suddenly abandoned common sense and call for objective evidence that we know will never measure subjective cruelty?’
Emma Silverthorn is the granddaughter of Anna and Peter Robert’s, founders of Compassion in World Farming. She is a freelance writer living in East London. For more of her work check out Running in Heels, Our Hen House and The London Economic.
For your copy of ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’, click here.