The title of this blog entry isn’t actually the start of a joke – although, I think it could be a pretty funny one, so I’m accepting ideas for punch lines. A vegetarian walks into a pig farm – this was me a couple of weeks ago. As a part of an assignment for my Animal Protection class, I visited a farm to observe the conditions under which animals are typically kept in our culture. Setting up a visit wasn’t easy. It took several weeks of contacting various Ohio farm organizations and a lot of persistence.
When people visualize farms, we often think about rolling hills, animals grazing on pastures, and big, red barns – this is not without good reason. These are usually the pictures we see depicted on the packaging of products at grocery stores.
Although I’m sure a few of these farms still exist, they are few and far between. Now, factory farming accounts for over 99 percent of all farmed animals who are raised and slaughtered in the United States.1 Factory farms are either Animal Feeding Operations (AFO) or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). An AFO is an agricultural operation where the farmed animals are raised in confined conditions and the feed is brought to the animals, rather than allowing them to graze on pastures or fields.2 A CAFO is both an AFO and also contributes significant pollutants to our surface water.3 Clear as mud? What a shame that we even have to have these definitions at all.
On the farm I visited, the pigs are kept inside barns and fed a diet of corn and soybeans fortified with vitamins and minerals to cause rapid growth in a short period of time. As they grow larger, there is less room to move around in the pens, causing the pigs to trample one another and fight for space. Although their tails are docked a few days after birth, the overcrowding still causes them to bite the ears and tail stubs of other pigs. There are about 2,000 pigs on the farm at any one time, and as you can imagine, that’s a lot of poop! There is a machine that spreads the manure underground – apparently that helps with the smell.
Although the conditions for the pigs were difficult for me to see, I did enjoy the time I spent on the farm. The farmer was welcoming, answered all of my questions, invited me to lunch – which I politely declined, and I even got to ride on a fancy GPS-enabled tractor.
Can’t we all just get along? Well, a vegetarian just spent an enjoyable morning with a pig farmer, so maybe that’s a good sign!
There are many types of farms – even within the factory farm definition – some better and some probably much worse than the one I visited. So how do we decide which farms to support and where to purchase the animal products we eat? How do we decide whether to eat animal products at all? I recently learned that several states are passing legislation that prohibits undercover photography or video of the farms that produce our food. What does it say about our farms if we aren’t allowed to see them? If we’re not allowed to see them, how can we make educated decisions about our food? In a New York Times Magazine article, Michael Pollen (2002) states, “Maybe all we need to do to redeem industrial animal agriculture in this country is to pass a law requiring that the steel and concrete walls of the CAFO’s and slaughterhouses be replaced with . . . glass. If there’s any new ‘right’ we need to establish, maybe it’s this one: the right to look.”4
While at Best Friends Animal Society, I had the chance to observe pigs in a completely different environment. They had access to the outside to root for food and cool off in the mud, were fed a diet of salads and dried fruit, and had the opportunity to socialize with people and other pigs. In other words, they lived like pigs.
You don’t have to call yourself a vegetarian or an animal rights advocate to be someone who cares about the conditions in which farmed animals are raised. Over 60 percent of people in the United States have companion animals5, and most of them probably would agree that our pets deserve our consideration and respect. I’m not advocating that we turn all pigs into pets, but what do we owe the animals who give their lives for our food? Anything? I would argue that we at least owe them our consideration and to educate ourselves about the conditions many of them are currently raised; and then we can choose to support the systems that sustain them or align our values with our choices and contribute to positive change.