On Science, Progress, and Pigs

Tuesday’s episode of Fresh Air starts with the caveat “You probably don’t think about pigs a lot, but …” Au contraire, Dave Davies. I am constantly thinking about pigs. I realize this does not put me in the majority of people, or of NPR listeners, so I will echo Mr. Davies and say that even if you don’t think about pigs that much, you’ll be interested in his interview with Barry Estabrook. Estabrook speaks eloquently from an outsiders perspective on all aspects of the pork industry, and his new book, Pig Tales: an Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, has been added to my never-ending book queue. Though I can’t yet speak on the merits of the book, the interview is a nice overview on what’s wrong with the pork industry for the uninitiated. I was glad to hear the interview especially because it seemed like timely counter-programming to something that’s been eating at me for a few weeks.

Photo: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

At the end of April, I (bravely, some might say) decided to take my kids on a weekend trip down to Chicago (I’m at the tail end of a strange saga house-mothering five high schoolers from five different countries. You can ask me about this when I’ve had some time to recover.). The school bought us CityPasses, and we made the rounds of the various world-class museums in the city. On Sunday morning, we checked out of our hotel and piled back in the mini-van for a trip down Lake Shore Drive to the Museum of Science and Industry. For those who haven’t been, the MSI is, according to its website, the biggest science museum in the western hemisphere, boasting 1.4 million visitors in 2014, 340,000 of them kids on school field trips. Their stated mission: “to inspire the inventive genius in everyone by presenting captivating and compelling experiences that are real and educational.” For some reason, they also have a “vision,” which is: “to inspire and motivate children to achieve their full potential in science, technology, medicine and engineering.” Basically, they design most of their exhibits to appeal to school-aged children, with plenty of interactive displays and activities to engage kids with SCIENCE! Though there are some historic exhibits, like the history of transportation or the German U-boat, most of the museum is very much pointed towards Progress and The Future. The MSI has a long legacy in this regard: it was built in the crumbling Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an event that showcased such innovations as the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jacks, PBR, spray painting, and the automatic dishwasher. When the MSI opened in 1933 during Chicago’s next World’s Far: the Century of Progress, its was the first interactive museum in the country, and was founded by the chairman of Sears, Roebuck, & Co. and funded by some of the city’s biggest industrialists. This is all to say that the Museum of Science and Industry is aptly named, and has always been a way for some of the richest men in the country to educate the masses (and their children) on the amazing technological developments in science and industry, all in the name of Progress. 

Families check out a John Deere tractor

Back to my visit: I’d released my charges into the museum for a few hours with instructions on where and when to meet me again, and started looking at the map wondering what I should look at in the meantime. I’d been to the MSI a few times as a child, and once as a college student for a traveling Harry Potter exhibit (don’t judge), but it had been at least 15 years since I last explored the MSI. Looking over the map, one thing was the first to catch my eye: “Farm Tech.” Fresh from realizing that an exhibit about bugs and other underground plant and animal life at the Field Museum was funded by Monsanto, I did not exactly have high expectations for a farming exhibit at the MSI. After all, at a museum with “industry” right in the name, one can expect the focus of such an exhibit to be on the technology and promise of industrial agriculture. Indeed, as I rounded the corner toward the exhibit, the first thing to greet me was the shiny green and yellow of a John Deere tractor and combine. I’m not going to dwell on the details of every facet of the MSI’s very modern farm, but there’s an emphasis on corn and soy, high-tech farming practices like GPS-guided tractors and robotic milking, and a whole section that non-ironically informs you that “even when you don’t think you’re eating soy, you could be!” Given the top sponsorships by John Deere and Archer Daniels Midland (one of the country’s largest corn and soy processors, headquartered in Chicago), the focus of the exhibit was not surprising in the least. But I’m constantly thinking about pigs, so of course my attention was quickly drawn to the porcine portion of the display. 

It’s almost impossible for me to convey the combination of righteous indignation and resigned helplessness that cycled through my mind as I took in this part of the exhibit. It’s not so hard to follow the logic that leads to lionization of large machinery and conventional corn and soy in a context like the MSI. It was a little harder to stomach the spin that turned modern confinement pork into a wonder of technology and engineering. Here are some excerpts from the signage in the exhibit:

A young visitor looks at a fake sow in a farrowing stall.

  • “Pork farming today is experiencing phenomenal growth as it continues to meet worldwide consumer demand for one of the most popular meat products… U.S. pork producers are increasingly taking advantage of new state-of-the-art innovations designed to provide an environmentally efficient operation that ensures safe, high quality food for consumers."
  • Hog Heaven: Pork producers keep their breeding pigs in specially designed barns that protect the animals from illness, injuries and extreme weather conditions, while allowing fresh air and sunlight in. Sows receive nutritious diets of corn, soybeans and vitamins, have free access to fresh water and are cared for under the close supervision of veterinarians. The animals are kept safe from predators and protected from the aggression that often exists among sows housed in group pens. They are also spared from the competition for food that occurs when animals are kept in groups. Housed in individual stalls, sows are able to move back and forth, lie on their sides and fully extend their limbs."
  • “Today’s pigs aren’t porky anymore. Instead, they’re as lanky as marathon runners. Today’s pork farmer is delivering leaner, healthier pork: 16% leaner and 31% lower in fat than in 1980. The pig’s makeover is an impressive tale of farmers meeting demands for leaner, more healthful meat.”
  • Farrowing Stall: When a sow is ready to give birth it’s called farrowing. The only problem is, a sow weighs over 200 pounds and her newborn piglets only weigh about three pounds. How do you keep mommy from rolling over and making piglet pancakes? Modern hog farmers put sows in farrowing stalls: specially built enclosures that keep mamma hog snug in one place, but lets her little piglets poke their heads in for nursing. The stalls even have heat lamps to keep the baby hogs warm. It’s like a hog maternity room and nursery all rolled into one.”

The sow in the bottom right picture is not a model of porcine contentment.

If you’ve watched any number of popular documentaries about the modern food system, listened to that Fresh Air interview, or even just driven through Iowa, you know that these are rather generous characterizations of practices that are unpleasant at best and barbaric at worst. I’m not going to bother refuting these claims line by line - I’m going to assume you’re educated enough to pick up on at least some of the deep ironies in these descriptions. Included in the exhibit is a fake sow in a farrowing stall, which in itself may not be jarring for the casual visitor. Upon a closer look at the poster describing farrowing stalls, you will see that for some reason, they didn’t even look hard enough to find a picture of a confinement sow appearing comfortable in her stall! And though you might not be able to tell from the slant and the graphics, the exhibit was drastically updated relatively recently, in 2007!

Some of the many sponsors that made the Farm Tech exhibit possible.

Considering how tied the rest of the exhibit was to its major sponsors, I decided to try to uncover who might be responsible for the pig propaganda. I didn’t have to dig very far. Though the donor list in the museum itself is very long, the MSI’s website includes this message under the description of the Farm Tech exhibit: “We are pleased to acknowledge and to extend sincere appreciation to the many generous donors to the Farm Tech exhibit including ADM, Deere & Company, and Fair Oaks.” Some cursory internet sleuthing turned up Fair Oak Farms, a northwest Indiana educational tourist attraction where you can learn about where your food comes from. Fair Oak Farms is a monument to Modern farming, and it’s “Pig Adventure” is its newest experience designed to introduce families to how a modern pig is raised. They have 2,800 sows in a breed-to-weaning situation, meaning that the pigs are sold to other farms around the midwest to be raised for meat. When you think about large confinement pig operations, the first word that comes to mind is definitely not transparency, so this operation caught my attention.

Upon further internet investigation, I found a fewvirtual tours” of the Pig Adventure on a website called PigProgress.net. As you might be able to tell from the familiar use of the capital P “Progress,” this is a site devoted to fully modern pork producers. Again, this is a report filtered through that particular lens, and it shows. The lede? “In the US, awareness is growing that successful welfarist campaigns are related to people being poorly informed about pig farming.” If this whole things piques your own interest, I encourage you to click through the links above to read about the operation and look through a slideshow of the exhibit. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from these sources and the farm’s own website: visitors get in a bus at the main visitor center and are driven two miles to the pig operation, where they enter straight through a garage from the van (not stepping foot outdoors around the pig barn). They are then in an upper section of the barn, where they can look through windows down into the facility, divided into gilts (young unbred pigs), gestating sows, farrowing sows, and young piglets. They use modern feeding technology, in which a microchipped tag on the sow’s ear communicates with computers regulating feed, so each pig is fed an appropriate amount for their stage of development. When they are ready to be bred, they are artificially inseminated and held for 5-7 days to make sure they they’re pregnant. Three months, three weeks later, they are put in farrowing stalls, where they give birth and nurse their piglets for three weeks, at which point the pigs are weaned and sold and the sows (depending on their performance) are returned to the beginning of the cycle. Both the sows and the genetic material used in the insemination have been bred and selected for quick-growing, lean meat and very large litter sizes. Because of the scale of the operation, visitors are almost sure to see a litter being born, and staff regularly bring newborn pigs up to a window for a closer look. Virtually the whole process, except for castration, cutting eyeteeth, and docking tails, happens in full view of the public, in an attempt to provide a counter-example to the growing awareness of inhumane conditions documented in various surreptitiously-obtained videos. 

In some ways, I think this kind of model farm is great - it does provide a closer approximation of where your food comes from than nursery rhymes and picture books. The pigs on display are not subject to the acute cruelties that many animals across the country experience everyday, and visitors are protected from the environmental realities involved with pork production on this scale (see: the bus entering the facility before disembarking, thereby avoiding the majority of the stench emanating from such an operation). However, no amount of Science! Technology! Progress! can paper over the fact that these animals are being denied an animal existence. These sows will never set foot outside! They will never explore their environs for varied food sources, build a nest, protect their piglets. They can’t! If we released these very pigs tomorrow, they would be ill-prepared to survive out on pasture, designed as they are through generations of breeding and lifetimes of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use. The pig-ness has been bred out of these pigs, in the name of Progress. 

This isn’t supposed to be my own submission to the pig propaganda wars - I’m just taking you down the rabbit-hole I’ve been burrowing around in the last two weeks. It has led me to reflect on the disingenuous ways we invoke Progress! in this country, the information being fed to schoolchildren about our Modern! food industry, and the underlying inhumanity at even the most modern of farms. I’m not telling you how to eat or buy, but I can tell you about my current relationship with my own omnivorousness. After a high school and college stint of vegetarianism and a few years of near-indiscriminate omnivory, I’ve settled into the following pattern: I eat the meat and eggs I raise myself, I try to be careful about the dairy products I buy, and I try to avoid eating meat in restaurants unless I know where it comes from. Since the combination of the raw ingredients and restaurants available to me on a daily basis mean that cooking for myself is usually the best bet, I don’t see myself as making any kind of grand sacrifice. All I can ask of others is to educate themselves to the degree necessary to make their own decisions about what kind of food they want to eat and from where it should come. Listening to that Fresh Air interview is a start. Rest assured that though it may appear a bit disheartening at first, there are only going to be more alternative food sources in the coming years. Here’s an antidote to whatever rabbit-hole you’re about to enter, should you choose to go down that path:

Happy sows eat outdoors earlier this spring with their litters.