When I was a school boy, my father’s annual act of civic responsibility was to run the ‘Bowling for the Pig’ stand at the school fête; the winner got a real live weaner (piglet) to take home and fatten up. Food rationing, having ended just ten years earlier, was still fresh in many memories so in a rural area, the idea of fattening a pig in your garden using kitchen waste wasn’t so weird.
Pigs have been valued around the globe for centuries for their ability to eat just about anything, and thereby turn waste into food. Our pigs were fed whey mixed with home grown barley, ground in our own mill. Meanwhile waste from our unappetising school lunches was collected by the swill man (never looked like a glamorous career option), and cooked down to feed to pigs, as was the case across the country. As rationing ended in 1954, chickens and pigs were the first to succumb to the progression to factory farming. Unable and unwilling to keep up, we sold our last pigs in the ‘90s as my father, a lifelong pig enthusiast, retired and the next generation specialised in dairy and vegetables.
60 years on, despite the BBC’s Good Life and the revival of ‘make do and mend’, if I arrived with a weaner at a fête today I’d probably be arrested or committed. Both conventional and organic pigs are fed on barley or wheat mixed with soya; animals that once ate waste are competing for food with the world’s poor, and contributing to deforestation and loss of wildlife as land is used to grow soya instead. Using food waste to feed pigs has been banned since the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001, as untreated swill is widely considered to be the source of the epidemic. Yet with careful management, a return to recycling food waste in this way (as championed by campaigners The Pig Idea) would reduce our reliance on imported soya and so lessen the environmental devastation that comes with it. Meanwhile I’m seriously considering introducing a small herd of hardy pigs bred in our woods and fattened on our veg waste. Pa spent 50 years losing money by keeping pigs, but it never crushed his enthusiasm, just the bank balance. I’m willing to have my own run at it.