On jamón, Slow Food, & the aesthetics & ethics of meat

Two years ago we traveled to France and Italy to learn more about how they raise pigs and produce charcuterie and salumi. Disappointed to discover that the pigs are virtually all raised in sheds, we stopped calling our air-dried hams ‘prosciutto’ and changed to ‘jamón’ as we understood at the time that Spanish pigs with the appellation ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ are raised outdoors and finished over autumn and winter on acorns – a beautiful system.

This year we visited Spain to see this beautiful system firsthand. There is a lot of jamón eaten in Spain, and a lot more exported. In 2014, 43.5 million pigs (almost equivalent to the population of Spain, which was 46.7 million in 2014) were slaughtered. (Compare that with 4.85 million pigs produced in Australia for a population of 23.5 million.) So as we drove down through the southwest and up the western half of the country before crossing to Barcelona, we were on the lookout for these millions of pigs. There weren’t many on the paddocks, but the white concrete sheds with their signature malodorous air were ubiquitous.

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As we traveled we were interested in the aesthetics – in the texture, flavour, and colour of jamón across Spain – and we also wanted to know where and under what conditions it was produced. Only then would we ask how the jamóns are cured – what is the salting technique, the drying times, the maturation periods? Although we contacted two farms in hopes of a visit, we received no response from either, perhaps because we arrived before the famous montañera time where (some of) the pigs are actually outdoors?

We found the famous dehesa landscapes where the prized Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are finished on acorns, but most were vacant until the nuts would start to drop at the start of October. In Extremadura and Huelva provinces, some dehesa still sheltered the bulls grazing the last of the dry-standing grass of summer as they awaited their bullfighting fate. The few pigs we saw outdoors were on bare, rocky ground, and according to the FAO only around 10% of Spanish pigs (the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) even get those few months outside under the shade of the picturesque oak forests.

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By the end of our time in Spain I was back to eating mostly vegetarian, and we will no longer be calling our hams jamón.

While the Spanish manage to produce quite a delicious product by finishing the pigs for three to four months on acorns, those pigs spend the first year of their lives in sheds, and the sows live and farrow entirely indoors. (NB I understand that there are a very small number of farms raising pigs on pasture, too few to discuss here where I’m looking at jamón production generally.) And so while the Spanish have succeeded in the aesthetics of their jamón, in my view they have not done so on the ethics.

What’s the big deal about raising pigs in sheds anyway if the final product tastes good?

I spoke recently to a crowd of about 200 people confined in a lovely long hall and asked them whether they’d be happy to spend the next five months there with no opportunity to leave. I didn’t even mention that they’d wee and poo where they sat, and if they were lucky the floor would be slatted for the excrement to drain away from the mass of bodies. Nobody popped their hand up to stay in the building, and yet I’d wager that the majority in the room would regularly eat meat from animals who never left the shed in which they were raised.

Most conventional pig and poultry sheds suffer from air quality that is so poor the animals are vaccinated for pneumonia to keep them alive until slaughter at five to six months of age. I understand that in Australia, the industry has been leading some innovative reform to build sheds that are open ended and have straw rather than concrete on the floor – definite improvements in intensive production systems.

But even if we improve the air quality and deal with the concentration of effluence in responsible ways, is it enough? What kind of lives do pigs who can only mill about in a crowded shed have?

And we need to talk about breeds and the serious risks posed by lack of biodiversity, especially when compounded by intensive confinement. Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, talks about sheds of 15,000 turkeys as ‘food for flu’. They’re a perfect feasting ground for viruses without an ‘immunological firebreak’ due to the homogeneity of the animals. While he was in Australia recently, we discussed the idea of regional planning for diversity and resilience – active, informed, grassroots community planning to ensure we raise different breeds across a region to create that firebreak in case a virulent strain of swine or avian flu escapes the intensive sheds.

There’s a strong movement to eradicate routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in intensive livestock production – administered to everything from pigs and poultry in sheds to cattle in feedlots. The industry itself is discussing the problems of over-use of antibiotics, namely the rise of superbugs like MRSA and the threat that soon we won’t be able to treat the most basic bacterial infections with the most common antibiotics like penicillin. Denmark already banned the routine use of antibiotics and yet it is still the biggest producer of pork in the world, so it’s clearly possible. The Netherlands has similarly banned antibiotics, prompted by the fact that pig farmers there are >760 times more likely to be carriers for MRSA than other Dutch citizens – if they visit the hospital they’re immediately taken to quarantine to protect the rest of the population.

So we have compelling animal welfare, ecological, and public health arguments to radically change how we raise pigs and poultry, and yet while the fair food movement consistently makes many of these arguments about the ills of industrial agriculture, there is a distinctive gap in our ethics of practice. Our time at Slow Food’s Terra Madre this year highlighted this very clearly – as we elbowed our way through the crowds of people enjoying a day of tasting alleged slow food along the kilometres of stalls, we were disappointed to learn that all but one pork producer we could find were growing their pigs intensively indoors.

While Slow Food (like the Spanish jamón producers above) excels at the aesthetics of the food it promotes – promoting ‘slow’, traditional, and delicious, how is it doing at the ethics? What do ‘good, clean, and fair’ really mean? Slow Food International took a stand against foie gras a couple years ago, but it has not done so against intensive animal agriculture, and hosts many prosciutto producers at Salone del Gusto every two years who raise pigs in sheds. I would really like to see them pursue this discussion and take a strong position against intensive livestock production.

As I said on the Slow Meat panel at Terra Madre, just because you cure it slowly doesn’t make it slow… you need to grow it slowly too.

And the same goes for serving factory-farmed meat at fair food movement events – you can’t simply intellectualise this stuff and pontificate on the ills of Big Ag and the oligarchy while munching on their produce. If procuring ethically-raised meat is impossible due to complicated catering contracts and a dearth of small-scale pastured livestock farmers, we can at least serve vegetarian food (with its own attendant issues if sourced from the globalized industrial food system, e.g. tropical fruit in Victoria in the dead of winter… that’s not even an aesthetic success.).

As most people reading this already know, food has material impacts on the land and people that produce it, the animals raised for food, and the people who eat it. If we only take a moralizing analytical stab at the problems of the food system and then serve it up for dinner we are doing a material injustice to all parts of the very system we are trying to transform. Slow Food and all of us in the food sovereignty movement can and should show leadership (as Slow Food has on many topics) and insist on the ethics of meat production being at least of equal importance to the aesthetics.

More on Transparency: Canaries in the Mine

I’ve already expressed my opposition to any proposed ag gag laws and related desire for more transparency, so today I’m going to be brief and blunt as I extend it.

Intensive livestock farming needs to stop. Here are a few reasons why:

  • it concentrates effluence, leading to water, air and soil pollution as well as loss of social amenity for those who live nearby;
  • it drives increased meat consumption (which in turn drives increased monoculture grain production to feed livestock instead of people, which in turn drives further deforestation, etc, ad nauseam) – the only reason chicken and pork are consumed in the vast quantities they are is due to growing numbers of these animals in sheds;
  • it forces you ‘to get big or get out’, which has meant a concentration of farming to fewer, bigger farms and the loss of regional livelihoods across Australia (and the global north). There were about 50,000 pig farmers in Australia in the 1960s – now there are just 660, and yet production is higher now;
  • it leads to a higher incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which makes human illnesses harder to treat (not to mention non-human illnesses);
  • it’s wrong to confine an animal in a cage for the entirety of its life.

The first four points are virtually indisputable, so I’ll say a couple of things about the last one.

Some people obviously believe it is not wrong to raise animals for meat in cages. Their ethical code differs from mine, just as a vegan abolitionist’s code differs from mine.

I say it’s unethical to cage animals. Vegan abolitionists say it’s unethical to kill and eat animals.

I have pursued a life as a free-range pig farmer because I believe so strongly that people should have the choice of genuine pastured meat to help them stop eating animals raised in sheds and cages.

I call myself an ethical farmer because we raise our animals on the paddocks in a way we believe is ethical. I do not say this to suggest all other farmers are unethical, however, as I’ve said, I do believe it is unethical to raise animals in cages.

If you call your produce ‘farm fresh’ or ‘natural’, are you suggesting everyone else’s produce is rotten and fake? No? I didn’t think so.

Some animal rights activists spend their lives trying to take footage of what happens in intensive farms because they believe so strongly that it is wrong to confine, kill, and eat animals.

These activists are targeting intensive livestock farms, as well as live export. If you’re not confining animals on land or on a ship, they’re not likely to sneak in and film your operation. And if you share your own story, open your doors, and crucially, do what you say you’re doing, it’s very hard for someone else to catch you out.

They are the canary in the mine, people, and if you don’t let the animals out you might get shafted.

I would genuinely like to see a gentle transition that supports family farmers as they move away from intensive animal farming, not a shutdown of the industry that ruins lives while trying to protect animal welfare. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but it does need to change.

Politicians may make more laws, but whistleblowers will find a way to uncover what they believe is an injustice, so why not just stop the injustice?

Let them eat grass!

PS Russ Patterson wrote a response to my original transparency post on Ann Britton’s blog. I’ve responded to his arguments there.

From field to supermarket, things are amiss

Road Trip USA was envisioned to serve a number of purposes, one of them to visit small, rebel farmers who are concerned enough about the impact of large industrial agriculture to participate in system-wide change through sustainable practices on their own farms. Those we have visited have been generous with their knowledge, and certainly fit Joel Salatin’s criteria that farms should be ‘aromatically and aesthetically pleasing’ – I’ll be posting on some soon…

The first farm we visited was in fact Polyface, which I’ve already detailed. It is a wonderful place, and an inspiration to many new and aspiring farmers such as ourselves. Salatin is not just farming, he’s also combating complacence and acceptance of industrial agriculture as normative through his many books, workshops, and what seems like a lot of time on the lecture circuit. I recommend reading a great post over on ‘Good Cooking for Hard Times’ that outlines some of the consequences of our faith in industrial ag and gives further detail to Polyface.

But I should begin at the beginning. For Road Trip USA, we packed the essential reading for our continued research into sustainable farming, then prepared ourselves for the Land of Processed Food.

When we encountered initial difficulties with the RockVan, you can imagine our surprise in the rather uninspiring town of Springfield, Virginia to find a little diner promoting itself as ‘Farm to Table’ just around the corner from our freeway hotel.

Turns out the Silver Diner is a regional chain that is ‘locally owned and operated’, and while it’s nice to see the interest and effort around sourcing produce locally, I’m really not sure about the ‘natural’ claims nor their ethical credentials after checking out their egg and milk suppliers.

The food we were served fit the bill of most chain fare in the States – large servings smothered in cheese, tasting of, well… fat. Vegetables were in short supply, the pancake breakfast managed to look as though there’s nothing local or natural about it – just what people want, right? I don’t want to knock Silver Diner for trying, but I was struck by how the commercial imperative to cater to the mainstream desire for sameness and quantity seems to be hampering their efforts at really tapping into the ‘farm to table’ movement. Less generously, these people are opportunists dressing up (relatively) local produce as ‘natural’.

But that’s just the first day.

As we’ve traversed thousands of miles across this vast, beautiful country, two of our most common interactions with food and agriculture have been amongst farmlands and supermarkets. Restaurants, while revealing what people eat outside the home, don’t tell you as much about their everyday existence as supermarkets do, and while supermarkets completely obscure their products’ sources, just drive through rural America and you’ll see the often-sad source for yourself.

Much of what we’ve seen evokes a bit of the nostalgic rural idyl – neat rows of corn bursting green across the horizon, the glimmer of red capsicums peeking through deeply verdant fields, circles of golden hay tidily surrounding a homely barn. In Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, it’s the cavernous old barns in varying states of decay or fresh repair, and if the mid-South is barns, Texas is windmills.

 

Yet if you drive through these fields day after day, week after week, and you have your sustainable and fair-trade agricultural lenses on, what you see is monocultures, dead and dying soils, rubbish-strewn poverty in small farming communities and field-workers’ cottages, and pastures decorated with billboards advertising casinos or treatment for Lupus.

The Mississippi Delta’s relentless monotony of cornfields made me wonder at the outcry against palm tree plantations in Malaysia, when our own backyard is so untidy. Not that I’m suggesting we shouldn’t protest the destruction of rainforests for monocultures, but that we should scrutinise the practices of our own countries more closely (who, of course, are also hugely reliant on palm oil for the gargantuan processed food industry). In case the monocultures don’t give you a touch of dysphoria, there’s the poverty – from run-down trailers to shotgun shacks held together with little more than a Southern Baptist’s prayers, rural Mississippi (which is pretty much all of Mississippi, the poorest state in the US) is poor – like, Flint, Michigan poor.

In Mississippi, what really struck me was the exploitation of labour, as it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t the farm owners’ houses we were despairing at.

But when you get to west Texas, where broad-acre cotton and wheat dominate the landscape, it gets harder to tell who owns what, and our sense was that the mid-sized family farms were the ones under enormous threat from long-term unsustainable practices and the current drought.

There’s spirited debate amongst the farming community here over when they can start calling it of a scale of the Dust Bowl of the 30s, but whether what we’re seeing is that bad or not, it’s very very bad. Whole wheat crops have been ploughed under, cattle sold early, and grain elevators gone bankrupt.

Even the rivers have up and left the state.

 

The detritus of industrial agriculture gone wrong is everywhere – from dead soils to deserted farmhouses, the dust devils are closing in.

Let them eat air - wind farms may be the real future of Texan farming

But from wind springs new life, and just across Interstate 40 from the sad and stinking feedlots outside Amarillo are some of Texas’ many wind farms, a hopeful backdrop to the crumbling disasters of industrial agriculture in America’s midwest. Even the private oil derricks seem relatively harmless as they dredge the last of the land’s lifebloods from under its withering skin.

Lone oil derricks feature in Texan pastures

Yet many argue we must have these monolithic systems in order to feed the world. But what that attitude has given us is a system so broken farmers pay enormous sums to Monsanto to grow tens of thousands of acres of Round-Up-Ready corn to feed ruminants who live out their lives in malodorous CAFOs so we can have 24oz steaks on our plates – in Amarillo your super-sized steak is accompanied by the smell of their excrement in the feedlots just west of town.

You smell the feedlots many miles before you can see them.

And I will point out the obvious – we’re over-feeding the so-called global north, or what used to be called the First World, where now we’re mostly just first in diseases of affluence.

In many of America’s supermarkets, you can’t miss the ‘mobility scooters’ as you collect a trolley. The prevalence of obesity in America is no secret, and the majority of those we’ve seen using the scooters have fit the description. I’m not remotely interested in joining others in fat-shaming – I see no shame in obesity, just higher risk for disease and a diminished quality of life. Yet I can’t help but ponder the motive of supermarkets full of 85% highly-processed food in providing mobility scooters for their customers?

Once inside, you could follow Michael Pollan’s advice and stick to the outer aisles and produce section. And regular readers of my blog will know we go a step further and avoid big chain supermarkets entirely, but for the purposes of research and creativity, we’ve not only gone in, we’ve gone deep.

It starts with a game – try to find a food you know in its original form. Butter? No – oh, wait, yes, some.

'I can believe it's not butter'

Rice? Sure, but almost all instant and flavoured. Cheese? Over there in the dry goods ‘shelf-stable’ area.

Yoghurt? Of course, but I hope you don’t mind artificial flavours and sweeteners, and of course you’ll be delighted it’s all fat free.

Right, so dairy is fat or even dairy free, rice is instant and ‘value added’, and there are typically 3-4 times as many processed meat products as whole. And that’s mostly around Pollan’s supermarket periphery – you should see what’s in the middle. Oh, you’ve been there? So you know there is nothing whole in the middle – it’s entirely made up of ‘ingredients’ created by the wonders of science to befuddle our senses into thinking it’s actually food, marketed as healthier than what we might grow in our own backyards.

The fabulous Zoe recently said on Progressive Dinner Party, I don’t accept that the leap from wheat kernel to bread is the same as the leap from bread to McDonalds‘.

It’s not full-cream dairy making you fat, America. Putting excessive amounts of ‘cheese product’ on highly processed meat products wrapped in highly processed ‘bread’ products served with a side of… well, I don’t know their scientific names… yeah, that and the super-sized sodas and high-sugar cereals, that might make you fat. When even the deli potato salad has High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), you’re going to get fat.

These processed foods will make us all fat while we blind ourselves to the exploitation of workers who grew and harvested the ingredients that made these ‘foods’ whose origins are no longer recognisable nor traceable. Meanwhile, the workers will continue to die the illnesses of poverty and over-exposure to chemicals, and everyone will get fatter and sadder and act like nobody knows why. And more farmers will continue to leave the land because where is the dairy farmer’s dollar in a product so ‘value-added’ by others down the supply chain it’s no longer primarily made from milk anyway?

Surely the fact that we can eat at the Silver Diner should make us happy? And not having to grow our own tomatoes, add seasoning to our rice, or fruit to our yoghurt – no need to pop our nachos in the oven to melt the cheese? Isn’t it marvellous that we not only don’t have to bake our own bread, we don’t even have to slice it? Those benevolent corporations will even boil your eggs for you.

I guess there really are people who 'can't even boil an egg'. 🙁

Industrial agriculture has made all of us so much happier, hasn’t it? I mean, just look at these tomatoes, right?

This post is linked to Fight Back Fridays – you should check out some of the other Food Renegade posts!

 

Between ecotarianism and ethotarianism is conviviality.

As we commence RoadTripUSA, I’m thinking a lot about food. Okay, I always think a lot about food, but there’s something quite specific I’m thinking about and it’s around ‘ecotarianism’, pleasure and conviviality…

In America we’ll eat a lot of good food and a bit of bad food. To judge good and bad I weigh up flavour, texture, ‘wholeness’, seasonality, regionality, sustainability, animal husbandry, workers’ rights, and to some degree, health (though food that’s ‘bad’ for you because it’s fatty, etc, is something I don’t spend much time thinking about regarding our family as our lifestyle of predominantly whole foods nearly always ensures a well-balanced diet – but that’s another post). Making choices that ‘tread lightly’ and treat food and producers respectfully is what I understand by ‘ecotarian’, a fairly new term, discussed on the ABC recently by Cristy Clark.

Like most people, sometimes we compromise our usual principles and eat what we consider ‘bad food’ to greater or lesser extents. Road trips inevitably include some potato chips and sometimes a meal from Subway or a local takeaway, and on Friday nights at home we’ll occasionally order pizza or pick up fish and chips. When we make these choices, we’re still able to avoid factory-farmed pork and chicken rather easily.

When travelling, we usually let our standards slide on ethical meat – we tend to just eat everything as a way of understanding culture better – and that includes pork and chicken that is most likely factory farmed. The traceability issues we face at home are compounded overseas where we’re even less certain of our food’s origins. We continue with our usual habits of not eating too much meat generally, but we do like to try all the local specialties. In America, we’re usually with my family or friends, so keeping to ecotarian principles is pretty easy as we generally know the provenance of the food. However, eating out presents a greater challenge unless dining in one of America’s many wonderful SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical) focused restaurants and cafes.

This trip to America is different to a visit ‘home’. We’ll be driving through a number of unfamiliar regions, and there’s a world of interesting local dishes I can’t wait to sample, including such nommish delights as pulled pork in the South… but the odds of there being much free-range pork on the menus in Alabama are pretty slim, I reckon. Chicken will pose a similar problem, and thanks to America’s preponderance of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), commonly known as ‘factory farms’, even beef poses an ethical dilemma unless you know the provenance. I could go on about dairy, seafood, fast food franchises, processed snack foods… you get the picture, but I’ll use pork as my primary example given our plans to be free-range pig farmers.

Will we eat pork in the full knowledge that it isn’t from ‘happy pigs’?

Yes, we will.

We won’t eat a lot of it, but we’ll eat it. There are a few reasons why – more than simply ‘I really want to try that because it looks really delicious’, though I can’t pretend that’s not part of the decision-making process. There are a few key reasons why we will compromise our usual ethics, but the core one is conviviality. That is, while traveling, I don’t want to be ‘that person’ who makes everyone uncomfortable by listing all the things we don’t eat, or by turning down food that someone has offered us in their home with, ‘oh, we don’t eat factory-farmed pork’ every time. Such a response not only tells your host you don’t want what they’ve offered, it infers they have done the wrong thing in offering it to you. I would rather leave ethical food discussions to this blog and other writings, and to conversations that are not taking place in the presence of such food.

At home, standards are easy to maintain. We buy or grow the food and we cook it. When in someone else’s home, I don’t ask if the pork is free range if that’s what’s on the menu. In fairness, my friends all know how we are and are pretty unlikely to give us factory-farmed meat, but if they did, I’d eat it. The animal is already dead and cooked at this stage – in my opinion to refuse to eat it is wasteful and disrespectful of the life it gave as well as inhospitable towards one’s hosts.

Mind you, it’s not only when a host offers us something. There’s food on airlines, lack of choice in small country grocery stores and the usual road trip compromises. Or the myriad ‘hidden’ food ethical dilemmas, such as monoculture GM soy in the ingredients or factory-farmed eggs in some muffins at a diner. While our ethic enables us to avoid many such things, we would be miserable trying to completely avoid the horrors of industrial agriculture – sometimes the pleasure principle is achieved by not agonising so much and knowing you’ve done your best.

As I write these things I’m still sorting out the questions around hypocrisy and being complicit in an unethical food system. But the way I’m thinking about it is to understand ecosystems beyond their biological components – to include the social aspects as well.

If farming had not moved outside of ecosystems – as we all know industrial agriculture requires enormous external inputs and must find places beyond their boundaries to process their outputs – we wouldn’t have the severe negative environmental consequences we face today. But in addition to choosing food that comes from a healthy ecosystem, we should generally choose food that is still intricately linked to communities – that both sustains and is sustained by communities. When we conceive of an ethical approach to food this way, we must consider the human social interactions as well as those between humans and other animals or humans and the earth.

I guess rather than calling it ‘ecotarianism’ then, you might call it ‘ethotarianism’, because it’s about a consistent ethic of respect and pleasure. I’ve often said we should all be hedonists – in the tradition whereby one’s driving principle is to seek pleasure, both for oneself and for others, and taking one’s pleasure should not withdraw it from others, whether they are human, animal or vegetable.

But this complicates the question – the choices are in fact even more difficult than simply seeking ethically produced food – because sometimes the pleasure of various participants will be at odds. A clear example is when I’m offered a plate of pulled pork from unhappy pigs by a relative in the South – it’s too late to give that pig a happy life, but I can still be gracious to my host. Wherever possible, I avoid putting myself in such a position, but once in it, choices must be made, and mine will be to eat what I’m offered.