Of pigs and priorities

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The latest salvo in the GMO wars came last week, and it hit close to home because pigs were involved.

If you follow these issues, you may have seen the paper. The researchers divided a group of pigs into two groups, and fed one standard genetically modified feed and the other non-GM feed. They found a statistically significant difference in rates of severe stomach inflammation, with the GM pigs having more. So, of course, the anti-GM faction hailed it as a smoking gun. The pro-GM faction eviscerated it as a flawed study.

They all missed the story.

We can argue til the cows come home about survey methodology, whether the correlation between severe stomach inflammation and GM feed was chance or causal, and how this study should be followed up (and I talked about some of those things in a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post). But one thing is absolutely clear: we need to do something about factory farming.

Lost in the parsing of mild, moderate, and severe stomach inflammation, and the argument over whether it matters is the disconcerting fact that virtually all of these pigs, raised “according to usual industry practices,” had inflamed stomachs. Over half of them had pneumonia. There were many ulcers and stomach erosions (a pre-ulcerous condition), and a good sprinkling of organ abnormalities. One in eight of them died.

Those of you who come here often know that Kevin I raised three pigs last year, in a 2000-square foot pen in the woods. They ate conventional feed, which undoubtedly contained GM grain. We supplemented that feed with foraged acorns, fish skins from a local restaurant, and waste from a nearby dairy. All of which they appeared to enjoy – although it’s hard to tell, since bad manners look a lot like enthusiasm and pigs do eat like pigs.

Our pigs rooted, wallowed, and ran. They had elbow room and companionship. Sunshine, shade, and shelter. If I were a pig, I’d pick a runaround life with GM feed over a factory life with ambrosia. When it comes to a pig’s well-being, lifestyle trumps feed content, hands down.

The bigger question about GM food, of course, is whether it affects human health. But factory livestock farming is a human problem, too. What of the environmental impact of confinement operations? Or the possibility that prophylactic antiobiotic use is contributing to resistant bacteria? Or the repercussions of introducing huge amounts of inexpensive meat, from animals not optimally healthy, into the food supply? Even if we leave pig well-being aside, factory farming should matter for what it does to us.

But we can’t leave pig well-being aside. We raise 120 million of these smart, curious animals every year in this country, and we have a responsibility to them.

Did you see The Muppet Movie? There’s a scene where Kermit, a reporter, is doing a story on why the chicken crossed the road. He’s interviewing the chicken, taking copious notes. Fozzie, his photographer, is shooting the scene. They are so wrapped up in what they’re doing that they miss the bank robbery going on in the background.

And that’s what we have here. GM crops are an important issue, but how can we look a study of pigs showing rampant illness and a disgraceful mortality rate, and focus on whether GM feed caused a small difference in rates of stomach inflammation? How?

Genetic modification catalyzes public outrage while pigs fly, if not quite below the radar, on its periphery. The politics, money, and power wrapped up in GMOs have given that issue traction beyond its potential health impact. And the politics, money, and power all matter, as do the GM crops themselves. We shouldn’t stop talking about them. But there are some pigs out there who need our outrage.

GM? We don't care!

GM? We don’t care!

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Comments

  1. Franinoz says:

    One of the largest supermarket chains in Australia is introducing “sow stall” (gestation crates) free fresh pork over the next two years. There is also a category of “bred free range” products , meaning the piglets can range outside until they are 21 days old. both these categories are by no means satisfactory but a step in the right direction. I buy only organic free range from small piggeries and I’m convinced such pork tastes better but that may be the savour of a guilt free conscience! Temple Grandin (may she live forever!) said of sow stalls; “… basically you’re asking a sow to live in an airline seat”.

  2. As you know I am not fond of GMOs. That aside I whole heartlessly agree that factory raised meat is a disgusting problem in our country. It is a crime in my mind they we treat our meat animals, besides pigs, chicken and cattle are similarly raised.in cruel way. Not only is it cruel it’s unhealthy for the animal and the consumer. This has to change.

  3. Good points. I remain uneasy about GMOs, but you are correct that a much more obvious problem is DEFINITELY at work here.

  4. Accidental Mick says:

    Tamar, Rick,

    I completely agree with you both but have to tell you that America is not the worst animal breeder around.

    In some European countries, the “sow stalls” are wire mesh cages stacked three high. The unfortunate on the bottom spends all its life being defecated on by the two above. Also, when the piglet is small it can put its foot through the mesh and break its leg. It is not treated because “after all, it’s not going anywhere”.

    How can we claim to be civilised and (selfishly) how can we expect the outcome to be good food.

    Know where your food comes from.

  5. Franinoz — You’re right that it’s a step in the right direction. I’m hoping that (small, insufficient) steps like that are a sign that the worm is turning on factory farming, and that people are paying attention.

    Holly & Rick — There are certainly GMO issues we need to be concerned about. Although I’m optimistic that the technology can do good for the food supply, it’s clearly an area that requires our scrutiny. I just can’t get my mind around the fact that factory livestock seem to be a much bigger and clearer problem, yet don’t raise the same hackles.

    Mick — That is grim, grim, grim. So, Europeans ban GMO imports but allow terrible animal conditions. I just don’t get it.

  6. Laura B says:

    GMO’s are scary Jurassic Park science, while factory farms are merely uncomfortable animals. And people do not want to give up their crispy, fatty, salty bacon, so they have to ignore that their cherished bacon comes from a pig whose entire life was revoltingly miserable. Same with chickens – people don’t want to give up their KFC, so they ignore birds that are being raised in buildings with just enough light that they can find their food and water and in an atmosphere of ammonia mixed with the stench of the up to 10% acceptable mortality for fryers/broilers.

    Don’t mess with people’s cheap protein! They get cranky!

  7. First Officer says:

    Are we sure they simulated factory farming properly? They had at least twice the mortality rate of said factory farms. It’s a shame that a lot of people against animal abuse are also anti-gmo. GE has the potential of creating organisms that could literally grow any kind of meat without requiring the rest of the animal, at the fraction of inputs, per pound of meat, than we do now.

  8. Laura — So you don’t think my anti-factory farm slogan — Meat: Pay twice as much, eat half as much — is going anywhere?

    FO — It wasn’t simulated. It was a real farm. And mortality rates on those real farms are sometimes that high, or very close:
    http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/nahms/swine/downloads/swine2006/Swine2006_dr_PartIII.pdf

    • Laura B says:

      “Laura — So you don’t think my anti-factory farm slogan — Meat: Pay twice as much, eat half as much — is going anywhere?”

      Oh, I think it would go somewhere, but not where you intend.

      My feelings (mostly disgust and nausea) about factory farms lead me to raise my own meat chickens this year. I raised them on certified organic feeds, and gave them fresh veggies everyday in addition to the tomato and pepper plants they ate down to nubbins. Once they were out of the brooder, they were raised outside with fresh air and sunshine, and had a happy, active, healthy chicken life. Where I work we are having a BBQ for July 4th, and I jokingly suggested that I would serve my chickens. I had several people act like their stomachs turned at the thought, and two people actually said that if I served my healthy, raised with loving hands chickens, they would not come to the BBQ. But, if I bought cheap chicken that has been raised in horrifying conditions, and then soaked in a bath of water, chlorine and chicken feces, and then shipped from Arkansas to California, why then it would be delicious chicken and I would be the hero of the BBQ!

      • I got the same reaction when I wrote about killing our pigs. People think it’s uncivilized, and a betrayal, to kill and eat an animal you’ve cared for. Go figure.

        • One of the reasons I haven’t started raising animals for food again (not the top reason) is that it would feel like betrayal to me – I don’t think there’s any other way to look at it if you put yourself in that animal’s paws. That said, I have zero problem with anyone raising animals well and killing them for meat; it’s much more of a statement about ME that I prefer to kill animals that are strangers to me.

          • I’ve killed strangers and I’ve killed friends, and strangers are easier.

            As for betrayal, I think we need to be clear about the difference between animals and people. Yes, if someone did it to you, it would be betrayal, for a whole host of reasons — many of which (if not all) don’t apply to human-animal relations. That’s why dogs and cats are pets, and not slaves. Chickens and pigs are livestock, not the victims of treachery.

            That said, if you go too far down that road, you get to factory farms. It’s not easy to find the line.

          • Laura B says:

            Holly, I struggled with the same feeling of betrayal, but having watched these birds live a good life makes it possible for me to endure my feelings of guilt. I am not cut out to be a vegetarian — I’ve tried it, and each time felt crummy after a few weeks with a miraculous recovery when I ate meat. So I cannot avoid the issue. I eat meat, and therefore some thinking, feeling being dies. But for me the cost of eating factory farm meat is so much higher than the cost of my guilt because not not because FF animals died to be dined upon, but because they have had the natural life they are supposed to live stolen from them.

            It is better killing an animal that someone else has raised than your own. Right now I have a little cockerel that my broody hen hatched this spring, and I have become attached to him. I have even named him Mr. Peeper because he is constantly under my feet peeping. The other three cockerels have kept their distance, and they are going to be easy to butcher, but Mr. Peeper may be given away to someone else who needs a wholesome chicken dinner. Or I may just be very, very sad when Mr. Peeper goes to Camp Frigidaire with his brothers. Some just get under your skin, no matter how hard you try to keep a respectful distance, but that also is part of not being a factory farm.

          • Laura B, that’s interesting – I think it was an Anthony Bourdain show I was watching one night where goatherders who wanted to eat very young kid always gave it to another goatherder to do the killing. Interesting solution.

            I totally agree with you. I feel guilty about pretty much every animal I kill, even though they’re all “strangers.” My reaction is to accept and acknowledge those feelings.

            And I’ve never tried going vegetarian and doubt I ever will – I love meat, a LOT. It’s what my body runs on, and I don’t apologize for it, or wish to change it.

        • Yeah, those distinctions don’t mean much to me. If a living thing trusts me and I kill it, I see that as betrayal, regardless of its legal or semantic status. But of course, you know me: I firmly believe that killing to eat is part of the natural order, and therefore is OK, despite the fact that being OK does NOT remove any emotional costs for me. I know, Tamar. I’m weird. But at nearly 48, I’m pretty comfortable with my weirdness :-).

        • First Officer says:

          This reminds me of some appalachian documentary i saw many years ago where a women picked up one of her chickens running around and rather nonchalantly wrung its neck in a matter of seconds. She seemed neither sad nor upset, just matter of fact that it needed to be done for that night’s dinner. I guess we’re a very insulated people these days.

      • Brooke S says:

        Laura, how sad it is that so many refused to eat a chicken raised under such prime conditions. We raised three turkeys last year, and all of our neighbors (even those averse to change, and prefer packaged food) came and said it was the best turkey they ever had. Everybody asked if we were going to raise more this year! Either your co-workers need to see what those animals live like, or you need new coworkers.

        • Brooke, I work for a nonprofit that provides programs and services for people with developmental disabilities, so they are very good people. They just have the same disconnect that so many Americans share of not being able to tolerate the connection between animals and meat. It baffles me, but I grew up in a hunting and fishing family, so I have always known something died to make my dinner.

          OTOH, let them turn their noses up at my chickens! It means that I don’t have to share!

    • First Officer says:

      From the study provided, i get 9.67% (1 – (1 -.039)*(1-.06)) mortality rate from end of weaning to end of grower/finishing stage. I believe that is what was meant by the weaning to slaughter period of 22.7 weeks in the study. This vs. the 13 to 14%. So, definitely not double, but may still be significantly higher. I took the average mortality of all sizes of farms for that calculation.

      Thanks for that study. It was much more thorough than any i was able to find.

      • Check the rate for large farms. It’s almost there.

        13-14% is clearly high, but in the range.

        • First Officer says:

          I used the average rate since, though they were trying to simulate the factory farm setting, the number of pigs they had made them a small operation. I did this because, considering the number of things they did get wrong in their methodology, this too could have had its problems. But, even so, like you said, “in the range”, it may or may not be statistically significantly different.

  9. I have not raised animals for meat. I do buy locally and humanely raised meat though. The first time I purchased a Thanksgiving turkey I felt obligated to go meet the flock. I couldn’t believe how many of friends and family told me I was gross or mean for doing so. Really? Most people haven’t a clue how their food is produced. I think that’s part of the problem; people are so disconnected from their food. Meat comes from the supermarket plastic wrapped on styrofoam trays, not a farm, not an animal. Go figure.

  10. Accidental Mick says:

    Years ago we went for a family holiday to a working farm.

    Predictably, my son (aged 4 years) and my daughter (5 years) loved the morning chores of feeding the chickens, collecting eggs, feeding the pet sow and feeding the donkeys.

    Over dinner we asked about the pig (called Emnily) and was told they bred from her each year and fattened up a couple of piglets and sold the rest as weaners. The farmers wife casually mentioned that they used to have 2 sows but one (Priscilla) started to get aggressive towards visitors and so had to go. We asked what had happened and she said “You’re eating her”. I looked at my children, feeling a bit apprehensive, to see my son lean over his plate, shout “Hello Priscilla” and go happily back to eating.

    The point of the story is that the sort of faddiness we are talking about is not innate but learnt. Sorry if this is judgmental but, it seems to me, it is self-taught by woolly minded people who then want their spurious convictions ratified by making others agree with them.

  11. I think it’s interesting that everyone who has raised animals for meat — or even expressed an interest in meeting the animals they’re going to eat — has encountered the same reaction. It’s somewhere from weird to reprehensible to be kind to an animal and then kill it.

    Holly, I think I understand what you mean when you say those distinctions (between human and animal) are lost on you, and that they’re semantic. But in a very real way, it’s clear that you think about humans and animals differently, or you wouldn’t be out there shooting animals. But there is a real difference, as Laura pointed out, between killing an animal you’ve cared for, and cared about, and killing an animal you don’t know. But we have to remember that the difference is to *us*, and not to the animal.

    Laura, we came up with the same idea about barter killing — you kill mine, I kill yours. It’s a good system.

    Mick, I think kids can the idea of eating an animal they know in stride most of the time. As you point out, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. We had a lot of kids come visit, and parents often balked at telling them what were going to do with the pigs. But we told every kid who asked the truth — we’re going to kill them and eat them — and there was not one single bad reaction.

    • “But we have to remember that the difference is to *us*, and not to the animal.”

      Amen. This is why I don’t get my undies in a twist about high-fence ranch hunting.

    • Laura B says:

      Tamar, if a peeping box appears on your doorstep, his name is Mr. Peeper. I trust that you will know what to do. ;)

      I think we live in strange times. So many people are “The Princess and the Pea” tender so they cannot tolerate anything that brushes up against harsh realities, but at the same time they are cruel and heartless by remote control.

      I told someone last week that by killing my own I just don’t contract out the hit anymore. I don’t think they got it.

  12. “All of which they appeared to enjoy – although it’s hard to tell, since bad manners look a lot like enthusiasm and pigs do eat like pigs.”

    Nice
    SBW

  13. >If I were a pig, I’d pick a runaround life with GM feed over a factory life with ambrosia.

    Absolutely. If I couldn’t hunt, fish and raise it myself, I wouldn’t be able to eat meat. I can raise the chickens for eight weeks, take very good care of them, and kill them easier than I can chew and swallow factory farmed chicken. I feel the same about turkey, duck, pork and beef.

  14. Laura B says:

    I don’t know, after watching Steven Colbert’s episode on California chicken cages http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/427378/june-20-2013/steve-king-on-chicken-cages?xrs=synd_facebook, I find myself conflicted. He makes a good point that we can go smaller!

  15. I agree with you that the real issue is the conditions. Fortunately we can raise pigs without the GMO grain inputs, in fact it can be done without buying any grains at all, GMO or non-GMO. Pigs raise up on pasture very nicely. If one is able to grow pumpkins, feed eggs (from completely pastured chickens no less), feed milk (pastured goats and cows again), and other good things then so much the butter. This makes the GMO issue moot so we can focus on the humanely raising issue. Pigs, sheep, chickens, goats, geese, ducks and cattle are a great way to make use of pasture lands that are too rocky or steep for machine cultivation for raising crops. Pasture based livestock harvest sunshine sustainably.

  16. I hate it, why are people slaughtering innocent animals so they get a ton of money? I mean, slaughtering animals is for lazy people, every animal hunts with its features but we don’t? Come on try at least capture your own meat, go the natures way, use your own bare hands, I bet that’s hard.

  17. Hi Tamar, someone just passed this link onto me about a new study on pigs and cows vs GMOs which I thought you might want for your collection. -Walter