In April, small farmers across Michigan waited worriedly as a new law on wild boars came into effect. Under the law, pigs classified as ‘invasive’ weren’t legal, which put a number of farmers in a bad position because some of their pigs met the legally listed traits used to define wild pigs; this despite the fact that some of them are raising rare heritage breeds that are in urgent need of conservation because so few of them are left.
The situation highlighted a myriad of problems with the agriculture system in the US and with the disconnection between consumers and food systems.
Ostensibly, the law was created to address the potential hazards of large numbers of aggressive wild pigs running loose, a legitimate problem in regions like the US South. The bulk of such animals escape from game ranches, who initially opposed the law until the Michigan Pork Producer’s Association got involved with the legislation and pushed for passage.
Does the Michigan Pork Producer’s Association care about the environmental and health hazards associated with wild pigs? No, of course not. They claimed that wild pigs threatened their industry. In other words, confining large numbers of pigs, known for being extremely intelligent, sensitive, emotional animals, should be okay, but wild pigs should not be. And farmers who raise small numbers of livestock that may share traits with wild pigs are also not okay.
Big pork involves cramming huge numbers of pigs into cramped environments where the animals have difficulty maintaining basic hygiene, expressing themselves, and developing normally. They are bred and fed to mature as quickly as possible, living short, brutal lives before slaughter in horrific conditions. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are so awful that many beggar the imagination; hearing them described doesn’t even begin to do justice to the reality. Such operations are justified on the grounds that they provide large amounts of food at cheap prices, and consumers accept them because they don’t see them or interact with them.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t affected by them. In addition to being bad for animals, CAFOs are also bad for the environment. It is not uncommon for manure pools to rupture, releasing huge volumes of untreated sewage into waterways, which can cause foodborne illness in addition to algae blooms. CAFOs also utilise high volumes of water, which reduces available supplies for other agricultural and human uses, let alone the natural environment. Watersheds can suffer in pig farming regions because of the sheer demand, which has an impact on fisheries health, wild animal populations, and native vegetation.
On small farms, where many farmers handle less than fifty animals, the picture is radically different. Pigs have room for forage and live on dirt, not concrete pads. They can express natural behaviours, which include keeping themselves clean, turning and renewing the soil, and socialising. Heritage breeds typically take longer to mature and develop meat with a more complex, interesting flavour. They receive caring and loving treatment because they are too valuable to abuse, which is not the case in a CAFO.
Small farmers tend to be more connected with their local communities; people get to know them and the meat they produce, and they’re interested in maintaining a good relationship with the communities where they operate. Some provide good working conditions for staff, and behave in an environmentally conscious way with respect to the crops and other livestock they raise. They highlight the room for growth in the local and community-based agriculture movement, where consumers connect directly with their food and the people who produce it in order to develop a better understanding of the source.
Understanding where your food comes from and what kinds of conditions are present there helps consumers make informed decisions about what and where to buy. Many consumers who eat pig don’t know where it comes from, and thus don’t understand the real impact of laws like this. They hear the ostensible reason for passing the law and assume it’s a good thing, because wild pigs are known to be dangerous and potentially destructive, so they support the law on its face value.
What they don’t realise is that they are condemning small farmers, because under the law, the state may have the right to destroy illegal animals; this means killing off valuable livestock, including breeding animals that may represent generations of work. Farmers are powerless to stop this unless they want to relocate to a state where their livestock are legal, which is a huge and expensive endeavor that may not even be feasible.
Such laws, promoted behind the scenes by big agriculture, are aimed at making it harder for small farmers to run their businesses and continue to function. They stamp out community-based agriculture and ensure that consumers continue to remain ignorant about where their food comes from and what to do about the source of the products they eat. And they also allow big agriculture to maintain its stranglehold not just on the food supply, but what the food supply contains. By making heritage pigs an effective felony, big agriculture limits the number of breeds that can be legally raised, locking down the market and turning farmers into radicals with guerrilla herds.
It’s important to maintain livestock diversity, and deeply troubling to see that big agriculture’s push for monoculture has become much more transparent in the last decade. It’s not enough to limit the number of crops in widespread production, extinguishing some cultivars forever. Now, large companies have turned to livestock, turning once-common breeds into incredible rarities, all while consumers remain utterly unaware of what they, and society, are losing. Pigs do not come in only one breed; they are incredibly diverse, and it’s important to maintain that diversity for cultural, historical, ecological, and, yes, culinary reasons.