I joined 4H, an experiential learning program for youth focused on agriculture and life skills, at the age of nine. I didn’t join because I was interested in alternative agriculture, let alone know what that term signified. I didn’t join because I was interested in the local food movement, and wouldn’t even hear that term uttered for years. I joined because I loved animals and the outdoors and it was a great way to convince my parents to let me get more pets. Well, not pets, as my parents and 4H mentors sternly lectured me. Livestock. Animals that I would raise for a few months and then auction off at the San Mateo County Fair at the end of the summer.
By the age of twelve — with the charm that perhaps only a gawkly twelve year old child possess — I convinced an elderly neighbor with a fallow horse pasture, to allow me and another 4Her to raise pigs in his pasture. Now I entered my pig-raising venture with two basic assumptions — again, with the naivety that perhaps only a twelve year old child with no conception of the industrial food system possess —: that I would raise my pigs with the dignity warranted to a living being, and that I should be fairly compensated for my work.
Now as to my first assumption, obviously at the age of twelve I was not thinking: “my pigs shall live in dignity!,” but rather: pigs naturally root, so they’ll live on dirt. Of course. Pigs are social animals, so they’ll have a companion – obviously not so many they’ll be uncomfortable. Of course. Pigs use mud as a natural sunscreen, so they’ll have access to a mud puddle, particularly when it gets hot. Of course. Pigs are energetic, like dogs, so they’ll get at least an hour a day in an even larger area than their pen so they can run really, really fast with the same joy a dog gets when he bounds off after a tennis ball. Of course. You treat life in a manner in tune with its natural inclinations. Of course.
Maybe my second assumption, that I should be fairly compensated for my work, was even more naïve. Raising animals, and raising them with the dignity they warrant, is a lot of work. It takes a lot of learning, and it takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of people, and it takes a lot of capital. During the months I raised my pigs, I would subject my parents' friends to long advertising campaigns of why they should purchase my pig at the county auction. I was fortunate, having grown up in the Silicon Valley, that we knew people that were not only willing, but able, to pay a fair price on my pigs, usually by going in with multiple families. I was asking for significantly more than any supermarket pork costs. A fair price is generally a high price. But I assumed every person deserved, and received, fair compensation for their work, no matter what that work was, be it raising pigs or designing computer programs. Of course.
In our current agroindustry model, neither farm animals nor farm workers are treated with the dignity that their individual lives warrant.
The first small detail I ever learned about conventional pig farms was that they cut off pigs’ tails, and looking back, I suppose that revelation was my “road to Damascus” moment. Pigs tails curl to express joy. A curled pig tail is like a the wag of your dogs, or the smile of a friend. Not that they’d have many, perhaps any, reasons to express joy, anyways, during their short, brutal lives on conventional farms, where pigs’ tails are cut off to prevent them from cannibalizing one another’s. Of course.
Meanwhile, workers in the agriculture and food system are too often exposed to hazardous conditions we would otherwise consider unacceptable and are exempted from many of the legal protections we now consider basic and fundamental, such as the right to organize and overtime. All too often, they are denied the right of U.S. citizenship, and all the rights inherent in citizenship, altogether.
As I delved deeper into the politics of our agriculture and food systems, the contradictions and injustices only continued to manifest and compound. The pigs tail is only the beginning, not the end. Our industrial agriculture and food system is a system founded on the degradation, rather than dignity, of life. Of all life. All the way down from our soil microbes all the way up to us humans, where the injustices are insidiously drawn along racial, class, gender, and national lines.
But I know it doesn’t have to be this way, nor has it always been this way. I know that we simply cannot sustain the current system, but moreover, I know there are countless different paths to follow which are far more edifying. The earth is abundant, and today, more than any other time in history, we are positioned with the technology, resources, skills, knowledge, and passion to treat every living thing on this abundant and plentiful earth with the dignity each and every one of us deserves. Its not just that another world is possible, but that a far better one is.