Who's Gonna Shoot the Pig?

It is hog-killing weather in southeast Iowa. When I was growing up on the farm we butchered hogs during cold spells in early winter, when highs were expected to stay in the 30s for a while. We didn’t have a freezer or refrigerator because we didn’t have electricity. A few days of cold weather would give us time to cure the bacon, hams, and shoulders, eat a few choice cuts fresh, and make sausage from the rest. We eventually got electricity, but we continued to kill hogs on the farm. The first question that came to my mind at hog-killing time was “Who’s gonna shoot the pig?” I knew that eventually; it would be me.

I was recently invited by a law professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) to participate in a recording session for a webinar concerning the humane treatment of farm animals. The title, “Can humans be more humane?” The webinar was motivated by the pending U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding California Proposition 12. If upheld, the proposition would force livestock and poultry producers to meet California’s standards for the humane treatment of farm animals if their products are sold in California. I was asked to join because they wanted to talk about the potential side effects of large-scale animal production on society, including impacts on the environment, human health, and the future of family farms.

As expected, the discussion started with the treatment of farm animals, particularly the inhumane treatment in large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). We also talked about the humane and inhumane killing of animals in large-scale slaughter plants. I linked the inhumane treatment of farm animals to the concentration of too many animals in too small spaces. The animals are constantly under stress and on the verge of illness because they are deprived of the ability to move about, socialize, and express the unique “animalness” of their species. Routine medication is required to keep animals alive until they are slaughtered. Inhumane slaughter of animals was linked to trying to kill and process too many animals too quickly. In both cases, the motivation is to maximize profits—at the expense of animal welfare.

Our animal welfare discussion had extended well into the planned recording time when a question was asked by the moderator that could have taken the rest of our time–and more. He asked something to the effect, “Were farm animals treated better before large-scale confinement animal operations became commonplace?” The question obviously was for me. I had grown up on a farm and worked for a large meat packing company for a time. I glanced at the time left. We still hadn’t gotten into the impacts of CAFOs on the environment, human health, and the future of family farms. I was told the primary audience for the webinar is the Baruch College-CUNY community–residents of New York City. How could I explain this complex aspect of 20th-century rural culture to a 21st-century urban audience in three to five minutes?

I honestly don’t remember the specifics of my response, other than the fact that I wasn’t particularly articulate. I started by admitting that many of the inhumane practices of today were common long before large-scale, industrial animal operations came on the scene. I explained that we castrated pigs and dehorned cattle—without anesthesia. I talked about killing and butchering hogs, chickens, and cattle on our farm to provide food for our family. I didn’t mention that my mother was a master at wringing the necks of chickens with a snap of the wrist, which left headless chickens flopping around the yard. We also hunted and fished for food. But I also said there was never any sense of joy or satisfaction in hurting or killing animals. We did it because it was a necessary part of the only way of life we knew.

I said the difference was that we “knew the animals” we raised for food. I think humans are born with a natural aversion to hurting or killing any other sentient animal. It’s even more difficult to kill animals you have raised and know individually–even personally. The moderator asked me if I thought the animals knew what was going to happen when I was about to pull the trigger on the gun. I admitted that I didn’t know—but I hope that somehow, they understood. Other than the unpleasant days of castration and dehorning, and the final day of slaughter, we tried to do whatever we could to give our animals a good life on the farm. The animals were free to roam the fields, had shelter during the winter, and were always well fed. I think most other family farmers in pre-CAFO days treated their animals similarly.

In CAFOs, on the other hand, so many animals are crowded together in a confined space that it is impossible for their “custodians” to develop any personal sense of connectedness to individual animals. The owners and workers in CAFOs are forced to numb their minds to the daily suffering of the animals in order to maintain their sanity. I have talked with people who have worked in CAFOs who told me that eventually you have to learn to treat the animals as inanimate objects, rather than living beings. It then becomes easy, or at least tolerable, to punish, maim, and kill animals without any sense of guilt or regret. I believe the same is true of workers in slaughter plants.

We treated animals the way we did on the farm out of a sense of necessity. We had to depend on foods we could produce on our farm, which included meat, milk, and eggs. But the continuing inhumane treatment of animals is no longer a necessity. Animals typically are not anesthetized before castration and dehorning today simply because doing so adds minimal costs and inconvenience. The common practices of debeaking chickens and bobbing tails of hogs are necessary only when animals are crowded, stressed, and unable to exhibit normal social behavior. There are humane alternatives to CAFOs that don't overcrowd animals in small spaces that are economically feasible—just not as cheap or easy to manage. All that is lacking is the public will to demand change.

We also touched on the question of whether animal agriculture is any longer necessary. The growing popularity of vegetarianism, veganism, and synthetic animal-like products suggests that many people think it is not. I explained that I thought animals had an important role to play in regenerative agriculture, but that doesn’t get to the deeper question of the ethics of consuming meat, milk, eggs, or other animal products. I could probably do okay with a plant-based diet if I believed that eating animals was unethical—but I do not.

I believe that every living thing on earth, including people and farm animals, are here for a purpose. I believe the primary purpose of many living beings is to provide food for other living beings. Every living thing lives by consuming the carcasses, excretions, or embryos of other living things—including both plants and animals. We are biological beings. Humans are not the only living things that don’t wait for other things to die before they harvest crops or slaughter animals for food. Eating involves killing or deprivation of life, regardless of whether we eat animal- or plant-based foods.

To me, the important question is whether we respect and honor the sacrifice of life inevitably involved in the process of producing, preparing, and eating food. In a 2015 column, I proposed a Food Ethic: “Food is good when it nourishes the life and health of the eater, honors the sacrifice of life embodied in the eaten, and respects the purpose and inherent worth of all beings. Food is bad when it does otherwise. We should honor the lives of food plants as much as we honor the lives of food animals and we should respect their inherent worth of all life. The primary difference between eating plants and animals is that animals are sentient beings—like us. We don’t really know how we should treat plants, but we do know how we should treat animals—because we are animals.

I can’t prove that our lives have a purpose or that the purpose of farm animals is to provide us with food. I do know that millions of farm animals would not be alive today if they were not being raised to provide food for humans. I believe it is better to live a shortened life of purpose than never to have lived at all. I believe it may be better not to have lived at all than to live a life of inhumane treatment and indifferent slaughter. Humanity eventually will reach a consensus regarding whether it is ethical to eat animal products—but that will take a while. There is already a consensus that we shouldn’t mistreat animals—not in California or anywhere else on Earth. The Supreme Court’s decision on Proposition 12 will determine whether the U.S. government gives this public consensus priority over private profits.

We eventually got around to talking about the environmental and public health impacts of industrial agriculture, even if we didn’t get to family farms. Our basic conclusion was that ecologically and socially responsible alternatives to industrial agriculture exist, and they are economically affordable, even if not cheaper. More humane slaughter methods are also available and economically feasible. But regardless of how it is produced, if we continue to eat pork, “Somebody’s gotta kill the pigs.”

If you are interested in listening to the webinar online, it will be presented with live questions and comments at 11:00 Eastern Time on December 13: Zicklin Talks Business.

John Ikerd