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.
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.
Speaking of our affluent world debate, I agree El Dragon. CAFOs are public health disasters regardless of whether or not they spawned H1N1.
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.