Bacon had a mom.
Food Issues Book Club - The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 7

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 7:
Behind the Label: Niman Ranch Bacon

Dear Peter and Jim,

It appears that this will be another letter about pigs!  That's alright.  I like pigs.

In this seventh chapter of The Ethics of What We Eat, entitled Behind the Label: Niman Ranch Bacon, we visit a pig farm where, as Mary Ann claims, the pigs are in fact allowed to "express who they really are."  (Right up until they're sentenced to death, of course.  And forgetting that they're forced to have babies.)

I learned things in this chapter.  For instance, I didn't know that when allowed, pigs make nests to have their babies in.  How neat!  Y'all have seen them of course, but for any other readers, lookit:

A pig family on an Iowa farm that supplies Niman Ranch.
According to Mike Jones, a farmer on one of the pig farms that supplies Nieman, "I adjust my management around what pigs do.  Rather than try to make them fit into my box, I build my box around them."  That's nice.  He also says that he encourages other farmers to conform to Animal Welfare Institute standards for pigs "because if they do, they should be able to comply with any other kind of niche market opportunity that may come up for them."  Ethical conundrum: If someone is doing something that makes animals' lives better, does it matter that they're only doing it for profitability?

Niman Ranch, an entity that may seem like one place when consumers see its name on packages, is in fact a conglomerate - at the time of your writing (and Mary Ann's purchasing) nearly ten years ago, they sourced from 470 pig farms in 15 states.  I'm curious about but unable to determine how many farms they currently use.  While it does seem to be a step forward that this brand sources only from farms that raise pigs according to strict standards, I feel concern.

As I'm sure you're aware, ethical veganism falls on a spectrum, with "welfarists" at one pole and "abolitionists" at the other.  I fall somewhere in between, and yet my concern is of the abolitionist camp: by making their lives better until their deaths, do we take the pressure off to stop killing them?  Or, more to the point, to stop forcibly creating them in the first place?

I believe this is part of something called incrementalism.  When small, incremental steps are made on an issue and considered a victorious stopping point, the battle is won but the war is lost.  When small victories are made but are framed as just another step on the way to an ultimate goal, though, these increments are useful.  Indeed, they are essential.  This concept is at the core of the fight between people who do and do not support Meatless Monday campaigns.  Those of us who do see it as a step along a path; those who don't fear that it will be a final destination falling far short.

We see incrementalism also in the current country-wide fight for a living wage.  Some companies seem to think they can get out from under the gun by making incremental changes to wages, for instance with Wal-Mart raising wages to $9 per hour to start.  Will this save them from being pressured to start at $15 per hour for all workers?  That's most definitely what they're hoping, and yet I certainly hope not.

I would undoubtedly feel victory and relief if all farmed pigs were allowed to live as they do at Niman facilities.  The reduction of environmental harm alone would be worthy of dancing in the streets.  Perhaps those solidly in the welfarist camp would call it a day, declaring pig farming "fixed."  Would that be the end of the fight for abolitionist vegans?  Most certainly not - not as long as any pigs were being used in the service of humans.  I honestly don't know whether, should that seemingly impossible day come to pass, I would "leave well enough alone" or keep pushing to, say, reduce the number of pigs farmed for food. What would you do?

We see incremental changes constantly in all rights movements.  I'd like to encourage everyone reading to celebrate these incremental steps - Hooray for desegregation!  Hooray for marriage equality!  Hooray for ending mandatory sentencing!  And yet, never let The Powers that Be convince you that since you've been given a little, you should stop fighting for a lot.  Don't stop until true justice, for everyone, has been achieved.


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