Winston Churchill famously remarked, “I’m fond of pigs. Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you. Give me a pig—he just looks you in the eye and treats you as an equal.” But as Mark Essig, author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History Of The Humble Pig discovered, today’s pigs have been almost completely banished from sight to industrial hog farms where they live in gestation crates, never seeing the light of day.
Talking from his home in Asheville, North Carolina, he teases out our long relationship with the pig; explains how the Chinese are abandoning ancient husbandry practices to satisfy the booming demand for pork, while Americans are slowly turning away from the industrially produced variety; and why a pig’s snout is one of the most complex, and delicate, organs in all of nature.
You call our long relationship with the pig “a tale of love and loathing.” Unpack that idea for us.
We have to start with how incredibly useful the pig is to humans. The pig, like a person, is an omnivore. They’ll eat corn in a field, they’ll eat garbage on city streets, your kitchen waste or acorns in forests, even seashells on beaches. They’re also self-sufficient. You can pretty much turn them loose into the woods and they will take care of themselves. They’re good at fighting off predators.
Maybe most remarkably of all, they reproduce so quickly. A cow gestates for about nine months and gives you one calf. A sow gestates for just four months and gives you eight, twelve, or even more piglets. Each will grow to a weight where you can slaughter them very quickly. So, if you wanted to produce a large amount of meat quickly, the pig was the animal for you. Its other advantage was that it cured so well. You could apply some salt and some smoke to pork and you’d get bacon or ham, whereas, cured beef and mutton tended not to be so palatable.
That’s the love side of the equation. The loathing side has to do primarily with point number one: their omnivorous diet. Because a pig will eat anything, it means it eats unsavoury things such as dead animals, rotting garbage, and even human faeces. Particularly among people who are concerned with the ritual purity of their religions, pigs have been considered a loathsome creature despite their usefulness.
When were pigs first domesticated?
There’s good evidence that they were domesticated independently on a number of different occasions. Several times in China, maybe once in India, But the case we know most about happened on the northern fringe of what we call the “fertile crescent,” in Anatolia, Turkey, probably about 10,000 years ago. It happened after dogs were domesticated, but most likely a little bit before sheep and goats were domesticated.
Thousands of newly arriving pigs are inspected for quality in Guangdong, China. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN STANMEYER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
The peccaries native to the Americas are related to pigs. When did their genetic paths diverge?
Their genetic paths diverged about 45 million years ago. They’ve dug up fossils of much larger peccary-like creatures in the fossil beds of North Dakota and elsewhere in the U.S.: short-legged, barrel-bodied, creatures who could survive either by rooting things up from under the earth or by scavenging. The domestic pig is descended from the Eurasian wild boar, which is a species found everywhere from Southeast Asia to England. But it was not found in the New World or Australia. Pigs first made their way to the Americas on Columbus’ second voyage. They thrived in the New World better than any other animal.
You say that “ between them, the Jews and the Romans set the terms that would define the pig.” Explain.
That gets back to the love and loathing. Pigs were first domesticated in their role as village scavengers. They lived amongst you in the village and provided an incredibly useful service: they got rid of something you didn’t want, which was garbage and other waste. And they gave you something you very much did want, which was meat and fat.
But once wealthier societies developed, people started to get picky and reject pigs for the very reason that they had earlier embraced them. It was pretty much true throughout the Near East, not only among the Israelites but also among the Egyptians. They rejected the pig as ritually impure. You would never sacrifice a pig to the gods. If you wanted to remain pure, and we have the best evidence of this from the Torah, then you could not touch the pig.
That is a strain of fear and loathing that went on throughout Western culture. But when the Romans conquered Palestine, they were very puzzled by the Jewish avoidance of the pig, because nobody has ever loved swine quite so much as the Romans did [Laughs]. The earliest collection of recipes we have, De Re Coquinaria, by Apicius, has far more recipes for pork than for any other type of meat. It was central to the Roman diet.
At a farm in Brazil, sows are confined to sectioned crates that allow a mother to suckle her young without accidentally crushing them. PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE STEINMETZ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
A pig’s snout is a thing of wonder, isn’t it? Anatomize it for us.
I think of it as a short version of the elephant’s trunk. It’s capable of incredible muscle control, so it can sniff under the dirt. It can let in enough air to smell things without letting it get clogged with dirt. It’s incredibly powerful. Pigs have been known to break up the concrete in their pens to get at what’s below. Yet it’s incredibly subtle and sensitive, both to touch and smell. One study measured the nerves of pigs and the part of the brain connected to the touch-sensitive parts of the body. With humans, most of those nerves connect to the hands, because that’s where we’re touch-sensitive. In the pig, almost everything is concentrated to the snout. That’s their primary interface with the world.
Today’s industrial pig farms are concentration camps of cruelty. Tell us about gestation crates and other forms of cruelty inflicted on pigs.
Most pigs never see the light of day. They spend their entire life in these low industrial metal sheds. The sows are kept in crates, which are generally about two feet by seven feet. The famous animal scientist, Temple Grandin said it was like spending your entire life in an aeroplane seat. There were many steps along the road to confinement hog farming. Each step, from pigs living on pasture to pigs living on concrete in sheds, seemed to be a reasonable response to the prevailing conditions. Yet we’ve ended up with a situation where pigs live hidden away in horrific conditions. And, in my opinion, something should be done to alleviate those conditions.
The state you live in, North Carolina, has a huge problem with pig poop. What is the issue?
For nearly all of history, animal manure was an incredibly valuable resource. They used to scrape up horse poop from the streets of the cities and carry it into the country for fertiliser.
But like many things, what’s good in small doses becomes a problem in large doses. Hog farms with 5,000 sows can produce as much waste as a small city. But a small city is required to have an advanced sewage disposal system, whereas hog farms aren’t. They just pump the waste into what are euphemistically called “lagoons,” where it is allowed to evaporate and eventually pumped on to nearby fields. But there’ s such an incredible over-concentration of nitrogen and other things that it poses a health hazard to people living, especially downwind.
These lagoons have also been known to burst in times of heavy rain. There was a famous instance in North Carolina in which a dam burst and the waste was flooded into a river, causing a massive fish kill-off.
An organic farm near Palmyra, Nebraska allows its pigs to revel in the muddy outdoors. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
When I return to the UK I see pigs roaming free in fields and supermarket shelves groaning with free range bacon and pork, often from heritage breeds like Tamworths. Why is the UK so far ahead?
I would resist that characterization it a bit because, at least in some areas, like where I live in the western part of the state, it’s fairly easy to find pasture-raised pork and heritage breed pork. Natural food stores, like Whole Foods, are also paying attention to pig welfare. But certainly in the larger supermarket chains, you’ll find commodity pork from the major growers.
The UK has always been ahead of the US in animal welfare concerns. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded before its equivalent in the U.S. In recent years, the EU has banned gestation crates and stipulated that all pigs must have access to a certain amount of straw. In the US, we romanticise farmers and don’t like to tell them what to do. We romanticise corporate interests and don’t like to regulate what corporations can do.
The changes that are happening here are because of consumer pressure. When groups like the Humane Society publicise what goes on, people get disgusted by those practices. That’s why some restaurants have asked their suppliers to phase out gestation crates from their supply chains. But it takes a long time to switch hog barn infrastructure to make that possible.
While the West is becoming more humane, ancient husbandry practices in places like China are disappearing. Deconstruct that paradox for us.
It’s a bit like the global warming problem. Just as we got started on our industrialisation much earlier, we got started on meat eating much earlier. China is doing all its industrialisation now, you have a population of 1.3 billion, and as the country grows richer, there’s a rising middle class. And when people start to earn a little bit more money, one of the first luxury goods they spend it on is more meat—like Europe and the U.S. before 1900, when diets started switching from primarily grain and vegetable to include a regular meat component.
A man drives a pig through Basque country. Pigs, the author points out, are pretty much self-sufficient. “You can pretty much turn them loose into the woods and they will take care of themselves.” PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM ALBERT ALLARD, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
With China, that’s only happened with the last generation. Plus their cuisine has always been very devoted to pork. So, the best way to raise a lot of pork quickly is to switch to factory production models.
Do you raise pigs yourself, Mark?
I do not. I live in the city, so my neighbours would be upset with me if I were to raise pigs [Laughs]. But there’s a wonderful little college just outside of Asheville where I live called Warren Wilson College. It used to be the Asheville farm school and they still have a farm where they raise sheep and cows and chickens and pigs. For one year, I spent time there volunteering, doing pig chores out on the farm so I got to know these creatures better. I scraped out stalls, I castrated piglets, I clipped the needle teeth on piglets and participated in a couple of hog slaughters.
What do you love about pigs?
First, their liveliness. When you spend time around pigs you see they are very complex creatures that have a lot going on behind those eyes of theirs. They remind me a lot of my dogs in the way they act.
The other thing I like is that they have such a complex history and relationship to human beings stretching so far back into time. The pig is so much like us. It has similar teeth, similar guts. Today, doctors and medical scientists rummage around in pigs to find various parts that they can use in humans, like pig skin or pig heart valves. They’re very much like us biologically and they’ve lived alongside us for a long, long time.
Header Image: A farm near Palmyra, Nebraska specialises in organically raised pigs. Many pigs, however, are raised in crates and never see the light of day.PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE