Hog Farming's Moral Vocation

December 6, 2013

6 Min Read
Hog Farming's Moral Vocation

In the past few months, I attended two key pork industry conferences in Wisconsin and Minnesota. I am always energized by the people I meet and the topics discussed; our industry has produced and nurtured some of the brightest minds committed to research and to finding solutions to the complexities handed to us by this amazing animal: the Pig. Many in our industry, including me, have experienced a champion who believed in them and paved the way for them to follow their dream. This is a testimony to the passion that our industry has for people and pigs, along with a concern for feeding the masses. In a new and cynical way, these qualities have been called into question recently by activist groups. Rick Berman, founder of the Humane Watch organization known for challenging the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), says activist groups are becoming more skilled at creating “common knowledge myths” about who we are and the ethical justification for pig farming.

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This reality was verified by a private meeting I attended at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, PA. The topic was the ethics of animal agriculture. The panel consisted of a well-known prominent philosophy professor, animal scientists, and the CEO of a major US animal activist group. I was the pig farmer, and there was a dairy farmer from Pennsylvania. The activists have identified a weak spot in agriculture’s position over animal production, and their attack has shifted from science to morality. As I visit with colleagues, it became clear that we do not understand this tactic. In my humble opinion, the activists are winning arguments with untruths by creating “common knowledge myths” that have impacted our business greatly. Kevin Murphy, owner of Food Chain Communications, says it best in his blog post at truthinfood.com, in a post entitled “Where have you gone, Moral Champion?”


“So while agriculture sits nestled in the warmth of its scientific bunker, distracted and infuriated by HSUS' arguments based on emotion, HSUS suddenly flanks and moves to the high ground of morality. It's a battle plan as old as the ancient Greeks, in which the father of rhetoric Aristotle taught that three parts should comprise any effective argument:

1.     Logos: Science, logic and reason. For agriculture this often translates to “scientific” reasoning.

2.     Pathos: The art of emotion, based on evoking sympathy, anger, revulsion and other feelings that even farmers experience when watching undercover animal-abuse videos.

3.     Ethos: The last, unclaimed territory of argument, to make an ethical appeal due to the strength of your sound moral character.

We farmers are engaged in a noble and honorable vocation. Most of the top 25 systems in the United States are family farms that have grown from humble beginnings and now have an impact on global food supply in astonishing ways. It is time for us as an industry to take the offensive and communicate the moral justification for what we do. Three concepts come to mind (this is not an exhaustive list).

The power of vocation: Many of us have chosen this vocation out of a sense of calling in response to something bigger than ourselves and for the greater good of mankind. That needs to be the “common knowledge” message when people think of farmers.

The power of transparency: Transparency builds trust, and if we believe that our vocation is noble and good, we will not be afraid to show it to the public. The Dairy Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms began a wonderful public tour of Dairy Farming in 2004. Since the doors opened at The Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms, over 60,000 people have visited the farm to see pigs. The overwhelming response is positive, and 99% of the people walk away with a confidence that pig farmers are doing the right thing. In his presentation at the Leman conference, Paul McKellips, author and motivational speaker, stated that the social demographic most opposed to animal farming and animal testing is the 24 – 55 year old women who are politically liberal, well-educated, and urban dwelling. When shown the outcomes of animal testing for medical cures for breast cancer and other diseases, 80% change from negative to positive regarding animal testing. The majority of guests to The Pig Adventure fall into this social demographic, and transparency is having the same effect with respect to pig farming.

The Necessity of Human Exceptionalism: Our vocation requires us to breed, feed, and kill animals. What gives us the permission or right to do so? What makes us different than an animal? We as an industry need to answer this question in conjunction with science. The stakes are high and the need for a cogent moral justification for animal protein has never been greater; human life ultimately depends on it.

In summary, the fight has moved beyond science and economics, and our activist opponents have succeeded in finding our weakness and exploiting it. The use of ballot initiatives and “common knowledge” myths to pass legislation that harms animal care and production for the pig industry are bad enough, and ultimately will take food from the poor.

My partner often says to me “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” What is the hard thing we must do?

a)     Allocation of budget resources: We need to aggressively engage consultants who can craft moral and philosophical messages that resonate outside of our industry. We are great at revving the troops up at producer meetings regarding science and production. We need consultants who can write and engage the general public on the philosophical, religious, and moral dimensions and legitimacy of animal agriculture.

b)     Transparency for reasons mentioned above.

c)     Collaboration with Academia in crafting the message of moral legitimacy of animal agriculture. This should be a key element in the curriculum of every animal agriculture degree.

 My fear is we may sacrifice the future of our industry by failing to see how the battle is fought. My hope is that as an industry, we can seize this opportunity for communicating our noble identity and service to a public that needs to hear this message, and is willing to listen.

Belstra Milling, Inc.  operates the Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks Farm. Pig Adventure is a public attraction showcasing modern pork production behind glass walls near Fair Oaks, IN. Jonathon Hoek wrote this guest editorial for the November 2013 issue of National Hog Farmer magazine.

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