Monday, September 8, 2014

Learning to Live with Our Pigs: An Omnivore’s Contradiction?

Many criticisms have been written about the modern methods of animal agriculture in which pigs, cows, chickens, and even fish, are used and misused in the attempt to extract the maximum amount of output from their bodies.  Perhaps the most complete picture is provided by Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott in their book Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat.  Like most authors, they focus on the suffering of the animals under these industrial processes, arguing that traditional agricultural methods are both more humane and more sustainable.  In order to make the strongest case against these practices they also survey the environmental and human health hazards that have arisen.  These latter issues, coupled with that of sustainability, produce, perhaps, their strongest case.

If one wished to evoke sympathy for animals based on the degree of mistreatment, chickens would probably be the best candidate.  If the strategy is to pick the animal most likely to elicit sympathy from humans, then the pig is the likely candidate.  Pigs will generally have their tails cut off so more of them can be squeezed into a small space where most will spend the remainder of their short lives being stuffed with food and chemicals with nothing to do but digest and defecate until they are led to slaughter.

Thousands of pigs being fed in this manner create enormous amounts of manure.  There is no good way to dispose of mountains of excrement.  Often they are spread on fields under the guise of fertilization, but the net result is that much of the muck enters our water systems: rivers, streams, lakes, oceans, and underground reservoirs.  The ramifications of this pollution are serious enough to argue for less harmful approaches.  One could also argue that closely packed animals wallowing in their filth provide an excellent mechanism for generating diseases.  Remember swine flu?

Our desire for pig meat, as well as that for chicken, beef, and fish, is a problem.  It requires about four times as much grain to provide a modern meat-laden diet as it does to provide a living diet based on consuming the grain directly (It takes about 3.5 pounds of grain to add a pound of meat to a pig).  With billions more people expecting to move up the food chain and consume more of that wonderful meat we have a problem.  There is only so much land and water, and only so much pollution and environmental degradation that can absorbed.  Something has to change.

If one were to ask Lymbery and Oakeshott what they consider to be “the omnivore’s contradiction” they might suggest that a contradiction lies in the fact that we once had an agricultural system in which we raised plants for human consumption and left animals to eat things that humans did not want, including our waste products.  Now, in the name of efficiency, we feed our animals human food in the hope that a little of that will come back to us in the form of meat.  The appropriate solution for these authors, and many others who have addressed the problem, is to revert to more sustainable agricultural practices.  This might lower the supply of meat and increase the price, but at least the planet will be saved—and the animals would be much happier.

There are others who view this approach with disdain and suggest that it is absurd to worry about the comfort and happiness of animals while at the same time planning to kill them for their meat; therein resides “the omnivores contradiction”—a play on the title of Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  James McWilliams presents this view in an article in The American Scholar where he addresses the question How Can We Raise Them Humanely and Then Butcher Them? He argues that veganism is the only path for those who are truly concerned about animal welfare and the environment.

“Research shows that veganism, which obviates the inherent waste involved in growing the grains used to fatten animals for food in conventional systems, is seven times more energy efficient than eating meat and, if embraced globally, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from conventional agriculture by 94 percent. Any pretext to explore meat eating’s moral underpinnings—and possibly land upon an excuse for pursuing a plant-based diet as a viable goal—would be consistent with the movement’s anticorporate, ecologically driven mission.”

“But with rare exception, those in the big, lumpy tent have thrown down a red carpet for ‘ethical butchers’ while generally dismissing animal rights advocates as smug ascetics (which they can be) and crazed activists (ditto) who are driven more by sappy sentiment than rock-ribbed reason. It’s an easy move to make. But the problem with this dismissal—and the overall refusal to address the ethics of killing animals for food—is that it potentially anchors the Food Movement’s admirable goals in the shifting sands of an unresolved hypocrisy. Let’s call it the ‘omnivore’s contradiction’.”

McWilliams grants that carnivores can make compelling arguments for their choices, but accuses them of avoiding the clear moral contradiction inherent in their position.

“Conscientious carnivores will argue that we can justify eating animals because humans evolved to do so (the shape of our teeth proves it); that if we did not eat happy farm animals, they’d never have been born to become happy in the first place; that all is fine if an animal lives well and is ‘killed with respect’; that we need to recycle animals through the agricultural system to keep the soil healthy; that animals eat animals; and that in nature, it’s the survival of species and not of individuals that matters most. These arguments create room for a productive conversation. But none of them carry real weight until the Food Movement resolves the contradiction….How do you ethically justify both respecting and killing a sentient animal?”

It seems that there may be a bit a “vegan contradiction” if one chooses that diet for moral reasons. The assumption is explicit that carnivores are somehow causing unnecessary grief and suffering to pigs.  That may not be an accurate characterization.

It is useful to think of a compact having been formed between humans and the animals that we have domesticated.  In effect, humans have agreed to care for and protect animals up to a certain age or size.  In return, the animals will be available as a food source.  Is this a good deal for the animals? Consider the pig.  Before the arrival of humans, a pig would have been just another entry in that hierarchy of flesh-eating animals.  Before humans, there would have been a number of animals large enough to prey on a full-grown pig.  It seems that wherever humans cropped up, outside of the African homeland, large mammals soon disappeared.  Mankind presumably did the pig the favor of eliminating any animals that spent their days looking for pigs to eat.

An animal the size of a pig with no predators will grow in population until it runs out of food or acquires another predator.  Even if humans had chosen to be herbivores, once they settled into stationary agriculture, pigs would have become an intolerable pest.  A few pigs can do a lot of damage to a planted field.  Humans would have inevitably become a predator.  Pigs would have had to be hunted and killed even if their meat was not the motivation.

The environment in which pigs evolved no longer exists.  In many parts of the world, they are no longer part of the ecology.  Feral pigs are now considered an “invasive” species.  The Global Invasive Species Database provides this description:

"Sus scrofa (feral pigs) are escaped or released domestic animals which have been introduced to many parts of the world. They damage crops, stock and property, and transmit many diseases such as Leptospirosis and Foot and Mouth disease. Rooting pigs dig up large areas of native vegetation and spread weeds, disrupting ecological processes such as succession and species composition. Sus scrofa are omnivorous and their diet can include juvenile land tortoises, sea turtles, sea birds, endemic reptiles and macro-invertebrates. Management of Sus scrofa is complicated by the fact that complete eradication is often not acceptable to communities that value feral pigs for hunting and food.”

They are described as ecological interlopers who could (and should) be eradicated if only hunters didn’t enjoy the sport of killing them themselves.

We created the domestic pig, and now we own it.  If we are not going to use it for food what are we going to do with it?  This source suggests there are about a billion pigs involved in agriculture.  There is no path by which they can be allowed to die of old age.

What we can do is make their short lives more tolerable, as suggested by Lymbery, Oakeshott, and Pollan.  We cannot undo what has been done.

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