The High Price of Pork

transport pigWhen it comes to pork, there’s a high price to be paid by the workers, by the environment, and perhaps worst of all, by the pigs themselves. The scale of the problem is enormous. We raise 120 million pigs each year in the US, and many millions more are raised around the world.

The environment pays a high price for concentrated factory-style pig farming. Factory pig farms produce huge amounts of manure – much more than can be used as fertilizer. This manure is stored in lagoons that can leak or break open after a good rain, and cause massive amounts of water pollution as the runoff enters the lakes and streams. This results in massive fish kills and food chain disruption. Methane, a greenhouse gas much more damaging than carbon dioxide, is given off from these lagoons, contributing to global warming, and the intense smell reduces the air quality in the surrounding neighborhood to an often unbearable degree.

Pig farming is wasteful too. Pigs, like other farm animals, are food factories in reverse, returning far less in pork than the calories and protein they are fed, since most of the nutrition fed to a pig is used for the animal’s energy and metabolism. When there’s so much hunger in the world, and most of the world’s agricultural land is already being used to the maximum, feeding so much of our crops to farm animals is not the best way to feed people. The situation can be summed up by saying that pork production is both wasteful and polluting.

Things aren’t so good for the slaughterhouse workers either. Many of the more than 150,000 in America work in pig slaughterhouses. By many measures they have the worst and most dangerous job in America, and they suffer badly, both physically and emotionally. Few can stand to stick at this job for more than a year. Almost no one speaks up for them. While many consider slaughterhouse workers to be part of the problem caused by pork, we recognize that they are its victims as well, as they pay a high price for working in this industry and only do so because of the lack of other options available to them.

But it is the pigs themselves that pay the highest price. Most pregnant pigs spend most of their lives “stored” in crates so small that they cannot move more than a couple of inches, and can never turn around. For almost her entire life, iron bars will hold a mother pig on the slotted concrete floor as she produces litter after litter. Her heaving belly, waving head and dark-rimmed eyes are the only parts she seems free to move. These enclosures, called gestation crates — and separate farrowing crates that hold sows while they give birth and suckle their newborns — have unleashed a furious battle between pork producers who call these crates safe, and opponents who say they amount to cruelty.

Moving animals from one stall to another, or onto the truck to the slaughterhouse, is where much egregious abuse occurs. Weeks after taking a job as a breeding technician at Eagle Point Farms, an anguished Sharee Santorineos sat down and wrote a three-page complaint. “I seen pigs that are pregnant beat with steel bars,” said her letter to the Illinois Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare. “I seen them kicked all over their body.” But, as is so often the case, no action was taken. This story is repeated again and again across the country.

Even under the most controlled conditions within the industry, farm animal transport is stressful and harsh. The animals are deprived of food, water, and bedding during transport. Trucks are so overcrowded that animals are unable to rest, and may trample or fight with one another in search of space. This sad chain of events ends in the slaughterhouse. And, as the saying goes, if slaughterhouses had glass walls we’d all be vegetarians.

While we applaud those working for animal welfare to improve conditions for the animals, and the environmentalists for trying to enforce regulations to protect the ecology, the only real solution to this problem is a vegetarian solution. By following a vegetarian diet, we reduce the demand and therefore reduce the production of pork. If enough people were to go veg, the pigs, the workers and the environment would all be spared the high price of pork.