Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Abyss

"When you come to an abyss, the only safe step is backwards." 

My husband stumbled upon this gem of a quote in a book he is reading about raising hogs on pasture. After reading several books about animal welfare, including "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer and "Righteous Porkchop" by Nicolette Hahn Niman , I have come to the conclusion that the current model for swine production in this country is horrible.  Perhaps you have not heard about how they are raised... and there is a good reason for that.  The pork producers don't want to you know.  If people knew how their meat was actually raised, I venture a guess that there would be a lot more vegetarians out there.  Modern pork production treats the animals like a cog in a machine (notice it's not usually called farming - using words like "pork production" is a sneaky way to distract you from the fact that we're dealing with living, breathing creatures of God, to get you to focus on the end product, not the animals).  While the similar inhumane treatment applies to all meat animals, today let's just focus on hogs. 

There is little concern for the welfare of these creatures raised in confinement facilities.  The fact that animals are being raised behind closed (and locked) doors is alarming to me... we can't help but wonder what is being purposefully hidden from our view. These hogs live a tortured existence, denied the basic pleasures of life, like being outside in the sunshine, feeling grass under their feet and breathing fresh air.  The hogs live their whole lives on concrete and many never see the light of day.  The breeding sows are confined to "farrowing" crates that resemble torture devices. They are meant to prevent the sow from standing or moving, for fear she will crush her young. She lives her entire adult life in this crate.  A pamphlet I received from the Michigan Pork Producers Association (propaganda, in my mind) actually had the audacity to state the crate "is designed to provide the best environment for both the large sow and small piglets."  "Best environment"?!?  Just thinking about these facilities brings tears to my eyes.  After raising our own hogs this summer, I've became acutely aware of the intelligence and social personality of these extraordinary creatures.  Hogs have a more sophisticated brain than dogs, second only to apes and dolphins in the animal world.  It pains me to think of these animals being subjected to such treatment.  Can you imagine the outcry there would be if people treated dogs this way?!?   When dogs are treated this way, locked up in tiny cages, it's called a "puppy mill" and they are shut down on charges of animal cruelty. People that abuse dogs are often sent to prison. Yet we look the other way and ignore the horrors being subjected to our meat animals.  I can't wrap my head around this.   

Our hog Pearl.  Hogs are delightful creatures.

We have come to the edge of the abyss.  I cannot imagine how we could be any more cruel to hogs.  Could we show them any more disrespect for their sacrifice?  If they are going to die for our pleasure, then the least we can do is make their life as comfortable and stress-free as possible.  We have pushed these animals as far as they can go.  We can't keep moving forward - we're teetering on the edge of the abyss!  We HAVE to step back.   There is no other way to turn. 

As Joel Salatin says, "How we respect the least will reflect on how we treat the greatest."  We live in a culture that shows great disdain for the very things that sustain us - starting with the humble soil, all the way up to animals, and even human life.  Disrespect of the life-giving soil leads to disrespect of animal life, which in turn leads to disrespect for human life.  If we closely examine the food industry, we will discover a blatant disregard for soil structure, a disregard for the welfare of God's creatures (both domesticated and wild), and ultimately disregard for the humans who work in the industry.

Now don't get me wrong.  I am not blaming the farmers for this.  It's not like any farmer woke up one morning and said  "I think I'll torture some animals today.  Yup, good plan."  No!  Obviously, no one thinks that way!  But in recent years, many farmers have been told by countless sources that in order to stay viable, they need to follow the advice of the industry.  "Get big or get out", they have been told.  "Here is our formula for success.  Follow it."  So they did.  And in order to become more efficient (or simply survive), they had to adopt questionable practices.   Animals are packed into tighter spaces, forced to grow at increased rates,  constantly stressed, which causes illness, which in turn means they must be medicated.  It's a vicious cycle and many farmers have become trapped.  How do you escape this?  Is it possible?

The book my husband is reading is called "Dirt Hog" by Kelly Klober.  The author advocates a move towards outdoor hog farming, instead of indoor confinement facilities.  He argues that this method results in happier, healthier, less stressed animals and eliminates the need for toxic manure lagoons - the hogs spread the fertilizer themselves, reducing pollution and oil consumption (tractors to spread manure).  But of course, he gets lots of people thinking he is crazy because, well, it's more work to tend and care for the hogs in their pastures.  Many indoor confinement facilities contain thousands of hogs, but are managed by only a couple of people.  They are set up like factories, fully mechanized.  For some, this sounds great.  But remember, these are living, breathing creatures, not factory components.  And one of human-kind's commands in Genesis 1:26 is to "rule over the livestock".  Rule, not exploit and torture.  If you don't think living on concrete you whole life, not being able to do what you were created to do (dig in the dirt), crowded together with other anxious intelligent bored animals that chew off each others tails in frustration isn't torture, then what do you call it?

Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors....Naturally

Some people say that Klober is "anti-progress", "anti-science".  Because he suggests returning to a "old school" system (that works! and is healthier for hogs, humans and environment), he is often ridiculed and scoffed at.  He says this:

"When accused of this sort of regressive thinking, I take great comfort from the old adage from the French that says "When you come to an abyss, the only safe step is backwards."  I can't think of a better image to describe the state of affairs in the swine production of late than a great abyss."

Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should. Just because we have the capability to imagine it doesn't mean that it's ethically and morally acceptable to DO it.

What can you do to take a step back?  Lots!

1.  Reduce your meat consumption.  Many Americans eat meat at every meal (bacon at breakfast, turkey sandwich at lunch, chicken breast for dinner).  Try cutting back to eating it just once a day, perhaps at dinner time.  Maybe you even go meatless a few days a week. 
2.  Buy better meat.  Now that you have reduced your meat consumption, you can direct that money towards purchasing more humanely raised meats.  I'm sad to tell you that almost all meat sold at supermarkets/grocery stores comes from animals raised in confinement facilities.   You might be able to find some better options.  Coleman Natural meats seems to be a safer bet.  The company has high standards for animals welfare. 
3.  Purchase meat from a local butcher shop.  Often, the shop will stock meats from locally raised animals.  The beauty of buying at a butcher shop is that you can ask questions and they should be able to find out exactly where that meat came from.  Supermarkets often cannot do that.
4.  Buy meat directly from the farmer.  In a perfect world, we would all buy our meat from a local farmer.  In a perfect world, we would all go visit the farm, see how the animals are raised, talk to the farmer about their farming practices, maybe even meet the animal you intend to consume.  Most farmers arrange for you to buy a large part of the animal (half a hog, quarter of a cow, etc.), but some will sell meat by the cut.  Buying part of an animal is a fabulous deal if you can save up the money (set aside $10-15 a week and by the end of the year, you will have a good chunk of cash to buy some good meat). Admittedly, this option takes the most work on your end, as you have to actively seek out a farmer and decide how you want your meat processed, but it's worth it.  It's lovely having a freezer full of dinner options, instead of having to run to the store.  Check out this link to West Michigan Coop to find information about local farms that raise animals humanely.
5.  Pay more, eat less.  Vote with your dollars and support farmers and companies that treat animals humanely, protect the environment and use sustainable practices.  Your dollars DO make a difference.  Food industries are paying attention and want to please the consumer. 

So, let's step back from the abyss.  Let's take a hard look at what we have done and admit that we've gone too far.  Let's realize that taking a step backward is actually taking a step in the right direction. 


  1. Great post! (I've been behind, so I'm slowly catching up)

    I love how you provide steps that are actually achievable. Some days I wish I could move to a farm and raise my own animals, but with hubby's job, that doesn't seem feasible now, and I'm pretty sure there are city ordinances about keeping animals in our teeny yard. But all 5 steps are really good goals to aim toward.

    Thanks! I want to be a better steward of what we have been given and this really helps me work to figure out how to do it!

  2. Thanks for you kind words, JulieAnn! I forgot to mention that Craigslist is actually fabulous tool for finding small farm raised meats. It sounds sketchy, but it's not! You can ask to visit the farm and see how the animals are raised first hand (if they say no, run the other way - they have something to hide!). Then you actually buy part of the live hog or cow, and then when it's time to butcher it, the animal is sent to a USDA approved facility to be slaughtered and processed. So it's not like you're buying meat someone cut up in their garage... although sometimes I feel like that might actually be safer :)

    Farming is certainly not for everyone. In just my short experience, I've come to realize how much WORK it is! Thankfully, I don't mind the work, but I will never, EVER complain about food prices again, now that I know what goes into growing/raising food! I think we need to have a National Farmer Appreciation Day :)