An industrial pig farm is not a pleasant sight. Thousands of pigs trapped in enclosures barely bigger than their own bodies emit an overwhelmingly putrid smell. The pigs live just inches away from their own excrement and attempt to stave off crushing boredom by chewing on the iron bars of their cages. In recent weeks, with the slaughter of thousands of piglets, the scenes inside industrial pig farms have become even more gruesome.
Animals have largely been spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is primarily infecting humans. But the virus is still imposing serious negative effects on North American farmed animal populations, especially pigs, because of the economic exigencies of factory farming. Pigs are not at any greater risk of contracting the virus than other species, but piglets are being culled—slaughtered—en masse in response to COVID-19. “Euthanasia” is what at least one farmer is calling this mass killing. Although characterizing the slaughter of piglets as an act of mercy may seem strange, ending piglets’ lives rather than forcing them to endure the miseries of the modern factory farm may actually be an inadvertent kindness.
COVID-19 has caused the demand for pork in the U.S. to decline sharply, leading to a significant drop in pork prices. The pork industry had been thriving before the pandemic, with U.S. exports of pork and other meats reaching record highs at the beginning of 2020. The nationwide closures of hotels and restaurants have hit pork producers particularly hard, as the pork industry relies more heavily than other sectors of the animal farming industry on sales to these establishments. Bacon and other types of pork are foods that Americans are more likely to consume when eating out, rather than cooking at home. The sudden reduction in demand has caused pork futures to decline by 42 percent since the onset of the pandemic. Consumer pork prices are expected to decrease by slightly more than a third between now and October, according to an Iowa University study. The shrinking demand for pork products and resulting economic blows are presenting serious challenges to the pork industry.
The pork industry’s market contraction is resulting in a huge number of pigs, for which there are no purchasers, becoming “unneeded.” The birthing cycles of pigs, unlike those of chickens and cows, cannot be easily stopped. As pigs continue to be born, pork farmers are facing multiple issues: the still-growing pig populations are becoming increasingly expensive to feed, a problem that is exacerbated by the unforeseen revenue shortages; and the decreased demand for pork is limiting farmers’ ability to send pigs to slaughter, causing farmers to literally run out of room to hold new arrivals. Faced with these challenges, pork producers are resorting to the mass culling of piglets. Allowing pig populations on factory farms to continue to grow indefinitely is economically and logistically unfeasible.
Before the cullings began, the National Pork Producers’ Council stated in reference to the cullings that farmers would soon be forced to make “tragic choices.” This framing by the NPPC suggests that even those people whose job is to raise and slaughter pigs recognize that the act of mass culling is morally repugnant, and a deviation from the “ethical” norms of the business.
Though the cullings are undoubtedly tragic, the mass slaughter of piglets is arguably not more tragic than the “business as usual” state of the pork industry. The slaughter of innocent baby animals seems particularly objectionable because of its sheer and total wastefulness––the meat from the culled piglets is not being used for food or any other purpose. But slaughtering piglets is perhaps not any morally worse than slaughtering adult pigs to turn them into sausages. Being slaughtered as a piglet might in some real sense qualify as euthanasia, as it is likely preferable to being forced to endure six months of torture (six months being the average lifespan of a factory-farmed pig, a dramatic reduction from pigs’ natural lifespans of twenty years). The premature killing of piglets may actually be the humane thing to do. The concept of culling as a form of euthanasia—if taken seriously—can lead to a radical critique of the factory farming industry itself.
With even just cursory knowledge of the details of the lives of factory-farmed pigs, concluding that their lives are worth living is difficult. Sow cages in most factory pig farms are so small that mothers cannot turn around. Newborn piglets are regularly separated from their mothers at just three weeks old. Pigs live literally on top of their own excrement due to the lack of sanitation in industrial barns. (Despite their reputation for dirtiness, pigs, when given the choice, practice excellent hygiene.) Far from being unfeeling brutes, pigs are highly intelligent animals who suffer just as much as dogs or cats would in similar situations. The culling of piglets is no doubt sad but hardly compares in scale to the misery of the 75 million pigs currently held on U.S. factory farms, or the anguish of the more than 300,000 pigs slaughtered every day. Piglets spared the fates of their slightly longer-lived companions are, perversely, the lucky ones.
COVID-19 is indirectly responsible for a great deal of product waste in animal agriculture. The mass killing of piglets is one of the most striking current examples of the wastefulness of factory farming, but similar wastefulness is also occurring in other sectors of the animal agriculture industry due to the pandemic. Since the onset of COVID-19, tons of milk have been dumped and thousands of chicks have been buried alive, in both cases to minimize economic losses. COVID-19 was the catalyst for these tragedies, but the virus is not responsible for the everyday brutality inherent to modern factory farming. The piglets being slaughtered would have otherwise lived short, miserable lives of constant suffering, and died violent and painful deaths. Laments from industry titans about the “tragic choices” that farmers are being forced to make ring more than a little hollow. When it comes to animal suffering in modern industrial farming, it’s not COVID-19 or the recent economic downturn that’s to blame. The whole damn system is wrong.
Sam is a student at the University of Chicago. His writing also appears in The New York Times, Chicago Review, and Medievalists.net.