The Buffet Table

May 12, 2013

One remarkable thing about intensive pig production: Those gestating sows lined up in “crates”? They don’t typically exhibit the most obvious signs of stress, frustration or reduced welfare. Now before backfilling this storyline just a bit I want to ward off the suggestion that I think this observation goes very far toward justifying this particular production practice on ethical grounds. In fact, as will become clear for those who persevere through today’s twisted pathway of tangents, irrelevancies and feigned ignorance, I’m not here on the second Sunday of May to write about pigs or animal welfare at all. So don’t write me any angry letters, at least not yet. I’m fully aware of “stereotypies” and behavioral abnormalities observed in gestation crates, and (I repeat) I’m not here to defend industrial pork production, in any case. There were a few blogs about that two years ago, so go back and look at them.

No. First I’ll explain for the uninitiated that the gestation crate is actually a very narrow pen built to hold one sow while embryos develop into little piglets. It’s so narrow that she can’t turn around. She can stand up to the feed and drink the water that is delivered to the front of the pen, and she can lie down. In Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) the pens are lined up in long rows, but you’ll see these crates one or two at a time even on some small farms. More typical is the farrowing crate, which is for after the piglets’ birth, and though it looks similar, it’s designed to prevent the little piggies from being crushed. But enough on explaining things for the uninitiated.  I said I wasn’t here to write about pigs this May morning.

No. I’m curious about the relative lack of any sign that these sows are unhappy with this arrangement, which looks incredibly boring at the least, and intolerably cruel to most casual observers. Pigs are smart, after all, and how would you feel penned up like that? Now notice I said relative lack just now, because (like I said above) I’m not here to recommend this treatment. The most plausible explanation I’ve heard is that if you are a pig, one of the big stressors in your life is a lack of surety about where that next meal is coming from. Or if that seems a bit too abstract for a creature that, smart as she is, may not be able to conceptualize states of affairs in the optative mood of the future tense, maybe she’s stressed by the fear that some other pig is going to beat her to the tasty bits. Is this a dismissive way to understand a pig?

No. Arguably, these sows are being quite rational. My son tells me that his school cafeteria opens up at 5:00pm and that almost everybody shows up right at five on the dot. And why? Because it’s all gone by 5:30, even if the cafeteria is nominally open until 8:00. And when I went down for my “free breakfast” yesterday at 9:30 there was no more milk for my cereal. So I went down this morning at 7:02, right after it opened up. The place was packed. Indeed, there was cold milk for my cereal, but there was no place to sit. It seems that humans quite rationally adapt their behavior according to the possibility that some other pig is going to beat them to the tasty bits. Wouldn’t it be much more stressful to just have an endless supply of the stuff out there so that nobody would have to worry about having access to some tasty bits?

No. Or at least maybe not.  It’s not entirely clear that the “plenty” solution doesn’t just induce greedy pigs—err, people—to eat too much. And “greedy” here connotes no moral judgment. It’s just a function of a natural competitive drive. The behavior I witnessed this morning had all the marks of a feeding frenzy. I didn’t actually need to eat that sugar doughnut out there on the buffet table after I’d finished my cold cereal (even if it did go well with my second cup of coffee). It might have been more relaxing if everyone had just the right amount of cereal and cold milk placed in front of them in a situation where it was just dead obvious that no other greedy person could get to it. Would that be a bad thing?

No. My idea would relieve a lot of stress around breakfast time, I think. People are like that. Or at least sometimes they are.

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

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