Hog Heaven or Hogocaust? | Civil Eats

Hog Heaven or Hogocaust?

I read with shame and sadness the stories out of Egypt yesterday describing the ordered mass slaughter of 350,000 hogs due to fears over swine flu. I am an omnivore and love the flavor of meat. It seems to me that humans are part of an evolving food chain stretching back millions of years. Yet, I also believe that given our position at the top of that chain, with our intellectual, emotional and spiritual capacities, we Homo sapiens have a responsibility to ethically and humanly care for all the life from which we draw our sustenance.

I have long worried about the impacts of the massive confined animal feeding operations, the so called CAFOs. They worry me because of the stress they create in animals, the pollution problems that effect air and water quality around each CAFO, and the need for continuous sub-therapeutic feeding of antibiotics to suppress disease and stimulate growth. The antibiotic issue is of particular concern to me due to the virulent infections that seem to be emerging like MRSA,Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which are antibiotic resistant.

Whether or not these stories out of Mexico about the Smithfield hog CAFO prove to be true, if this pandemic spurs a swine holocaust my sense of shame over our mistreatment of a long allied species will be deep. I suspect I will not be the only human feeling guilty. It happens over and over. Chickens, sheep, cattle and hogs suffer slaughter when we feel threatened. We kill in mass numbers to stem the source of infection or so we think. The mass killings seem more like an ancient ritual, perhaps more psychologically therapeutic, than preventative in these modern times.

The farmers and ranchers suffer too. Their long-tended herds are lost and they must start again. This is costly in time, money and emotion. A quote from an Egyptian Agriculture Ministry official in a news story today was especially troubling. He said the farmers would not be hurt because they can sell their meat. Obviously, this official has little understanding of supply and demand pricing in a commodity system. The price will crash when 350,000 hog bellies hit the market in one week.

The root of the problem is that we are treating biological systems as if they are factories. Yes hogs like herds, but not in confined places. The herds are sometimes very large. On more than one occasion, I have seen dozens of feral pigs running together in the coastal mountains of California. Hogs have been domesticated for 7,000-10,000 years. So we have lived with them in villages for millennia. But only in recent decades, have we turned hogs into cogs in our meat manufacturing sites that house tens of thousands of animals in one place. The industrial hog factories forgo the chance to provide every hog with heaven on earth before the hogs provide nutrition to people. Hog heaven before slaughter seems like a better deal for all involved in light of recent developments.

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There are still some farmers willing to pasture their pigs. It costs more, but the pigs, farms, and communities are happier and healthier. The Niman Ranch farmers in Iowa and Poly Face Farm in Virginia are two of the best known, but there are many others, particularly family farmers serving regional buyers. Perhaps if the world got back to pasturing pork and hog heaven, the stress, pollution and pandemics – today’s clear and present dangers – would no longer be so closely associated with swine. That is my hope anyway for the “other white meat” so many of us love to eat.

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Michael R. Dimock is president of Roots of Change, a “think and do tank” developing road maps to victory for the California food movement, and the strategic advisor to the California Food Policy Council. Read more >

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  1. Mariann
    I don't really get this. Hogs are raised to be killed. In this country, they are generally slaughtered at 4 to 6 months, while still babies. What's the difference, from the point of view of the hogs, our "allied" species, between that and killing a whole bunch of them because of disease? The world is a constant, ongoing, fully mechanized hog holocaust -- and chicken, cow, sheep holocaust as well. 10 billion land animals a year, in the US alone. That's 286 chickens per second, 24/7 -- killed at 6 to 8 weeks. Everyone talks about the solution being the humane producers, but virtually no one actually goes out of their way to find out what that really means, whether they think it's actually humane, and then buy only that meat and no other. There will never be change until people not only demand it, but refuse to finance inhumanity toward these animals. Not just talk, but actual boycott.
  2. >>Whether or not these stories out of Mexico about the Smithfield hog CAFO prove to be true, if this pandemic spurs a swine holocaust my sense of shame over our mistreatment of a long allied species will be deep.

    Spot on. Additionally, one hopes that, if H1N1 can't be traced epidemiologically to the Smithfield CAFO, we don't lose our fury about the astonishing public health catastrophe that the CAFO created in the mountain towns of Veracruz.
  3. Mariann
    A great graphic for getting a grip on how many animals die for food:

  4. Amerigo
    While I agree with most of what the author says about meat production in this country, especially CAFOs, I’m not sure what any of it has to do with the situation in Egypt. And I really have no idea what comments about how many chickens die per second are addressing. The Egyptian situation should be put in context. Egypt is still suffering from the effects of Bird Flu, which has devastated their poultry population, which is the secular storyline. The religious story is, of course, that Egypt is 90% Muslim and pork is consumed by the minority, mostly Coptics. Also many pigs are raised by dirt poor, uneducated farmers in very unsanitary conditions. Indeed, a cabinet spokesman said swine farms in Egypt were in poor condition and constituted a health hazard unrelated to swine flu. So with religious and class prejudices, and general sanitation concerns, it is hard to put the Egyptian situation into context with our affluent American debate between CAFOs and the Niman Ranch Farmers.

    Speaking of our affluent world debate, I agree El Dragon. CAFOs are public health disasters regardless of whether or not they spawned H1N1.
  5. Michael R. Dimock
    To Mariann:

    This will not satisfy those who oppose consumption of meat. But if like me, you believe that humans are animals and part of a omnivorous food chain that includes other animals as well as plants, and that we also must be ethical and humane within that omnivorous dynamic, a logic can be found.

    Author Derrick Jensen, in his powerful and thought provoking book Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, describes it well. He says that humans must come into an ethical relationship with the species upon which they prey. That relationship is based on an exchange. If I am going to eat you hogs, I will care for your species as you support mine. I think that is a fair deal. When we kill to protect ourselves from a threat that we are increasing by our own behaviors, and when we cause any level of suffering as we raise animals to eat them, in my view we are not in right relationship with animals. We have lost touch with our humanity and empathy and the higher calling of our species. I admit this is a very personal and philosophical view, but it is where I stand. I also think it is very good for us to remember we are only animals and as dependent on ecological systems as all other species. In our quest for mechanization of all things, I see danger for us, an inflation of our sense of power to control. Humility, like humus, is great for tending the garden and the quality of life.
  6. Josh Resnick
    While I'll refrain from wading into the morality of killing animals, or referring to their slaughter for food as a holocaust, I think we can all agree that using the word holocaust in a pun is in poor taste. Whether you reserve that term for the mass killing of innocent humans by the Nazis, or you extend it to the mass slaughter of livestock, it's not something to be taken lightly or reduced to a pithy headline.

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