Here, for your consideration, is a tale of two pigs. Pig One was bred to be lean and fast-growing. It lived its entire life inside a low-slung Iowa barn, shoulder to shoulder with 1,500 identical swine. It stood and slept on a slatted concrete floor that allowed feces and urine to dribble into a basement-like holding area directly below, where the excrement stayed for a year, filling the barn with poisonous concentrations of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases—enough to kill the barn’s inhabitants were it not for ventilation fans the size of jet engines. The pig ate a diet of slaughterhouse wastes such as dried blood, poultry litter, and rendered flesh from—yes—its dead brothers and sisters. To survive long enough to reach market weight, it had to be fed regular rations of low-level antibiotics. The pig wasn’t even assured a humane death, destined as it was for a plant where poorly trained and overworked employees killed, gutted, and butchered 10,000 hogs a day: one every four seconds. The meat it provided was so dry and bland that it had to be injected with saline solution to make it palatable.
Pig Two, by comparison, was a plump, hearty porker that spent its life running, rooting, and cavorting with a crew of a few hundred other heritage hogs on 60 acres of pastures and woodlots in upstate New York. It dined on roots, nuts, and rations of corn- and soy-based feed containing neither animal by-products nor antibiotics. Its manure and urine were fertilizers that enriched the land for future pigs. And when the time came, Pig Two died painlessly in a small, family-run slaughterhouse where skilled butchers processed just two dozen hogs at a time. Its meat was juicy, rich, and satisfying.
This tale of two pigs—drawn from fact, not fairy tale—represents the current state of food production in this country. Pig One symbolizes the legacy of a revolution that took place in the middle of the last century, when our agriculture abandoned 10,000 years’ worth of farming traditions based on human know-how and sustainable natural processes in favor of an industrial model dependent on machinery, drugs, and chemicals. Pig Two, by contrast, symbolizes the stirrings of a counterrevolution whose adherents refuse to equate the idea of our food’s “future” with things like excessive processing, the profligate consumption of resources, and the inhumane treatment of animals. The backlash against six decades of industrial farming is now cohering into an actual movement, based on an alternative approach to raising food that manages to be forward-looking and old-fashioned at the same time. It’s being led by thoughtful food producers who have dedicated themselves to using time-tested, sustainable practices whenever possible—and marshaling the newest science and technology whenever it’s called for.
We may be losing as much as 64 tons per acre of precious Corn Belt soil each year, an erosion that’s eating away at the foundation of our current food system.
Starting around 1950, the number of farms in the United States began to fall, from more than five million to the barely two million that are in operation today. For those farmers big enough to play by the new rules, however, output soared—and has continued to soar in the decades since. At the dawn of the mid-century agricultural revolution, farmers grew an average of 38 bushels of corn per acre each year. Today we manage to cram more than four times as much grain into the same amount of space. Back then, the country produced 1.4 million pounds of broiler chicken meat annually; our current yield is more than 38 million pounds. Meanwhile, during this same period of time, the percentage of Americans’ incomes set aside for feeding themselves and their families has tumbled from nearly 30 percent in 1950 to less than seven percent today—about half of what the French and other Europeans pay, and an even smaller fraction of what residents in many developing countries spend.
But this factory-produced cornucopia has carried with it enormous human and environmental costs—and, ironically, the seeds of its own destruction. The chemical fertilizers that sustain our modern-day crops are made with non-renewable natural gas; when that gas runs out or becomes prohibitively expensive, the system as we now know it will collapse. According to a 2011 study by the Environmental Working Group, we may be losing as much as 64 tons per acre of precious Corn Belt soil each year, an erosion that’s eating away at the foundation of our current food system. All this washed-away Earth carries with it a toxic payload of fertilizers, pesticides, and manure as it flows downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has already created a Connecticut-size dead zone of depleted oxygen in which no marine life can survive.
Big Ag excels at producing large quantities of food. But ever since it assumed control over what we eat and how it’s made, the safety and quality of that food have declined. When the Consumers Union recently tested more than 300 chicken breasts purchased in supermarkets nationwide, it found that an astounding 97 percent harbored potentially dangerous bacteria; alarmingly, nearly half of these bacteria showed signs of resistance to antibiotics. And while modern-day grocery stores may indeed overflow with all manner of fresh produce 365 days a year, all those off-season fruits and vegetables are far less nutritious than they used to be. When University of Texas professor Donald Davis compared the nutrient levels in crops grown in 1950 with those in crops grown in 1999, he observed across-the-board declines in protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C. As it turns out, the genetically engineered, fast-maturing plants that Big Ag has bestowed upon us aren’t given the time to absorb the same amount of dietary elements from the soil as their predecessors.
When speed and volume replace thoughtfulness and quality as agriculture’s primary aims, the results aren’t pretty. It’s true that cattle raised on vast feedlots mature in less time than those that live on pasture, but as the authors of a 2006 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization noted, modern beef production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than our entire transportation sector. At the same time, the ancient art of animal husbandry has been replaced by what essentially amounts to systematized animal abuse. The hens that lay most of our eggs—like the sow that gave birth to Pig One—typically spend their entire lives squeezed into metal cages that prevent them from moving naturally, or even from turning around.
Which brings us, happily, to Pig Two. On the surface, the animal would appear to have lived a life more or less the same as the one enjoyed by its porcine ancestors a century ago. But its owner, Michael Yezzi of Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York, is no Luddite. He spends precious little of his time on a tractor and plenty of it on his smartphone checking weather reports, texting chefs about their weekly orders, and relaying specific butchering instructions to the slaughterhouse. He uses Facebook and Twitter to remind his regular retail customers when he’ll be making an appearance at their farmers’ markets. And for those who can’t get to market, he maintains an online store as part of the Flying Pigs website (which also provides a virtual tour of his farm).
Organic food now generates more than $35 billion in sales annually, making it the food industry's fastest-growing sector.
From Pig Two’s birth until the last morsel of its meat was sold, the animal’s health, weight, and rate of growth were all meticulously tracked on an Excel spreadsheet. Its custom-blended vegetarian diet was designed by a veterinary nutritionist to assure that it contained essential amino acids. As a piglet, it was given a host of vaccines—but it never received, nor did it ever require, any of the subtherapeutic antibiotics routinely administered to factory-farmed pigs to promote growth or prevent disease.
Lavishing such attention on the health and well-being of his pigs would likely have earned Yezzi the “hippie” label 25 years ago. Today it just makes him a savvy businessman. Organic food now generates more than $35 billion in sales annually, making it the fastest-growing sector of the food industry. And there are strong indicators that the trend is moving outward as well as upward: Whole Foods Market, which has publicly dedicated itself to selling organic produce and antibiotic-free meats, is now actively trying to shed its image as an upscale, elite-only supermarket by lowering its prices and by opening stores in urban neighborhoods with sizable minority and working-class populations. Until relatively recently, farmers’ markets were still rare enough in the States that they felt like quaint vestiges of a bygone era. In 1994, there were only 1,755; today there are more than 8,000, nearly half of which have popped up in just the past six years.
As customers line up in front of all those tents selling fresh, locally grown fare, they’re effectively issuing a warning. It’s a warning that Big Ag and the processed-food industry have little choice but to hear, and to heed. In a February 2015 article for Mother Jones, writer Tom Philpott observed that the conglomerates behind brands like Reddi-wip, Hunt’s, Chef Boyardee, Oscar Mayer, Jell-O, and Velveeta have been reporting sluggish sales for the past several quarters. Generally speaking, it would appear that consumer interest in what these brands have to offer—cheap, chemical-laden food that’s largely devoid of nutrients—is in decline.
All the pieces, in other words, are falling into place for a second agricultural revolution. This one promises to yoke the best practices of the past to a science-friendly, tech-friendly vision of the future that will put the health of plants, animals, resources, and consumers ahead of corporations. The choice to speed this revolution along—or to slow it down—is ours to make.
So which will it be: Pig One or Pig Two?