PORTRAIT

“Animal production is the opposite of husbandry”

In Jocelyne Porcher's view, it is in true animal husbandry that human and animal societies come together. That is quite the reverse of the alienation typifying industrial pig farms. Comments from an angry sociologist.

Agricultural fair at Libramont (Belgium), 2008. © Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt
Agricultural fair at Libramont (Belgium), 2008. © Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt
Pigs living outdoors on Francis Surnom’s farm (FR). © Courtesy Jocelyne Porcher
Pigs living outdoors on Francis Surnom’s farm (FR). © Courtesy Jocelyne Porcher

"I was just an ordinary pig, born from a Sigma-Archi + sow and a plastic straw of boar semen from a highly composite crossbreed. 170 days after I was born, I died in an industrial slaughterhouse along with 6 000 of my fellow creatures, all on the same day in the same place. We lived uneventful lives governed by the procedures and schedules of scientists and technicians." That is how Jocelyne Porcher begins her contemporary story of an ordinary pig, The contemporary history of a pig without history (L'histoire contemporaine d'un cochon sans histoire) (1). She narrates her account in the person of the pig, the better to introduce us to the harsh world of ‘animal production'. In her latest book, A pig's life (Une vie de cochon) written jointly with former pig sector employee, Christine Tribondeau, she narrates in the guise of a little girl, Solenn, who observes the life of her mother, an employee in an industrial pig farm, with all the innocence of her 10 years.

Jocelyne Porcher is a consummate sociologist. In 2002, her thesis, Eleveurs et animaux, réinventer le lien (livestock producers and animals, reinventing the bond) won the Le Monde award for academic research designed to promote young doctors. She turned her thesis into a book, in which she makes a shrewd but sensitive and detailed analysis of the way relations between humans and animals have evolved through the ages - all the way to the alienation that ‘animal production' has now come to represent (she refuses to dignify it with the title of animal husbandry). Whether the narrator is an animal, a little girl or the researcher herself, it is always rebellion that fires her writing. Rebellion against a system that is just as merciless with the animals it produces as it is with the men and women it employs.

No need to make a choice

One of the things that make Jocelyne Porcher's work so original is her refusal to choose between the welfare of humans and that of animals. Instead she believes in a bond between beast and human that dates back thousands of years. It is a bond that she strives not to idealise but which she believes formerly enriched both species. In industrial systems, "the most commonly shared sentiment is suffering," she says. Animals suffer because they are torn from their world, because they never catch a glimpse of nature or the sun and because they must gain weight as fast as possible, in tedious monotony, in order to hasten their day of slaughter. The people who work in industrial systems feel ethical suffering, as they are forced to suppress the part of themselves that protests, that is distressed at causing suffering, at the death everywhere, at having to do such distasteful work. Jocelyne Porcher also points to a lack of recognition from society, which is quick to accuse pig producers of being polluters or even poisoners, as well as lack of recognition of the animals themselves, through which the bond has been lost. The end result is that the sector has been hit by a chronic labour shortage, testifying to the difficulties encountered by employees, despite their being much more highly paid than the average farm worker.

Develop armour plating and get out

Jocelyne Porcher has examined in great detail the defence mechanisms that pig sector employees strive to develop to preserve their sense of identity in spite of their lethal work (what they call their "armour plating"). The problem is perhaps more acute for women, in whom the researcher takes a special interest. Even though some women try hard to adopt the virile attitude so prevalent in the profession ("We can do anything a man can do"), to make the best of the suffering ("We're no slackers"), whilst minimising the situation ("It could be worse" or "I can't complain"), in the end, the armour plating ("I've become hardened to it") often cracks and many of these women leave the profession. "You lose track of who you are," says the researcher. "You feel ‘dirty', ‘numbed', and ‘you frighten yourself'."

Jocelyne Porcher's sociology research is of a private and personal kind that reflects her unusual path in life. She was brought up in a modest, urban family and began her working life as a secretary in a large Parisian firm. At the age of 24, she moved from the city to the countryside where, by chance, she gradually became a dairy-ewe breeder - a job she held for five years, learning as she went along. The whims of fate then took her to Brittany (FR), where nostalgia for her old life as a livestock breeder prompted her to apply for a job in an industrial pig farm. It was this "existential shock" (as Jocelyne Porcher describes it) that was to map the future course of her life. In the pig industry she met with a system obsessed with profit which, since 1970, had managed to cut the interval between service and farrowing from 21 to 8 days, and the weaning period from 52 days to 25, while increasing the number of piglets per sow from 16 to 27.

She resumed her studies whilst continuing to work, and obtained first a technical diploma and then an engineering diploma, during which time she discovered sociology and embarked on a thesis on animal production. In 2003, INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (Institut National de Recherche Agronomique) recruited her to study workplace suffering in the livestock production sector. She found the research fascinating.

Give and take

Despite her criticisms of industrial systems, Porcher fiercely opposes the various ‘animal liberation' movements as a philosophy that imagines a future for animals only in the wilds of nature, which are clearly shrinking away to nothing. "Their aim is to separate humans from animals; that is to say, there should be no interaction between them at all." The idea is rubbish to this advocate of ‘true animal husbandry'. She points out that "true livestock breeders" take pride in their animals and care about their appearance, as testified by the time-honoured tradition of livestock shows. In her view, this traditional desire for beauty is completely at odds with the ugliness found in industrial concentrations of animals.

"Animal husbandry is based on a relationship of give and take. We give to animals, they give to us in return, we give again, and so it goes... That is why livestock breeders believe slaughter to be legitimate even though they find it hard. By contrast, in industrial systems, we humans grab all we can from the animal, without pity or compassion, but give nothing back in exchange."

Jocelyne Porcher believes that we should continue to eat meat if we wish but "we should not expect to pay rock-bottom prices for it." Meat should be priced high enough to enable livestock breeders to earn a living from doing a good job that is fair to animals - a price that allows access to quality products in a way other than by "perpetuating this indefensible system." Is Porcher too involved to make a good scientist? This frequently heard criticism elicits a smile and a stinging reply: "In my experience, objective research is a goal that often goes hand in hand with gross cowardice. When all is said and done, everybody does research to change things. That is also the vocation of INRA where I work, which conducts targeted research..." Duly noted. But is it too late to turn back the clock, as industrial systems have become so prevalent? "Of course you could argue that what I am doing is futile and will change nothing. That's simply not true. Everything that people read, hear and see counts for something. Although I am not necessarily optimistic, I believe it is better to fight than to bow to pressure. And I for one shall never back down..."

Yves Sciama

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Find out more

  • A few of Jocelyne Porcher's works

  • Eleveurs et animaux, réinventer le lien, PUF, 2002
  • La mort n'est pas notre métier, Editions de l'Aube, 2003.
  • Bien-être animal et travail en élevage. Textes à l'appui, Educagri/Editions Quae, 2004.
  • Être bête. L'esprit des étables (avec VincianeDespret), Editions Actes Sud, 2007.
  • Une vie de cochon (avec ChristineTribondeau), La Découverte, 2008. List of related content