One of our favorite sights each spring in Montana is the running of the piglets. We’d visit a small, Bozeman area organic pork producer up the west side of the Bridger Mountains to see all the little, new-born piggies take it outside.
They had a big pasture to roam and all of a sudden, as they stood rooting and rummaging around, one would take off and the rest would follow. They’d race far south, shoulder to tiny shoulder, make a wide turn, and then came streaming back. Call it a mini-stampede. The sheer joy of it never failed to make everyone laugh.
Of course, most hogs don’t enjoy that kind of life. Reading Ted Genoways’ recent book The Chain: Farm Factory and the Fate of Our Food we flashed on how hard it is not to focus on a single argument against big, meaning giant, agriculture. Humane living conditions and treatment, like those above, are easy for the small farmer. But the giants, always interested in improving the bottom line, find it more efficient –meaning more profitable — to cram pigs — standing room only — in pens with concrete floors. And birthing pens are especially horrific.
Add to this that big hog operations create huge amounts of waste that threaten our waters and farm land, that they’re a terrible, stinking neighbor that will certainly drop the value of your real estate, that they’re complicit in the rise of super germs resistant to the antibiotics that are freely fed to the pigs. Big hog production is rife with labor issues and on the job injuries. They centralize small town economies, and when they close, they often leave behind a mess.
Genoways’ hard-nosed book focuses on the production side of the business, the treatment of both animals and laborers. His premise is based on the meat-packing industry’s acceleration, how speeding up the processing of animals means more risk to workers and consumers. His book is a collection of stories, from various parts of the country, and each story illustrates the challenges that hog production on a mass scale.
You don’t have to read between the lines to see the ramifications in what Genoways tells us. The illnesses that strike workers at the “brain machine,” the place where the final bits of butchering take place, seem ready to spread to the population at large. Butchering cleanliness is a frequent issue.
Genoways explains that Korean marketers buy up “liquid pork brains” to use as a thickener in stir fry. In the same chapter, he recounts the history behind the philosophy of using every part of the animal, leading to the invention of Spam.
The workers around the brain machine come down with nerve inflammation of a sort that has them falling, suffering a general numbness, and other crippling symptoms. A neurologist decides the cause is some kind of unknown autoimmune response. The neurologist finds just one thing that’s for sure: the disease appeared only after the speed of the production line was accelerated.
Genoways deals with pollution and animal treatment issues the same way: with anecdotes that he uncovers in his travels. The book’s great service is to remind us how all the issues of factory farming are inter-related. You may be particularly outraged by the land and water pollution or the treatment of the animals (or the laborers for that matter). But these problems all influence each other, and that includes the speed of the animal’s processing.
It seems unnecessary to bring up our small livestock producers here. But supporting them seems the best way to loosen the grip of corporate farming. But it will take more than that. Huge export markets are opening in China and in specialty-product markets in Korea and Japan. Do we want to sacrifice our farmland and water, not to mention the welfare of the labor force, so that corporations can increase their overseas profits? And then there’s our other vision: piglets running free.