Our Swine, Ourselves: ‘Pig Tales’ About How We Treat ‘Lesser Beasts’

The relationship between pigs and people is one of the longest ones in our human history: as longstanding as our relationship with dogs or horses, or even wheat or barley. Pigs are smart—but they are also delicious. What we do to pigs, in the name of producing their delicious protein as abundantly and cheaply as possible, challenges us as a culture that loves animals, but also loves to eat them.

Two books published this year explore where pigs came from, how they ended up in modern intensive agriculture, and whether there might be hope for change. Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig (Basic Books), by historian Mark Essig, traces pigs’ history from  the Neolithic Age to now. Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat (WW Norton & Co.), by journalist Barry Estabrook, examines the ways pigs are raised today, and asks how much we risk by making cheap meat the most important goal.

I had the chance to speak to both authors about their books onstage during this year’s Decatur Book Festival, the largest independent book fair in the United States, which takes place outside Atlanta over the Labor Day weekend. In a fascinating, far-ranging conversation, they discussed the pig’s little-known history and uncertain future. I’ve edited and condensed our conversation.

Maryn McKenna: The first question of course has to be how you both came to write books about pigs. 

Mark Essig: About eight years ago, I moved to Asheville, N.C. Right in the middle of town are a couple of statues of pigs. I discovered that, before the Civil War tens of thousands of pigs were driven, on the hoof, through the center of town. My first reaction was just delight. Who knew that pigs would go in the direction that you wanted them to?

I started following the path of the pig. I found out about pigs in ancient Rome and Romans’ bizarre feasting practices, and pigs in the Middle Ages that were put on trial for murdering infants. I learned about Spanish explorers who would drop off a boar and a couple of sows on deserted islands just on the hope that they would breed. Just so many wonderful stories I thought they needed to be told.

McKenna: Barry, how about you?

Barry Estabrook: I’ve always written about how food is produced. When I approached my partner and said, “Honey, I want to do a book about pork production,” she looked at me and said, “This better not mean I have to give up bacon.” So, I spent the next two years trying to answer that question: “Can we find bacon we can live with?” And that’s what brought me to this book.

McKenna: Mark, I would have assumed that since we love pork so much, we would always have been in favor of the pig, but you lay out a cycling of feelings, from attraction to disgust and back again.

Essig: In the first Neolithic villages, when people started living in permanent settlements for the first time, they did what people do when they gather together: produce garbage. Eurasian wild boars took advantage of that. They started lurking around towns and gradually over thousands of years evolved into what we know as domestic pigs. You can think of it as an alchemical process, transforming garbage into delicious food.

But then, about 3,000 BC in some of the first written records, you see disgust with what pigs ate. As soon as you have civilization you have status levels, and people with status in Mesopotamia and in Egypt rejected pork as fit only for people who couldn’t afford to eat anything else. When the Jews banned pork in 800 BC or so, they would not have surprised any of their neighbors in the Near East, because anybody of means rejected pork.

They did however surprise the Romans, because the Romans loved pork as no people have before or since. Rome had enough wealth to import grain and fatten their pigs on it, and oak forests to fatten their pigs on acorns. Whereas in the Near East pigs ate garbage and filth. So in Rome pigs lived cleanly and they were embraced, and in the Near East, they lived dirty lives and were rejected.

McKenna: Barry, you say the way we solved this issue of how to think about pigs was to disappear them. In your research, you saw things that most meat eaters never do.

Estabrook: If you saw the way 97 percent of the pigs in this country are raised, you would stop eating conventionally raised pork. It’s horrific. Until 50 years ago, we had a deal with pigs. We would raise them well. We would provide them with food. We would protect their babies. We would house them if they needed housing. It was a sort of grand contract, which we broke 50 years ago when we forced pigs inside.

You can drive through Iowa, which produces almost half the pigs that are raised in the United States, and you won’t see a single pig. You’ll see long low white buildings. Inside those buildings are thousands of animals. They’re kept on hard floors with slats. Their feces and urine fall through the slats or are squished through by their feet. They never see the light of day. They never set foot on anything other than cement. A sow, a female breeding pig, never gets to move. She’ll spend her whole life in a metal crate that is not big enough for her.

McKenna: Mark, you recount the story of the advertising campaign “The Other White Meat,” which suggested pork was like chicken or fish—as though we weren’t supposed to think of pork as being an actual four-footed animal.

Essig: Americans think of ourselves as a nation of beef eaters, but for most of our history we were pork eaters primarily. It was only until after World War II that people started eating more beef than pork. People had a little bit more money, had refrigerators and started to change their habits. First they turned to beef, and then very quickly to chicken, for health reasons. So pork producers decided that they would market pork, not as bloody and fatty like beef, but as pale and lean like chicken.

The reason they could do that was because of the agricultural methods Barry just talked about. If you keep pigs confined, they don’t move their muscles and don’t develop dark meat. If you control their genetics through artificial insemination, you can keep them very lean. So “The Other White Meat” was not just a slogan, it was also evidence of a new type of pig.

McKenna: Implicit in what you’re describing, regarding the industrialization of pork, is not just control of genetics, but also administration of antibiotics, which make it possible to produce meat in great quantities. What does it take to sustain this industrial system?

Estabrook: To get pigs to survive to six months, the age when they are slaughtered, they have to be kept on constant low doses of antibiotics. It would be no different from you taking an antibiotic every day just in case you might pick up a cold. No doctor would allow you to do that. But that’s what happens to virtually every commercial pig raised in the United States.

McKenna: And of course the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that result don’t stay in the pig and don’t stay in the barn. The thing we don’t think about is that the cost of raising modern pork isn’t just costly to the pig, it’s also a cost to all of the pig’s neighbors.

Estabrook: A industrial-scale pig farm is not a farm in the sense that we think of. It’s not the whiff of manure that you got in the old days when you drove through the country. If the gases they emit were coming out of a factory, the factory would be closed down. People living close to big operations suffer neurological disorders. They suffer from asthma. They suffer from higher blood pressure. People who live further downstream have to drink polluted water. The city of Des Moines, Iowa, pays millions of dollars a year to get pig crap out of the water that people drink.

McKenna: Can we say that there is hope,that we’re starting to think differently about the welfare of pigs?

Essig: Fifty years ago, the pork on every menu in the U.S. would’ve been pastured pork. That was just the way we raised pigs. So, it’s clearly possible to raise a large number of pigs on pasture under humane conditions. But as Barry indicated, it’s still a tiny percentage: 3 percent or 5 percent of all pigs produced in the U.S.

McKenna: Barry, you went to countries where the way that we raise pigs in the U.S. would literally be illegal.

Estabrook: The pork industry in Denmark is every bit as industrialized, more sophisticated, and—for a tiny country of 5 million people—produces one-third the number of pigs that we do. They don’t use antibiotics on their pigs unless an individual pig is sick and needs it. It works fine. They’re profitable. They compete on the world market. Yet our industry refuses, for some reason, to look at this example.

McKenna: So can we turn around this 60-year experiment in treating animals as though they were widgets in a factory? Is pork production going to change?

Essig: I think that there are going to be some changes around the margins. I think that there’s already movement to limit gestation crates and shift towards group housing. But people like cheap meat so much that the chance for really profound transformations of the industry may be slim, particularly given the reluctance of politicians to enact any serious regulations.

The big new market for meat is not in the United States. Meat consumption here is flat or even falling a little bit. But China, with 1.2 billion people, is vastly increasing its appetite for meat and particularly pork. They’re getting rid of traditional agriculture and raising up Western-style hog barns. So I’m not terribly optimistic. But I do think the power of consumers choosing to eat well-raised pork will make a difference in the lives of many pigs and many farmers.

Estabrook: I spent two years trying to answer my partner’s question, “Does this mean we have to give up bacon?” and my answer is: No. That makes me optimistic. Everybody here can buy well-raised pork. Five years ago you would’ve had to know somebody who raised it, or raised it yourself. Pork is either the worst meat you can eat by any criteria, or the best meat you can eat by any criteria. Let’s look at what we are buying. That’s where it starts. Whatever other people are doing, we can all now support pork that’s well-raised.

McKenna: That’s a great message to end on. Every time you make a decision about what you’re going to eat or what you’re going to buy, you’re either voting for a better food system, or you’re voting for the status quo. It’s important to be reminded of that.

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