Beyond the steel cages

While I commend Dr. Medoro (“Animal Rights and Academic Freedom” March 8, 2010) for standing up against current pork production methods, I also take offense to some of her arguments. She wants pigs out of gestation crates and other confined areas so they can be free to roam around and just be pigs. She states that financial incentives have clouded the vision of the pork industry and lead it to where it is today, and that those incentives have an influence on the department of animal science. As a second-year agronomy student in the faculty of agricultural and food sciences, I have no ties with the pork industry, so any market fluctuation has little impact on me and my wallet. Hopefully I can provide some reasonable insight and perspective. I have absolutely no problem for her standing up for animal rights — I wholly support that — but when you directly and negatively attack pork producers, I take issue with that.

Unfortunately, financial incentives do have a very powerful say in the grand scheme of things. Pork production in Manitoba contributes roughly $1 billion (yes that’s nine zeroes) to the Manitoba economy while providing nearly 17,000 jobs. If Manitoba wants to establish itself as a “have” province, it’s important that the billion-dollar figure can grow. And contributing to that bottom line is the 17,000 people that need the consumer to have pork on their plate so that they in turn can have something to eat at dinner time.

Medoro strongly argues that current practices must be abolished immediately and that some other measure be taken. You want producers to get rid of the crates, but then what should they do? The crates offer a safe setting for sows not only to give birth, but to receive enough feed, and stay free from disease, among other benefits that can’t be managed as easily via group housing. There are obviously other methods to producing pigs and other animals in a more humane way. Instead of bashing the pork industry and the agriculture faculty, why not advocate for natural methods and organic producers? After all, consumers will always want bacon at breakfast and pork chops for dinner. That won’t change. What can change is where and how that animal is produced.

Up until now, the consumer, including substantial export to the U.S. and overseas, has demanded a lot of pork for a minimal price, and the most efficient and productive method to satisfy those consumer needs is through current production practices. You can say what you want about the big companies and their vision to control the food supply and what you eat, but as a single consumer, you still hold market power. Every time you eat, you’re voting on how food is produced in this country. If someone doesn’t like pigs in crates but still likes bacon, they can buy natural or organic pork. Sure, it’s more expensive than conventional animal production methods, but that’s why conventional practices continue; because it’s cheaper for the consumer and the producer.

Farmers are not stupid people. The job description of a farmer is ambiguous. They can do anything. They are stewards of the land, can raise multiple crops and animals, fix any machine you put in front of them, construct a building from scratch, manage books in the millions of dollars and still make it to hockey or curling once a week. If the consumer votes with their dollar that they want fresh, natural food, we’ll gladly adjust and deliver.

Don’t be so quick to assume that all Aggies are a bunch of cowboys that wear Wranglers and have shit on their boots. Hell yes, most of us do and are, but that doesn’t make anybody more righteous than we are. I’m actually working with a group in an agri-business class to develop a marketing plan for natural pork. Our faculty is on the frontier of groundbreaking research and innovations, and our students are more than capable of thinking critically for themselves. With seven billion and growing mouths to feed on this Earth, we’re committed to providing food to the highest standard and that which is most sustainable. Just tell us how you want that food and we’ll be more than happy to provide it.

Alastair McFadden is an agronomy student at the U of M.