Following on yesterday's discussion of meat; my thoughts and opinions on the topic were definitely influenced by Nicolette Hahn Niman's book Righteous Pork Chop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (2009). I picked this one up because, well, I live in Iowa. We're ground zero for hog confinements and I felt that I really didn't know that much about the issue. Hahn Niman approaches the topic from a unique standpoint. The first half of the book deals with her time working with Waterkeeper Alliance, an advocacy organization that is dedicated to protecting waterways from pollution. She's a lawyer and her job is to prepare cases against the most egregious polluters: hog confinements. She takes us into the nitty gritty investigative work that she has to do in order to build a case against these corporations. We are with her as she combs through government records, interviews those who have complaints against confinements, and visits waterways filled with dead fish. Along the way we meet farmers and small rural folk who tell heart-breaking stories about the reality of living in proximity to these confinements (not only smell, but also loss of small community, loss of traditional ways of farming, and increased health problems including deadly Staph infections). In the second half of the book, Hahn Niman quits her job and moves across the country to take up cattle ranching with Bill Niman, her new husband and renowned owner of the "natural" beef distributor "Niman Ranch" (which, because of growing confrontations with new management, the two no longer own).
There is a definite shift in tone between the two sections. Hahn Niman is equally impassioned in both, but her growing understanding of ranching and raising animals (that comes with actually doing so) is evident in the latter half. This doesn't change her opinion; it serves to underscore her point that there is still a way to raise animals that is humane as well as profitable. She goes out of her way time and time again to show that her fight is not with farmers or with people who eat meat. Her answer is not that we all give up eating meat and she acknowledges that animals are a crucial part of a successful small farm. Her fight is with the producers who are too big and too far removed from the daily workings of the confinements to care (or to even know) the effects that they're having on the land, the people, and the animals. All she's asking is that big producers abide by the same laws as everyone else and be held accountable for their actions.
One of the interesting questions that is posed is, "where have all the animals gone?" One used to be able to drive through the countryside and see small diversified farms with herds of cattle grazing on the hillside and pigs and chickens around the homestead, in addition to crop land. To drive through the country now, the absence of animals is noticeable. They're there. You just can't see them. They've all been moved indoors into centralized locations where they are packed in as tightly as possible. This is just one more way that we have all been distanced from the food that we eat, to our own detriment as well as the animals'. I'm not the first one to say this, but if hog confinement walls were made of glass and everyone who eats (that is...everyone) would be forced to have one that's visible from their house, you can believe that no one would stand for the way that these animals are treated.
So, what's the solution? Well, reading this book is a start; educating ourselves about where our food comes from. Giving our money to people whose methods of raising animals are in line with our core beliefs is the next step. The next? Navigating the legal channels to prevent any more confinements from being built and work on getting existing ones closed. There are 31 hog confinements in my county alone. There's a lot of work to be done.