Letter from Langdon: Testing the Obvious

Like daredevil teenagers, the corporate pork industry is pushing our food system to the edge. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in philosophy to predict the results.

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My dad and writer George Santayana both belonged to the pragmatist school of philosophy.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Dad said, “I suppose if everyone jumped off a cliff, you would too.” 

To practical, parent-types like Dad – and to pragmatist philosophers – jumping off a cliff has an obvious, proven result.

But risk-takers believe it needs a test.

Apparently, our government doesn’t think cliff-jumping will result in a predictable splat. Because we seem dead set on testing whether concentrated hog genetics and large hog operations are going to create trouble. Any hog farmer from the 20th century can answer that question for you based on experience.

Hog-raising is one of the most concentrated industries in the world. Over the last 20-plus years, while pork production held steady, more than 70% of U.S. hog farmers got out of the business. The smaller operations have been replaced by large farms connected to names like Tyson, Cargill and Smithfield.

The big corporations didn’t do it on their own. Rather, they passed on the risk to individual farmers.

Corporate meat shields itself from liability by breaking up the phases of production. Hog farmers used to raise pigs from “farrow to finish” – from birth to slaughter weight. Now contract farmers specialize in one phase of production, such as growing breeding stock, breeding, gestating, farrowing pregnant sows, or feeding pigs to finish. But it’s not a bidding war where corporate owners pay what the market demands, but a reverse auction where contractors grab what they can to survive. 

The result – or maybe a better word is consequence – of corporate control in hogs is a highly concentrated and vulnerable system of pork production. Like teenagers willing to plunge headlong into disaster, corporations see nothing wrong with jumping off a cliff. And our government has allowed these corporations to monopolize huge portions of our livestock industry.

It can be a long way to the bottom.

Look in the Southeast U.S., where water quality concerns from hog production are high. It’s not just manure that is a threat, but dead hogs too. What can you do with pigs that die from disease? Obviously we don’t eat them, although a corporation near you is probably figuring out a way. That leaves burning, composting or burying. Cremation for millions of dead pigs costs too much. Composting is impractical for the biggest concentrations, where thousands of carcasses must be destroyed. That leaves burying and allowing dead hogs to decompose underground.

In North Carolina, an epidemic has piled up so many carcasses that environmentalists are worried that burying the hogs could contaminate ground water.

Why are they dying? The cause is a virus known as PEDV, or porcine epidemic diarrhea virus.

Some say the virus got its start in Asia. No one knows for sure, but it has spread like wildfire throughout the big corporate-sponsored livestock barns that have helped create so much of the industrial “efficiency.” There is no vaccine, no effective treatment. But unlike swine flu, there’s no danger to human consumers from infection by the virus, scientists say,.

Old-time hog farmers called diarrhea scours. Most scours are caused by bacterial infections easily treated with antibiotics. But thanks to concentrated livestock, we’re already feeding as much and as many antibiotics as the law will allow. Unfortunately, antibiotics have no effect on viral infections that simply run their course. That’s what PEDV does.

But PEDV doesn’t always kill its victims. Those that don’t die are left with damaged digestive tracts, keeping them from growing normally. That means farmer contractors get stuck with an animal that eats day after day, running up a bill without ever paying one.

Old-time hog farmers like Dad knew the value of clean ground. Hog pastures were rotated from hay meadow to cropland and back to pasture. Different breeds were chosen selectively for mothering ability, disease resistance, litter size and plain old toughness. Today’s hogs are bred only for meat production. Long, lean loins supported by hooves able to hold up the animal’s weight on concrete, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for as many weeks as it takes.

Corporations oppose mandatory reporting of information that could help create solutions for PEDV sickness. They are worried that anti-pork activists could use the information against the industry.  Corporations also oppose on-site photography and aerial photography, saying they’re concerned that visitors or even airplanes could spread the disease. It’s doubtful airplanes or drones would make things worse. But concentrated agriculture has a record of promoting gag laws forbidding unauthorized photography – or unauthorized speech by employees.

What you don’t know won’t hurt you. Well, at least it won’t hurt big corporate food.

The real tragedy in all this isn’t that family farm contractors could lose everything (they could) or that bacon cheeseburgers will rise in price (they have), or even that consumers will be forced to buy alternative factory-food poultry instead of pork (they do). 

No, the real tragedy is that our government has allowed deadly livestock-market concentration and control to occur in the first place. By doing so, we’ve allowed unaccountable corporations – behaving like hormonal teenagers – to steer food policy off a cliff.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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