Supplying food for the entire world is not easy, and when people have an ethical choice to make, it only makes the situation more complex. Factory farms have been under extensive, but deserved scrutiny within the last few years, and now, the somewhat daunting task of creating a morally acceptable, feasible livestock system is in the hands of the general public and the nation’s largest corporations. The pig is the most popular animal for consumption worldwide (about 40 percent of all meat consumed), making their living environment a highly controversial issue.
Pigs are, well, pigs. They have been nature’s garbage removal service for thousands of years. In Europe, during the beginning of their domestication, pigs ate brewery and dairy waste. This type of sustainable behavior is the reason they became so desirable as livestock for Europeans and Chinese, independently. They required less work and provided a large payoff. Slowly, we have molded their genetics to increase production and profit, artificially changing their fundamental traits to fit our desires.
Even Charles Darwin got in on pig farming. He observed Europeans selecting larger pigs, which eventually resulted in the development of two to three extra vertebrae. In contrast, the Chinese focused on numbers, seeking out sows that could produce many offspring. The pigs met in an Othello-like fashion. As Sujata Gupta writes for Pacific Standard, “The birth of the modern pig is a love story of sorts, the tale of how a Western sow and an Eastern boar came to find one another.” After these breeds made contact, the paragon pig was born, paving the way for the modern pork industry seen today.
In this massive industry, many companies trudge along without giving thought to the larger conceptual idea behind farming—animals interacting with their environment. Synthesizing desirable traits could allow pigs, and other animals, to be better suited for larger groups. One company is focused on this idea, and using artificial selection, they are engineering the future of all swine-kind.
Welcome to The Pig Adventure, Fair Oaks Farms’ “agro-Disneyland” located between Chicago and Indiana. It houses over 3,000 sows and births 80,000 piglets a year. With these kinds of numbers, it’s imperative to think about the quality of life for the swine population. Fair Oaks Farms seeks to balance ethical issues with porker health, keeping their eyes fixed on a lucrative production process.
Jon Hoek is the vice president of pig production at Belstra Milling, the farm behind The Pig Adventure. “In our society,” says Hoek, “animals and people are not moral equivalents.” As controversial as this statement may be, considering today’s megacorporations and seemingly unstoppable factory farming network, this ultimately rings true. The massive amount of social tension between welfare and production is a never-ending battle. Emphasizing welfare over production could leave farmers broke, driving up pork prices. This kind of situation could lead consumers to purchase cheap, imported meat. As the world population increases, meat-production has consistently followed, increasing three-fold within the last four decades. With our culture relying more on meat than ever before, drawing the line between “animal cruelty” and “necessary action” has become increasingly troublesome. As Gupta writes for Pacific Standard:
“Whereas in 1957 a typical dairy cow produced between 500 and 600 pounds of milk over a post-natal lactation period, she now produces close to 20,000 pounds. Consequently, today’s burnt-out dairy cow survives just over two lactations, compared to between 10 and 20 lactations in earlier years.
This trend led Bernard Rollin, a philosopher with expertise in animal rights at Colorado State University, to describe the modern cow as “a milkbag on legs, and unstable legs at that.”
With Iowa processing over 9.6 billion pounds a year alone, and with animal rights activists surfacing throughout the United States, the argument over ethical animal treatment is unavoidable. Upholding ethical values should be number one on everyone’s priority list, and if you’re eating meat and live within a fifty-mile radius of any city, you have surely heard some anti-meat rhetoric. With two percent of the US population producing food for the other 98%, it’s a critical issue to consider: How do we keep the farmers in check? And how do we eat ethically and still keep money in our wallets?
In 1965, a committee set out five freedoms for livestock: Freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury, or disease, freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear and stress. All of these aspects are not practiced to their full extent today, but genetic modifications to pigs and alterations to their living conditions could help immensely. As Bill Muir, a geneticist at Purdue University states, “Most conventional breeders still only look at an individual’s genetics and not at how that individual interacts with the larger group.” Artificially selecting pigs that do better in large groups would slowly alter their DNA, allowing them to acclimate to the growing industrial climate, making it physically easier on them, and more ethically acceptable for us.
As we think about where our meat comes from, we’d love to imagine pigs roaming lush grasslands, and then dying ignorantly in the middle of a meadow full of wildflowers. But this reality does not exist (right now). Of course, reducing suffering is a priority for Fair Oaks, but they have, long ago, accepted the inevitable death of livestock. Their focus now is to balance new ethical concerns while increasing production. They must fill the constant pork demand beset upon them, by us, the consumers. Thomas Parsons, a veterinary researcher who directs the Swine Teaching and Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania, sums up the dilemma well: “It’s easy to see bad welfare if an animal is injured, if it’s skinny, or cold … but how do you know if it’s happy? That’s the million-dollar question.”