Don’t Presume to Know a Pig’s Mind

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The New York Times

February 19, 2012

By Blake Hurst

DURING the recent Grammy Awards, a cartoon farmer and his cows and pigs made their TV debut, starring in an ad for Chipotle Mexican Grill.

At the start of the ad, the farmer and his animals are happy and content. But then progress rears its ugly head, and the animals move indoors, into large, crowded buildings. They are pumped with antibiotics and processed into cubes, all to the mournful sound of Willie Nelson singing a Coldplay tune: “Science and progress/Don’t speak as loud as my heart.” In the end, the farmer sees the light, gets rid of the technological evils and frees his cows and pigs. Redemption is found in a simpler life. And you can have it all at Chipotle, for the price of a burrito.

According to Chipotle’s Web site, the company uses only “happier” pigs. It doesn’t say how it measures a pig’s happiness, and I can’t help but picture porcine focus groups, response meters designed for the cloven of hoof. We can all agree that production methods should not cause needless suffering, but for all we know, pigs are “happier” in warm, dry buildings than they are outside. And either way, the end result is a plate.

The ad is a cartoon and easy to caricature. But its ideas have real effects on America’s farmers. The day after it ran, McDonald’s announced that it would require its pork suppliers to end the use of gestation crates. These crates do restrict pigs’ movements, but farmers use them to control the amount of feed pregnant sows consume. When hogs are grouped in pens together, aggressive sows eat too much and submissive sows too little, and they also get in violent fights at feeding time. The only other ways to prevent these problems are complicated, expensive or dangerous to the pigs.

Since we can’t ask the pigs what they think, we know only one thing for sure about the effects of scrapping our most efficient farming systems: the cost of bacon will rise. Wealthy consumers will reward farmers who are able to pull off the Chipotle ad’s brand of combination farm/tourist attraction and are willing to trade efficient animal husbandry for political correctness. Many big multistate operations will also be able to afford to make the changes, or will at least have the political sway to resist them. But the small farmers now raising hogs will be pushed out of the industry.

Farmers are businesspeople and respond to market signals as best we can. But the messages we receive are decidedly mixed. The market tells us to produce more, as prices and worldwide hunger are high. But from disputes over animal care to arguments over the adoption of genetically altered seeds, the media and popular culture send a completely different message: abandon the methods of production that best provide a plentiful and affordable food supply.

Commercial farmers will have to decide whether we can withstand public opprobrium while continuing to efficiently produce the world’s most essential good or join the entertainment industry, selling expensive pork chops with heaping sides of nostalgia.

Blake Hurst, a former hog farmer, now grows corn, soybeans and flowers and is president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.

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We are a nonprofit advocacy group led by American farmers – narrowly focused, issue specific – as we support free trade and agricultural biotechnology.

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