How do we quantify the cost of an animal’s life under the shadow of our current economy? As the global COVID-19 pandemic dissipates, it seems clear that America’s reckoning with the reality of our consumption-based system is quickly shifting back to old arguments and cultural inaction, favoring comfort and remoteness over lifestyle change or concern for the climate crisis.
My home overlooks a bridge where a prominently placed billboard states: “Bacon, Highest Price in 40 Years.” The billboard is in reference to current inflation in 2022, and is part of a larger, conservative effort to rile up the general population by conflating genuine concerns over the current state of our pandemic reality and inflation that has been impacted by many different factors. Months prior, across the road, a vegan advocacy group had rented a billboard to display a “Go Vegan for Thanksgiving” message. The irony in seeing these conflicting messages in this same space, divided by a busy urban street, highlights the polarizing predicament we face in Minnesota today.
Outrage over bacon no longer being “cheap” also suggests how deeply Americans have accepted our remoteness from the animals whose lives are cut short in processing meat and by the actions our consumer behavior has on accelerating climate change. Everything has a cost and defaulting to things being “cheap” has shaped our perception of the world as a commodity, to be consumed and used and benefited from. I am as guilty of this as anyone else and have chosen to opt into this economy on more than one occasion based on a need to feed myself and my family. We all buy into this idea, not because we are inherently evil or uncaring, but because we’ve allowed for the creation of this animal economy to dictate how we live.
In the early months of the pandemic, thousands of pigs were slaughtered in Iowa and Minnesota. News reported that supply chain disruptions were forcing farmers to euthanize pigs to prevent the animals from maturing. (https://www.npr.org/2020/05/14/855662494/millions-of-pigs-will-be-euthanized-as-pandemic-cripples-meatpacking-plants) Some farmers carried this act out through deliberate carbon dioxide poisoning or by the use of firearms. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/business/coronavirus-farmers-killing-pigs.html) The primary concern for the hog industry came directly from the temporary closures of slaughterhouses and labor shortages prompted by unsafe working conditions and exposure to COVID-19.
During this time, accounts vary on the total number of pigs slaughtered in Iowa and Minnesota. According to the Pioneer Press, in Minnesota alone, the estimated total was around “200,000” pigs euthanized (https://www.twincities.com/2020/04/27/coronavirus-minnesota-hog-farmers-have-begun-euthanizing-pigs-after-processing-plant-closures-up-to-200000-hogs-per-week-at-risk/), while Minnpost, in quoting David Preisler, CEO of Minnesota Pork Board, had the number at approximately “450,000” across state lines (https://www.minnpost.com/greater-minnesota/2021/01/after-covid-related-livestock-kills-a-push-to-diversify-meat-processing-in-minnesota/). The Iowa Gazette reported that “in Minnesota, the situation is already dire – with an average of 2,000 pigs a day being killed, according to the state agriculture department. About 90,000 pigs were euthanized in that state in six weeks” (https://www.thegazette.com/business/for-iowa-pig-farmers-life-was-hard-before-the-coronavirus-now-its-even-tougher/). The increased demand for pig euthanasia led the Minnesota Board of Animal Health to commission three burial mound “animal carcass compositing” sites, where animals who “grew too large for slaughter and packaging” would be “run through the chipper simultaneously with the wood material.” (https://www.twincities.com/2020/05/06/wood-chippers-employed-to-help-compost-thousands-of-excess-hogs-near-worthington-plant/)
For meat processing plants to remain open in this economy under COVID-19, state officials allowed for this mass slaughtering practice to continue. In Iowa, Agricultural Secretary Mike Naig, insisted that although numbers were high, amounting to “a backlog of some 600,000 hogs” the “state’s pork plants were operating at about 80 percent of capacity – but were improving” (https://www.thegazette.com/business/for-iowa-pig-farmers-life-was-hard-before-the-coronavirus-now-its-even-tougher/). I wonder if this is missing the point. Across state lines, we can see how blind dedication to meet “demand” and resistance towards allowing life to persevere at a time of a pandemic, aided in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of pigs for no reason. The inability to stop and evaluate these decisions in a larger context demonstrates how over reliant we all are on this system continuing.
In the weeks and months since these events, a high percentage of these same hog farmers have sought mental health counseling and support for PTSD (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/business/coronavirus-farmers-killing-pigs.html) Euthanizing pigs, regardless of the number, has traded in one crisis (the predicament that livestock face in today’s industrialized farming market) for another (the mental health toll that humans carry when faced with the reality of the animal economy).
After reading about these pigs, I asked an older relative about how she saw things. She has lived her entire life in a small Minnesota town that has rapidly expanded from a rural farming-based community into a bustling outer suburb. Most of the family farm fields that populated the hillsides along the freeway have been converted into stock housing complexes, and most of the standing woods, which were not already claimed for walking paths, are being cut down for new banks, gas stations, and fast-food joints. I knew bringing up the subject would arouse a response, especially because she’d married a farmer and spent a good portion of her life working hard on their family farm to make a living. I respected that sacrifice and understood how difficult it had been for them to get out of debt.
In response to my concerns for the pigs, she said recently she had gone to a grocery store, where the cost of cow, chicken, and pig meat made her angry because of how high it was.
“Aren’t we suffering enough with COVID?” she said, and then she added, “What about the hog farmers? Who’s going to make sure that they make their money?”
I was used to hearing this now familiar pivot towards the bottom line of any given situation without an acknowledgement of the broader systemic issue at play. Yet, it is true that family farms and small business operations are shuttering or selling off to larger, industrial farm conglomerates that practice the factory farming of livestock. As she spoke of the economic toil on hog farmers, I could tell her passion was tied directly to her connection to something that has mostly faded away. The reality of our collective agreement to prioritize the “bottom line” of profit over ethical concern tells a much different story about who gets paid, who benefits, and ultimately who suffers. The more we contribute to this system, the more we blind ourselves to its results, which places the survival of animals and biodiversity in a position of possible extinction.
Late in the summer of 2021, I went to a barbecue at a friend’s lake home. He was about to be married and we talked about the reception, which was going to be at a hunting club. I’ve never been comfortable talking about hunting, but I try to understand and listen to what is said about it and take the stance of “agree to disagree” with most people. As he talked, I watched him place my plant-based burgers on a massive grill near a mound of assorted meats of all shapes and sizes. In that moment I felt alone, wondering how many other people let these concerns impact them and how many just log them away. There was so much meat piled onto the grill that shutting the lid required extra effort to keep it all contained.
He told me about the recent Costco trip where he’d bought over 50 pounds of meat.
“They got great products there. You a member?”
Product, a weird word. We tend to call animals “product” rather than living creatures. I guess this makes the consumer feel less guilty. “Consumer” is another weird word, implying that we are created only for the sole purpose of desiring more than we really need. This is an endless cycle, and I’ve found myself on plenty of Target trips standing in the aisles wondering if I’m more than what this economy has designed me to be.
“So why the veggie burger?” he asked.
In times like these, I am reluctant to share, as I’ve gotten push back from others in the past. So, I just talked about how I’d benefitted from cutting certain foods out of my diet, specifically red meats.
He laughed, “Did you watch that Schwarzenegger documentary or something?”
I told him that I wasn’t aware of that specific documentary but did mention that I’ve read and heard enough in the past to affirm my position.
“Are we talking cow farts? Is that the problem?”
Before I could answer, he started flipping the meat. Staring into the grill, I thought about my own rocky history with meat consumption. Years ago, I experienced a deep depression and began overconsuming fast food, alcohol, and diet pills. As the meat sizzled on the grill, I thought about how I used these things to punish myself and wreck my body. I never really considered, at that time, that I was still gaining something from the animals I was consuming.
Handing me the plate of plant burgers, he said, “Does it even matter if you don’t eat it, if all this meat on the grill gets eaten? Seems like you are just torturing yourself.”
A year later, my wife told me that my friend’s brother had shot and killed a cougar. When asked why he decided to kill the cougar, he said, “Because I could.” I think about this a lot, especially given how strange the last few years have been, and I wonder if humans have the gumption to choose not to do something, just because we can. Could opting out of this animal economy and adopting more sustainable practices of feeding ourselves and our communities be enough to shift our culture? With climate change happening across the globe, it seems that there will always be a need for future proofing our agricultural and supply chain operations, so why not start now?
To my knowledge, we haven’t attempted a cultural shift this significant in modern American society; yet, with natural disasters, global pandemics, and rising temperatures happening more frequently, it seems that the market will have to change eventually. Speaking of markets, the New York Times published an article that highlights new research into one of the possible causes of COVID-19: wet markets (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/02/26/science/covid-virus-wuhan-origins.html). While there is some debate over how definitive the findings are, and whether it is even possible to pinpoint the exact origins of the virus at this moment, there is ample evidence showing that the operation of these markets is both dangerous and inhumane. The resilience of such markets and factoring in farming and slaughterhouse practices that led to widespread pig euthanasia speaks to a real human problem with not admitting our role in maintaining this animal economy. There is an insatiable hunger for more that seems to cloud our judgement.
I have begun a weight loss program. My diet has shifted to the consumption of protein and fat over carbohydrates. Struggling for years with weight fluctuation, I finally decided to pause my regular consumption habits and instead follow a more meat-friendly diet. The switch to consuming more meat has been difficult, both in getting over the mental hurdle and in changing how I eat. Despite losing nearly 30 pounds in just two and a half months, I am not sure that the results are worth it. There is an imbalance between the weight of those animals that were processed for consumption and the pounds of fat that I’ve lost. The scale suggests that I should be happier, fitting into smaller sizes of jeans and feeling the outlines of ab muscles for the first time in over a decade, but I can’t stop thinking about the cost of each animal’s life. I am as much a part of the animal economy as anyone else in this country, but is my awareness alone equal to justice? I think not.