Better Bacon

April 24, 2011

After two weeks of hints and innuendo, it’s time to get serious. Who really does have the better bacon? Is it Laurie with her pigs rooting through the detritus of an organic farm plot, or the Iowa farmer with pigs standing virtually motionless in a row of metal pens too small for them to even turn around? This is what people expect someone with the title “professor of food ethics” to have something to say about.

In the modern day university (where I live) ethics is about bringing reasons to bear on the hard choices and tough problems people face. There are lots of different reasons that could be brought to bear on pig production. Raising pigs is a livelihood. For the Iowa farmer, it is very near his sole livelihood. Laurie’s system presumes pig raising is one component in diversified organic farming ecology. Which one is better may depend on the way that either approach supports a desired quality of life for the producer or for a rural community. It may depend on the effect that either approach has on air and water quality, or on the total resource commitment that supplying a society of bacon-eaters creates. The complexity of reasoning here explains why I rarely try to do any deeply serious ethics business in the Thornapple blog. You just can’t get all the cards on the table without boring people to tears.

The hints and innuendo from my last two blogs point to a different set of ethical considerations at the same time that the blogs themselves focus on unrelated points. What is it like for the pigs? Here it may be best to begin by noting that all these pigs are destined to become bacon before a year is out. Debates over better bacon operate within the assumption that we are going to be raising pigs and killing them. The question of what’s best for the pig then ceases to be a question about whether these pigs, our society and the broader environment might be better off if they had never been born at all. This is also a worthwhile ethics question; it’s just not the better bacon question. That question depends on what it feels like to be a pig out on a pasture rooting vegetables with other pigs versus what it feels like to be a pig standing immobile on concrete in a darkened barn with a feed ration delivered to your doorstep on a regular basis.

For a lot of humans, this simple description of the two systems makes it obvious. Never mind the fact that few of us humans would really like to root and dig all day, we can we easily imagine that such a life is hog heaven. And we sure as heck know that we wouldn’t want to stand on concrete in a darkened barn. This tendency to see things from the human perspective is why Iowa farmers are so secretive, by the way, wanting to quash would-be videographers. But while I would not say that this human-centered view of the comparison is useless, it operates without having taken the key ethical question very seriously: What is it like to be a pig in these two settings?

It’s possible that in pig world, knowing where your next meal is coming from dominates everything. A pig who has good reason to think that dinner will show up on the doorstep may be happier than one who is worried that the next pig will have better luck rooting for leftover turnips. This would be especially the case if one of those fellow pigs in the pen is a known bully. Life becomes a constant battle, or else it becomes a life of constant fear and domination. Of course Laurie would insist that it’s possible to relieve some of this uncertainty with good husbandry: showing up with extra food and cordoning off the bullies, for example. And she would be right.

Which leads me to this ethical thought. While the welfare ceiling is higher for Laurie’s pigs, the floor is higher in Iowa. The worst off pig in a pasture system run by someone who is either negligent or lacking in husbandry skills is going to be worse off than the worst off pig in Iowa. Pigs are quite smart, which means that they are capable of adapting to a range of different life environments. That said, it’s less clear that like humans, they actually thrive on learning new things.  Iowa pigs may be relatively unchallenged, but content. The pigs on MSU’s organic farm may be expressing a fuller range of pigness, but that’s partly because they are the focus of so much attention from the humans.

What happens when we scale up these systems to produce bacon for 200 million? That’s where the discussion of better bacon should begin.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State Univesity

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