Big Pharma, Big Food… who really controls the pig industry?

25 years ago I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and became a vegetarian.

5 years ago we commenced farming free-range pigs and cattle at Jonai Farms.

3 years ago I became a butcher.

Last week we went to the Pan Pacific Pork Expo (PPPE).

This is not a story of slippery slides and selling out. Or is it?

This is a look at the lure of productivism, and seduction by technocrats, a story bounded by corporate greed and hegemony. I’m not going to bore you with lots of academic terms, but I will quickly define a couple and then move on to our time at the PPPE last week. Apologies for over simplifying what are complex and intersecting concerns.

Productivism is, simply put, the pursuit of more productivity. It is ‘growthism’ – the notion that more production is necessarily good. Applied to growing pigs, it means that more piglets per litter, bigger pigs in a shorter time, bigger hams, and more kilos yielded from each carcass are all indisputably desirable.

Technocrats are scientists and technical experts who have a lot of power in politics or industry due to a culture of valuing technological solutions. Applied to growing pigs, it means pharmaceutical companies who are quick to provide technical solutions to problems created by the industry’s unsustainable production methods. Air quality’s an issue? We have a vaccine for that.

Corporate greed is generally faceless. Many if not most of the humans inside corporations are individually decent people and mostly harmless, but collectively they wield disproportionate power and have a fiduciary duty to work for the benefit of the corporation aka its shareholders. Shareholders’ dividends are valued above all else, and are often served best by technocrats’ solutions. Corporate greed is not interested in system reform to create a fair world for everyday people and the animals they raise.

Hegemony as I am using it here is understood in terms of the ways that the elite or governing powers coerce consent from the very people they subjugate. Applied to intensive livestock industries, it is through a complex web of economic and cultural controls that big companies convince family farmers that confining their animals is morally just and ‘the only way’ to ‘feed the world’ (and their families). When the shed needs upgrading because half the pigs have pneumonia and your kids need new shoes, you’re hardly likely to embark on a philosophical journey through the ethics of confining animals, you’re going to buy another bottle of Ingelvac MycoFLEX and continue to complain about activists breaking into your sheds.

So what happens when a couple of small-scale free-range pig farmers go to the country’s largest gathering of intensive pork producers? We found ourselves so far outside the echo chamber I couldn’t even hear it anymore, but it transformed my thinking on strategies for reform.

The PPPE is the pork industry’s bi-annual conference that brings together pork producers, veterinarians, drug companies, feed suppliers, and manufacturers of equipment (mostly for intensive pig sheds such as farrowing crates). Very few small-scale growers attend as it’s perceived to be pitched at large, intensive production systems (and I can affirm that this is the reality, but an issue APL have stated they are keen to address).

As members of Australian Pork Ltd (APL), we are entitled to a flight and accommodation for one of us to attend, so this year we decided we would go and learn more about the concerns of the intensive industry to help in our work to get more pigs back out onto paddocks. We knew it would be challenging and frustrating at times, but I was really keen to put a face to the people who run intensive farms by spending a few days amongst them. I’m still processing my complicated emotions about it all, but one thing is very clear to me – farmers are not the problem.

As expected, people are mostly lovely. The producers we met are families with children young and old, more often than not multi-generational pig farmers who’ve been through the intensification of the industry and are now copping the community opprobrium of being considered ‘factory farms’ while trying to make a living in a commodity food system that is increasingly in crisis (just look at dairy).

Most speakers were vets, animal scientists, and sponsors – very few producers actually spoke in the sessions we attended.

The conference opened with a futurist who dazzled the audience with the promise of more shiny technology looming just over the horizon, but it was such snake oil I’ll be brief. He told us what we could do with Big Data on Google Trends, to sign up now for Skymuster (which we did, heh, but he also told us his plans to steal a Skymuster satellite from rural Australia because it will be so much quicker than his broadband in Sydney – great guy). He dangled the promise of ear tags for pigs that will be able to ‘smell disease’ and compute feed conversion ratios in real time. Have a look at Spider goats, and suffice to say that he was a true technophile and Productivism Personified. This set the scene for a more hopeful, technologically-enabled future for the pork industry.

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Throughout the conference, there were a few defensive mentions of the broader community calling what they do ‘factory farming’. In fact, Robert van Barneveld, the CEO for Sunpork Farms (one of the largest pork producers in Australia with approximately 40,000 sows) made the rather telling comment, ‘we’re accused of being factory farms – if only! Life would be a dream!’ He went on to expound on how in factories everything is uniform and so production is seamless and efficient, and that this was apparently a goal for the pork industry to work towards by improving genetics and refining nutrition at all life stages of pigs.

Air quality only got one mention that we heard, when American swine scientist Mark Wilson was discussing recent advances in seasonal infertility and heat stress. He made a sort of parenthetical comment that there was sometimes over 50ppm ammonia in some pig sheds. For the record, anything over 10ppm reduces the respiratory defences and increases the risk of infection (in both pigs and workers in intensive sheds). Zinpro, the company Wilson works for, produces ‘performance minerals’ to ‘improve performance’/counter the ill effects of intensive systems.

The Zinpro website has this to say about lameness:

‘When a sow is lame, it leads to lower feed intake (especially during lactation), decreased reproductive performance and ultimately early exit from the herd.’

Not,

‘When a sow is lame, she’s probably suffering, and this should be avoided at all costs.’

The second statement requires non-hegemonic thinking – that is, one would have to question the system that is causing the lameness, but when one’s income and identity are entirely tied up in those sheds, this question is very difficult to ask, and performance minerals must seem genuinely helpful.

Air quality was flagged by the final speaker we heard (who runs 2000 sows in Victoria), who called for improvements in temperature, hygiene, and air quality, but did not discuss the latter two in his talk at all – they simply appeared in the concluding slide.

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Sponsors introduced each session of the conference – Zoetis, Primegro, Elanco, Biomin, and Boehringer Ingelheim just to name a few of the pharmaceutical sponsors. They have a solution for everything, and at no point did we hear these sponsors or ag scientists entertain the question of why so many pigs have pneumonia, pleurisy, lameness, and post-weaning multisystemic wasting syndrome (PMWS) in the first place. (For comparison, none of these ailments are common in small-scale free-range pig farming except occasional lameness in sows from joining injuries.)

The very first session we attended was on biosecurity, a paramount concern to the intensive livestock industry. Biosecurity is important we were told because the advantages of lower infection include: increased animal welfare; increased production; decreased antibiotic use; and increased food safety. Infection in sheds can be catastrophic as disease moves through an immune-compromised herd of closely confined animals – imagine someone hops onto the Frankston line at peak hour with anthrax.

To manage biosecurity, the crowd of producers was told to eradicate wild poultry such as ducks so they don’t infect your herd; manage the inevitable rat infestations; and require visitors to shower and change into orange prison suits before entering the property so you can identify the risky stranger on your property. A question from the floor was ‘so how are the free-range farms managing their biosecurity?’ to general consternation at the risk farms like ours must be presenting to theirs.

When a room full of people unquestioningly accepts advice to force visitors to wear orange prison suits onto the farm you know we have a long way to go to get back to the reasonable person test. No wonder Joel Salatin wrote a book called ‘Folks, this ain’t normal’.

The planning requirements around intensive piggeries for buffer zones to protect the amenity of other humans, animals, waterways and soils should force a major re-evaluation of the systems we need buffering from, not constant revisions to just how far sheds need to be from us. If it’s not fit to be near to, it’s probably not fit to exist.

Technocrats cannot solve the problem of air quality in confinement systems. Vaccinations for pneumonia, pleurisy, and porcine circovirus (PCV2) are bandaids on an increasingly antimicrobial resistant wound. Vaccinations aren’t the solution, they’re just another problem. Same goes for more or better fans and air conditioning.

The solution for air quality is to have less pigs per farm and to keep them outdoors.

The solution for the risk of infection is to have less pigs per farm and to keep them outdoors.

I will mention one more speaker, an industry shill who did the conference no favours with her hyperbolic rant and defensive defence of intensive livestock systems. Jude Capper is a self-described ‘livestock sustainability consultant’ whose bio says she is ‘Defending beef daily! Passionate about livestock production, dedicated to giving producers the tools and messages to explain why we do what we do, every single day.’ She managed to misquote Michael Pollan while telling the audience they need to control their message so that ‘self-appointed food experts’ like him don’t, and encouraged the industry to recruit ‘mommy bloggers’ to their cause as people can relate to mothers.

Bovidiva, as Capper calls herself on her blog and social media, has posts in defence of routine antibiotic use, and even one objecting to concerns about industry-funded scientists like herself. The shame of her inclusion in the program is that we did hear discussions of the need to reduce antibiotic use and signs that industry is ready to start talking about some of the hard topics, and Capper’s performance belied the fact that the industry has made headway on a number of things such as the voluntary phase out of gestation stalls (though not farrowing stalls as yet).

People who set themselves up to ‘defend the industry’ are not helpful to society’s project of constant improvement – and it’s particularly shameful when these are allegedly academics who should be trained in the cool eye of objectivity and vigilance against bias. This conference would benefit from open discussions of the problems of air quality and its impact on animals and workers, management of effluent, overuse of antibiotics, and financial pressures inherent in the commodity food system amongst other concerns facing the industry. So long as the conference is funded by the pharmaceutical industry and others who profit from pig producers, this seems unlikely to happen, to the detriment of the farmers and communities they feed.

In March, the CEO of APL Andrew Spencer made a strong call for the freedom true transparency could offer the industry in his regular piece in the Australian Pork Newspaper. Spencer writes,

 ‘We at APL do have some initiatives under way to better show what happens on a pig farm, but disappointingly getting our producers to cooperate in using their facilities to host media or community groups has been very unsuccessful. This is a significant risk to our industry. […] Being profitable isn’t the same as being sustainable if the community doesn’t believe in what you’re doing. One of the communication principles I’ve previously written about states “we are not afraid of others seeing what we do.” Today, I don’t believe this is true.’

It is encouraging to see an industry leader calling for transparency, and pointing out that if you’re not willing to let people see what you do, then there might be something wrong…

The task before those of us working towards an ethical and ecologically-sound agricultural future is enormous, and we must work with farmers in intensive systems if there is any hope for reform. We have to listen to their financial and social constraints, and offer alternative financially-viable models.

In working with intensive livestock producers, we have to understand who holds the real power – the corporations who supply them with medications that make those systems function, and the processors and retailers like Coles and Woolies who set prices and leave farmers vulnerable to fluctuations on the global market.

Until farmers of all produce are able to control the price they charge for their food based on what it costs them to grow it, we cannot have a fair food system. The dairy crisis has sharply reminded us of how broken the system really is – let’s all work together before it’s too late for everyone.

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

9 thoughts on “Big Pharma, Big Food… who really controls the pig industry?”

  1. I suggest you check the link at the bottom of my slides. The quote came directly from Michael Pollan’s article here: http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/six-rules-for-eating-wisely/ and was not misquoted. It’s ironic that you call for more open discussion, yet you didn’t make your feelings known during the Q&A panel at PPPE, instead choosing to write this rather unfortunate piece. Please note that none of my blog posts endorse “routine antibiotic use” but, in those that discuss technology, simply note the productivity gains that are achievable from various products (whether or not the farmer wishes to use them is obviously their choice) and the importance of good animal health and welfare.

  2. Great piece Tammi. Just as transparency will help improve the food production system for human and non-human stakeholders alike, detailed and engaged but non-judgemental writing will help get us there.

  3. Great piece. I want my food to come directly from the farmer where possible. I like to get to know them personally and see how they raise their animals. I like my food to be as fresh as possible without any additives. I want it to taste good and I never have had a problem paying a fair price. Sure we have to feed the masses but this can be done with lots more small farmers. I am a retired “right wing” business guy who supports mass production for some products but not food. Small farms survive very well in lots of European countries and they can here. Keep up the good work Tammi and Stuart, you are our future.

  4. Great work Tammi!

    “farmers are not the problem”

    “Many if not most of the humans inside corporations are individually decent people and mostly harmless, but collectively they wield disproportionate power and have a fiduciary duty to work for the benefit of the corporation”

    That second quote really gets to the heart of the matter doesn’t it…

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