Monday, 13 September 2021

Fury at the Farm (with Mini Grey)

 George Monbiot lays the blame on picture books.

Talking about making the film Rivercide with Franny Armstrong (livestreamed on 14th July this year), the environmentalist George Monbiot says:

“When I say farming, what image comes to mind? Well, I bet for quite a few of you, at least fleetingly, a particular kind of picture flitted across your mind. A picture with which we’re surrounded when we’re very small children, at the very dawning of consciousness.  Many of the books produced for very young children are about farms; and most tell broadly the same story.”

He also writes that even the grim realities of industrial farming cannot displace the storybook images from our minds. At a deep, subconscious level, the farm remains a place of harmony and kindness—and this suits us very well if we want to keep eating meat”.

So what’s a picture book farm?

George Monbiot says: “The animals – generally just one or two of each species – live in perfect harmony with the rosy-cheeked farmer, roaming around freely and talking to each other, almost as if they were members of the farmer’s family. Understandably there’s no indication of why they might be there, what happens to them in life, how and why they die.”

A picture book farm is a random collection of one or a few of several animals living together with a farmer – it’s a kind of animal sanctuary. No-one gets killed. The main danger is usually foxes or wolves. Old MacDonald had a picture book farm. Eee-i-eee-i-oh….

But I love picture book farms: it’s a lovely mythical place to explore – a family of animals who can talk to each other, it’s a great setting for a story to unfold. We love to see animals living together and talking together. Little children like to make animal noises and all pat the bone. It’s familiar. It’s fun.

 And lots of  ingenuity and creativity and humour can be had with farm animals.

Here’s Farmer Duck, one of my all-time favourites. It’s so thrilling to see all the animals getting together to discuss their cunning plan to outwit and oust the fat and lazy farmer. It’s so beautifully imagined and lit and painted by Helen Oxenbury. What a perfect place for a story.

(Also secretly I’m reminded by the cow of the classic Larson Far Side cartoon ‘Car!’)

 And I’ve been there too. My first book, Egg Drop, is narrated by a chicken and set on a bucolic farm idyll with gently distressed chicken houses.

Here's Chris Mould brilliantly illustrating Animal Farm and he says about the story: “It works on different levels. If you look at what it is saying politically, it will always be relevant as a text, but from a child’s point of view it’s also about animals talking to each other, and that’s great fun.” There's upheaval and horror and sadness in Animal Farm - but the animals have agency. Just imagine the same animals transposed into a factory farm. How would that look?

Older children's books do address what really happens on farms - here are a couple...

The reality of Factory Farms

But in Rivercide it’s revealed that factory farms are the leading source of river pollution. So what lies hidden beneath? What’s the reality of factory farms?


Approximately two in three farmed animals are now raised in “factory farms” worldwide (Compassion in World Farming 2018).

 The biggest cause of river pollution in the UK is farming.

Intensive chicken farms will house about 40,000 birds that will be cleared out, killed and replaced every 40 days or so.

You don’t need a permit for a farm if you’ve got fewer than 40,000 chickens.

The UK now has some 2,000 chicken factories.

Even so-called ‘free range’ isn’t necessarily what you’d think it was. Here are the images Happy Eggs want you to imagine of their ‘free-range’ chickens:

….and here’s the reality: (pictures screen-grabbed from Rivercide.)

 (Happy Eggs are one of  the biggest 'free-range' egg producers in the UK.)

It’s impossible to put this in picture books

Well, how about trying this as the setting for your picture book? 

Or this? 

Where can you go? Clearly, the Great Escape. But for very little peoples, it’s too unacceptable, too haunting, too disturbing. And what does THIS tells us about factory farming? It’s too unacceptable, too haunting, too disturbing. The truth is, we wouldn’t be able to read a picture book about factory farming to a very little child – it’s too upsetting. So if it’s too unpleasant to bear in picture books, it must be the same in real life. But we don’t get to see it.

“The history of intensive animal farming has led to a progressive removal of animals from public view” (Stewart and Cole 2009).

The farm myth in picture books acts as a very useful screen.

Picture books have helped to shield hidden factory farms, acting as a screen that we don’t worry about looking behind, because we all feel farms are friendly places. Intensive farming is hidden, invisible, and also shielded by the visible happy farms we can see when we go for a nice walk (like the lovely shaggy beasts I see grazing on Wittenham Clumps). 

 So let’s have a look at the Invisible.

The Invisible is the true cost of cheap meat.


Enormous amounts of animal shit that the landscape can’t absorb

Nitrogen-fuelled algal blooms in rivers, dying rivers

Misuse/overuse of antibiotics (and don’t even mention sea lice on farmed fish)

Methane emissions

The loss of small farms, as they can’t compete with the economies of scale of huge ones

Animals inside can’t forage and need feeding. Soya to feed livestock is a main cause of deforestation in the Amazon (and don’t even talk about feeding farmed fish.)

The suffering and discomfort and misery of millions of animals

And don’t forget fish farms – fish can be miserable too. 

Can we make the invisible visible?

 What about a packaging revolution so it is impossible to buy a product containing factory-farmed animal product without knowing about it? Let’s do a magic trick and make the invisible visible. 

If policy makers are not up to banning or limiting factory farms (which is what they should do), I want to make it impossible to buy intensively farmed meat without knowing who it was, and that it’s from an industrial livestock unit. (Honestly, it shouldn't deserve the word 'farmed'. )

Look at cigarette packaging. I don’t know if you’ve hung around with smokers lately – but I have, and I noticed that the horror on cigarette packets is impossible to ignore.

The packaging on animal products should also be impossible to ignore.

Do picture book makers have a responsibility?

Well, maybe. But maybe we should make our farming more like picture books. We should “eat meat as our grandparents did, as something rare and special” and “recognise that an animal has been sacrificed to serve our appetites, to observe the fact of its death: is this not the least we owe it?” (George Monbiot 2015)

Living within your landscape

Landscapes need animals. All farmed animals should be able to live in a natural landscape and be able to behave as they naturally would. (This means really low stocking densities. And yes that means really expensive animal products. But we could subsidise ethical meat.) Meadows need grazing animals; a proper landscape would have top predators too, but around here, they’re us. We live in a landscape (which is often a river valley): the landscape is our framework, and we must only put in it the amount of animals, houses and waste products that it can support without being degraded – which means treading lightly. The signs of environmental collapse: disappearing creatures, algal blooms, polluted rivers – mean we are dumping too much onto the landscape and taking too much out. Humanity’s long term project has got to be to learn to live in balance with the Earth: balance in CO2, water, habitat, wildlife, landscape.

The picture book superpower is to be able to put the reader into the place of someone else. 

Someone who might be a chicken.

So here, to end, is a story for you: the story of Doris, the chicken who changed the world.


Doris the Chicken appeared in the Puffin Book of Big Dreams, published by Puffin Books in 2020.


 Mini's latest published book-involvement is The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with AF Harrold.  Her BlogSite is at Sketching Weakly.


John Shelley said...

What a marvellous piece - thought provoking, challenging, and a brilliant story to finish. Bravo Mini!!

Mini Grey said...

Wow - thank you so much for your encouraging comment John!

Linda Newbery said...

A wonderful and important post, Mini. I couldn't agree more!

Mini Grey said...

Thanks Linda! Your book 'This book is Cruelty-Free: Animals and Us' sounds like a really interesting read that tackles this subject.

Patricia Cleveland-Peck said...

A brilliant piece which draws attention to the ghastly realities of factory farming today. Yes, it is all too unacceptable, too haunting and too distressing to present to young children but it is also something many adults don't want to see, don't want to face up to and pieces like this help to make it clear that things must change
Thank you Mini

Mini Grey said...

Thanks Patricia! The Government's new agriculture bill could be a force for good here...with Environmental Land Management Scheme/payment for public goods - if it had enough teeth!