hors-sol aboveground, outside the soil


Factory farming must end.

This is the message and aim of the Brittany-based collective against factory farms and for a territorialised agriculture. The collective was formed in 2021, shortly after the legal victory against the plan to build an industrial chicken coop to breed 120 000 chickens in Langoëlan, and at a stage where the ravages of decades of intensive farming on Brittany’s territory and human and nonhuman life had long been evident.

Factory farms are referred to in French as ‘élevage hors sol’ (aboveground, soilless or ‘outside the soil’ livestock farming). Its name describes that the nonhuman animals that are bred in factory farms are fed food that does not originate from the farm itself. It evokes also that these nonhuman animals live on slatted floor above a land upon which they never set foot.

Brittany’s agriculture was ‘developed’ through an intensive programme of planning, transformation and industrialisation in the period from the 1940s to the 1970s that is referred to as ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’ (the Thirty Glorious Years) in France, and which environmental historians have suggested to rename ‘Trente Ravageuses’ (Thirty Destructive Years) due to its ecological impacts (Bonneuil and Frioux 2013). Through a process called remembrement (land consolidation), which took place across French rural environments, bocage was razed and land parcels enlarged. Factory farms, and sites of animal ‘transformation’, were built. Today Brittany produces 58% of French pigs; a third of chickens; 22% of milk; and it has 18 slaughterhouses, 7 of which slaughter more 100,000 tons of nonhuman animals a year. To get a visual sense of the prominence of the so-called ‘Breton agricultural model’, see Greenpeace’s map of factory farming in France here.

Debates around factory farming in Brittany crystallise not only around the question of animal welfare, in denouncing horrendous living conditions, but also its impact on the environment, bringing to the fore the impossibility to separate humans from the more-than-human world. This has been revealed and brought to the awareness of the general public in particular by Inès Léraud’s investigative journalism about the phenomenon known as harmful algal bloom (HAB) (see Inès Léraud’s work in radio, comics, and the platform Splann!). These green tides, which have washed over Breton coasts since the 1970s, are formed of algae over-enriched by nitrogen and phosphorous pollutions produced by the accumulation of factory-farmed animal waste and excess fertilizer. HAB epitomises that Brittany is a ‘terre sacrifiée’ [land sacrificed] to agricultural productivism, as in the title of Aude Rouaux and Marie Garreau de Labarrare’s 2020 documentary.

Green tides are hyper-visible manifestations of an ecocidal system of agricultural capitalism in which the non-human is perceived and treated as no more than a resource for human needs. Its unsustainability is ecological, as well as economic, and it impacts everything and everyone.

What green tides hyper-visibilise is the aberration of the so-called ‘hors sol’ nature of factory farms that spill into the territory from which they have been conceptually severed. Factory farms are evocatively described by geographer Jean-Paul Diry in a seminal study of the industrialisation of French, and in particular Breton agriculture, as ‘une sorte de corps étranger’ [a kind of foreign body] (1985: 98), sites ‘affranchis des conditions naturelles et des liaisons avec la terre’ [doing away with natural conditions and links with the land] (1985: 411). They are also, crucially, biopolitical spaces of power over nonhuman animal life and death (Wolfe 2012). As leaky sites of containment, they both materialise and dissolve dynamics of anthropocentric and capitalist ‘hyper-separation’ (to use Val Plumwood’s term 1993): hyper-separation from soil – into which they spill via excessive muck spreading; and hyper-separation from nonhuman animal vitalities that they control, and upon whose forced ‘metabolic labor’ (Besdo 2017) they depend. They are sites of concentrated violence of the capitalist and colonial system, as Fatima Ouassak – a vital voice in contemporary environmentalism in France – argues, because ‘il s’agit avant tout d’un enjeu de pouvoir, de domination et de profit’ [it is first and foremost a question of power, domination and profit].

As the urgency of transforming human animals’ relationship to ‘le vivant’ (the living) has taken a prominent place in French culture and society, as part of broader global conversations, texts that infiltrate factory farms are a way to make this urgency concrete. In literature, Vincent Message’s 2016 Défaite des maitres et des possesseurs [Defeat of the masters and possessors] asks us to image what would happen if another species took over our planet and treated humans the way that human animals in capitalist societies have treated nonhuman animals. A novel such as Isabelle Sorrente’s 2013 180 jours [180 days] allows us to follow a man’s confrontation with the unsustainable exploitation of nonhuman (pigs) and human (factory farm workers) animals, in an account interspersed with fragments of a pig’s narrative of carcerality. Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s 2016 Règne animal [Animal Reign] tracks the transformation of a farm in southwest France across the 20th century towards it collapse, ending on the narrative of an escaped pig, its other-than-human voice rendered in italics.

These texts use fiction and literature to ask us to imagine what factory farming is like. Undercover footage released by militant associations, in the horror of their images, make us feel or at least give us a sense – as animal bodies ourselves – of what it is like to be born, live and die on a factory farm. Naitre et mourir dans un élevage de cochons is a video that was released by L214 and documents living conditions on a Breton factory farm. At one point in the video, images of a local newspaper and a google map situate this factory farm in Brittany, grounding it in a land – a soil – upon which the pigs will never set foot.

These pigs’ life and death narratives – their toxic biographies – are part of contemporary Brittany’s multispecies histories. A beautiful text that evokes this is Christelle Le Guen’s Anjela, about 20th-century Brittophone peasant-poet and ‘eco-warrior’ (Timm 2017) Anjela Duval. This is a first-person (it is based on Duval’s poems and letters), bilingual Breton-French and multispecies graphic narrative, where the ‘I’ of the human animal self entangles with the vegetal and nonhuman animal, and the history of a minoritized culture with the stories of hedges razed for land consolidation, and of pigs and cows and chickens and plants’ forced metabolic labour.

In the preface to Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s book about L214, Brigitte Gothière, the association’s spokeswoman writes that their aim is to start a revolution, a ‘décentrage radical’ [radical decentring] that consists in ‘démontrer que l’être humain n’est pas le centre du monde’ [demonstrating that human beings are not the centre of the world]. This means ‘déstabiliser la dictature de la viande et installer une démocratie attentive à tous les êtres sentients’ [destabilising the dictatorship of meat and establishing a democracy that is attentive to all sentient beings].

In a more-than-human world, human animals cannot be, sustain themselves or live ‘hors sol’.

Factory farming must end.

Works cited

Beldo, Les, ‘Metabolic Labor: Broiler Chickens and the Exploitation of Vitality’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 9, no, 1, 2017. Available at https://read.dukeupress.edu/environmental-humanities/article/9/1/108/8139/Metabolic-LaborBroiler-Chickens-and-the

Bonneuil, Christophe, and Frioux, Stéphane, ‘‘Les « Trente Ravageuses » ? : L’impact environnemental et sanitaire des décennies de haute croissance’’, in Une autre histoire des « Trente Glorieuses » : Modernisation, contestations et pollutions dans la France d’après-guerre, edited by Christophe Bonneuil, Céline Pessis and Sezin Topçu (Paris: La Découverte, 2013), pp. 41-59.

Del Amo, Jean-Baptiste, L214, une voix pour les animaux (Paris: Arthaud, 2019).

Diry, Jean-Paul, L’industrialisation de l’élevage en France : économie et géographie des filières avicoles et porcines (Paris, Ophrys, 1985).

Ouassak, Fatima, Pour une écologie pirate : et nous serons libres (Paris : La Découverte, 2023).

Plumwood, Val, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993).

Timm, Lenora A, ‘Brittany’s Eco-Warrior: The Environmental Poetry of Anjela Duval’, ’anjela.org, 2017. Available at https://www.anjela.org/oberenn/brittanys-eco-warrior-the-environmental-poetry-of-anjela-duval-lenora-a-timm/?lang=en [accessed 10/10/2023].

Wolfe, Cary, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (The University of Chicago Press, 2013).