The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig

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Nov 5 2010

Previously in this series: Food, Inc. Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket and Food, Inc. Part II: Is the food more dangerous?

Pigs at High Farms in South Carolina, which are rotated between the field and forest and probably do eat some grass. Pigs can be grass-fed in the same way that humans can be spinach-fed. Greens can make up a small percentage of our total caloric intake, but if we tried to survive on them alone, we'd starve.

When Pigs Fly Eat Grass 

From his profile on the School of Social Work, click for page The organizers of the free showing of Food, Inc. I attended last spring invited a few speakers to lead a discussion after the film over a vegetarian dinner. One of them was Dr. Brett Seabury, an Emeritus Professor of Social Work who has decided to spend his retirement raising cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens “naturally.” He showed us some pictures of his animals, and seemed especially eager to impress upon us how grass-dependent his whole operation is. His cows and sheep eat grass (unsurprising). His chickens eat grass, although that can’t be all they eat. Chickens can only get 30-35% of their calories from grass and other forage like clover and alfalfa, according to multiple sources including food movement demi-god Joel Salatin. If Seabury isn’t feeding his chickens grain or table scraps, they must be surviving primarily on insects, grubs, and seeds.

But his pigs, Seabury seemed ashamed to admit, still survive primarily on grain-based feed. They eat grass, too, he promised, and he said he was trying to increase the amount of grass in their diets. However, he admitted that he wasn’t nearly as “advanced” as a friend of his who raises a  “special” breed of pigs entirely on grass. And if there were such a thing—a pig who could eat only grass—that would be pretty special. As I mentioned in passing in the last recipe I posted, pigs are extraordinarily efficient at producing meat in terms of speed and pounds of meat produced/pounds of feed consumed. According to Marvin Harris’s “The Abominable Pig”:

Of all domesticated mammals, pigs possess the greatest potential for swiftly and efficiently changing plants into flesh. Over its lifetime, a pig can convert 35 percent of the energy in its feed to meat compared with 13 percent for sheep and a mere 6.5 percent for cattle. A piglet can gain a pound for every three to five pounds it eats while a calf needs to eat ten pounds to gain one. A cow needs nine months to drop a single calf, and under modern conditions a calf needs another four months to reach four hundred pounds. But less than four months after insemination, a single sow can give birth to eight or more piglets, each of which after another six months can weigh over four hundred pounds.

However, as he notes later, there’s a crucial difference between the feed-to-meat alchemy performed by the pig and the kind performed by its barnyard pals:

Cattle, sheep, and goats thrive on items like grass, straw, hay, stubble, bushes, and leaves—feeds whose high cellulose content renders them unfit for human consumption even after vigorous boiling. Rather than compete with humans for food, the ruminants further enhanced agricultural productivity by providing dung for fertilizer and traction for pulling plows. And they were also a source of fiber and felt for clothing, and of leather for shoes and harnesses…. Feed [pigs] on wheat, maize, potatoes, soybeans, or anything else low in cellulose, and pigs will perform veritable miracles of transubstantiation; feed them on grass, stubble, leaves, or anything high in cellulose, and they will lose weight.

From an ad for Honeywell by The Q Group, click for full adRuminants can turn inedible vegetation into food thanks to their constant chewing (or ruminating) and their multiple stomachs, which are like a series of fermentation vats full of bacteria that help break down all those fibers and starches. Pigs just turn food into slightly-more-delicious food. And they do it at the cost of 65% of the feed’s initial caloric value, which is used to keep the pig warm and power all of its piggy activities like wallowing and rooting. To make matters worse, pigs aren’t really good for anything but producing meat. They aren’t suited for milking or shearing or pulling plows, and they don’t lay eggs. Even if it were slightly less efficient, a pig that could perform a grass-to-meat transformation would be the porcine equivalent of The Philosopher’s Stone. Or a bacon-producing version of the legendary golden egg-laying goose. 

The Ecological Argument for Vegetarianism

The pig equation (Pork calories = .35 x Pig feed calories) is essentially the basis for one of the main arguments in favor of vegetarianism. It was the reason I stopped eating meat as a teenager after absorbing the basics of High School Biology, and although I’ve never actually read Frances Moore Lappé’s classic Diet for a Small Planet, my understanding is that it’s also the basis for her argument, which has inspired countless environmentally-concerned omnivores to eliminate or at least reduce the amount of meat in their diets. In terms of sheer caloric efficiency, meat sucks.

When Lappé started doing the research for Diet at the library at UC Berkeley, she discovered that it takes 21.4 pounds of feed protein to produce 1 pound of beef protein, 8 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of pork, 5.5: 1 for chicken, and 4.4: 1 for milk (paraphrased by Warren Belasco in his brilliant Meals to Come: The History of the Future of Food). And even if those numbers can be nudged in the right direction by more efficient production systems (like battery-cage egg-laying operations, which require less feed per egg than free range or pastured system), they’re never going to get even close to 1:1 because animals will always have to use a significant portion of the calories they eat to keep themselves alive. This was what the units on photosynthesis and respiration taught me: plants are machines for making energy and cows are machines for burning it. Eating meat seemed wasteful, short-sighted, and maybe even outright ethically wrong in light of global hunger & food shortages.

And on top of the caloric inefficiency, domesticated animals also require fresh water, another limited resource (pending affordable desalination methods), and their waste produces gasses that contribute to rising global temperatures. Large farm operations, which is where the vast majority of our meat and animal products come from, also use mechanized systems for feeding, lighting, sewage flushing, ventilation, heating and cooling, all of which generate even more carbon emissions. They also depend on fossil fuel-driven transport to move the feed, animals, and products around at various stages of growth and processing. And to add insult to injury, something like 70% of the rainforests in Latin America have been cleared to make way for pastures where animals or their feed can be raised. (Here’s typical example of this argument in Time magazine).Vegetarians have been all up in Al Gore's business for not becoming a radical vegan. Fairlie, who I discuss below, challenges the oft-cited 18% stat on animal-produced greenhouse gasses, see his book for more. Image from Allvoices.com, click for more

But as it turns out, it’s not quite that simple. (I know, shocker, right? The world isn’t as simple as I thought at 18! Who would have guessed?)

In Defense of the Pig

If the pig were really such a bad caloric bargain, it never would have made it as a domesticated animal. Pigs would have been prohibitively expensive to raise—and, indeed, in areas like the Middle East, they were. Not for all time—there’s evidence that pigs had been domesticated in the areas that are now Jordan, Israel, and Iraq sometime before the early Neolithic period. However, as the human population density increased, nomadic people settled down, forests were destroyed to make way for agriculture, and the grazing land proceeded to become desert, pigs became prohibitively expensive. Marvin Harris again:

The pig had been domesticated for one purpose only, namely to supply meat. As ecological conditions became unfavorable for pig raising, there was no alternative function which could redeem its existence. The creature became not only useless, but worse than useless—harmful, a curse to touch or merely to see—a pariah animal.

He contrasts this with the case of the cow in India, which was subject to some of the same ecological changes—deforestation, erosion, desertification—but which became more useful than ever for plowing and milk, and thus became a blessing to look at or touch, and actually too precious alive to eat. He also notes that Islam has always had a much harder time getting established anywhere the pig is a major part of the traditional diet.

Don't be sad, lil guy, it's not your fault they hate you. Image from ehow.com, click for URL The reason the pig is part of traditional diets in many other parts of the world is because in the right  ecosystem, it turns out to be pretty useful as a garbage disposal and forest scavenger. Pigs were traditionally raised on “slops” (or human food that’s been rendered unfit for human consumption) and the nuts and roots they could forage in wooded areas. Thus, rather than competing with humans for food, pigs ate things that people might technically be able to eat, but probably weren’t going to—fruit and vegetable peelings, table scraps, windfall produce, acorns, beechnuts, and truffles (which humans certainly like but have a difficult time finding on their own. Truffle-hunters still use hogs to help sniff them out and  routinely lose fingers trying to snatch them away from under their noses).

The argument about the ecological wastefulness of meat is based on the idea that animals are eating food that humans could and would otherwise eat, but that’s a relatively recent development. This is essentially the argument Simon Fairlie makes in his recent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, as paraphrased by George Monbiot:

Instead of citing a simple conversion rate of feed into meat, we should be comparing the amount of land required to grow meat with the land needed to grow plant products of the same nutritional value to humans. The results are radically different.

If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don't compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it's a significant net gain.

Fairlie’s no fan of industrial agriculture, and he doesn’t think that it’s sustainable for people to continue eating as much meat as they do now, on average, in wealthy countries. Instead, he supports what he calls “permaculture” meat, or meat produced from biomass that is basically “free” in a system dedicated to the production of of vegetable food. Grass-fed ruminants are major part of that, but as he suggests, grass is not the only essentially-free source of animal feed. The key to sustainable pig production is to let them eat garbage. Marketing folks, get to work on this: how do you make “Garbage-fed Pork” as appealing as “Grass-fed Beef”?

This entry got a little long so I’m splitting it in two…more soon on why people like Professor Seabury get it wrong and the growing epidemic of Cornphobia.

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Wilbur couldn't live on grass alone

Seriously, doesn't anyone remember when Wilbur only eats greens for like, a day, when he's trying to be all superior to Charlotte because he's grossed out by her eating bugs. He ends up getting all weak and faint and then it's Charlotte's turn to be smug.

I need no high authority on raising livestock than E.B. White.

oh my god

I just now--four days after your comment--realized that the E.B. White of Charlotte's Web is also the E.B. White of Elements of Style. My mind is blown. And it also occurs to me for the first time that Charlotte was remarkably parsimonious with language, e.g. "Some Pig!"

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is it a threat for the crops?

is it a threat for the crops? I do not know much about this pig. this could be harmful. please share more details about this.

f Seabury isn’t feeding his

f Seabury isn’t feeding his chickens grain or table scraps, they must be surviving primarily on insects, grubs, and seeds.
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In answer to your comment

look at the kunekune or the tamworth hog. good to eat, and can be fed just grass, while maintaining an excellent meat to fat ratio. All pigs are different, and Wilbur was fed slop from an early age, thus his body became used to this kind of nutrition, meaning he wasn't used to grass

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super pigs

I hate to admit it, but I never knew pigs even ate grass (granted, I'm not much of a pork person, although that may change once "San Street" becomes a reality). I thought domesticated animals had always been fed on slops or something similar, and that wild pigs and boar did roots and berries. Is Dr. Seabury going against his own "natural" orientations in putting them in the same camp as the larger ruminants? I expect you'll probably be bearing down on this in the next article, but it's just so weird I had to type it out. Maybe I *should* be more of a pork person.

Fairlie's book on meat sounds very interesting; if George Monbiot has time for it, so do I (really enjoy his articles in the Guardian, even if I don't always agree with him).

"natural" pigs

"Natural" is such a vexed term--I mean, is corn-fed beef "natural"? According to the USDA, it is. I imagine grass-fed pork could be called "natural" if it was possible. But the debate is probably moot because a grass-fed pig would starve before it could ever sport a label.

Instead of grass-fed...how about legume feed?

We could easily grow legumes of various sorts and almost achieve a grass-fed pig. Just have to swap out your pasture from standard grass to something more bean oriented...pea nuts (goober peas) for example. This doesn't help the ratio for energy we can get from the legume directly vs the pig fed legumes...but it is possible to keep the pig off of table scraps, corn...or worse what the industry is currently feeding our livestock...m&m's and gummy bears.

table scraps would be ideal

pigs and chickens are great converters of waste food into human-edible protein and fat, and that would certainly be preferable to feeding them human-edible legumes or corn. unfortunately, there are both legal and logistical barriers preventing more waste food from being used to feed omnivore livestock.

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I added 180 Degree Heath to my feed reader--thanks for the tip.

Grass and stuff

I think a lot of vegetarians understand that to the extent that land suitable for pasturing animals can't be used effectively to grow crops, meat and dairy production makes sense. Not the strong animal rights arguers, of course, but for people like me who are most focused on environmental impact and hunger, that kind of production makes sense, even if I'm not going to eat the meat. The problem is of course with industrial production, its share of production/consumption, and issues surrounding cost and access to ethically-produced animal products. I wonder if all factory farmed meat and dairy ceased production what the market cost of the remaining products would reach...

Supply/demand mismatch

You're totally right--in the absence of industrially-farmed meat & dairy, the mismatch between supply and demand would drive the prices up.

However, it's worth remembering that that wouldn't be a reflection of the true ecological cost. The main reason grass-fed beef is more expensive than grain-fed, despite the fact that it requires fewer/cheaper inputs, is because farmers have to extract more profit from each cow in order to feed themselves and stay in business. Feedlot cattle sometimes earn as little as $3/head.

Fairlie estimates that permaculture meat production could provide between 1/4 to 1/3 of the animal protein currently consumed in wealthy countries. I'm guessing that would inflate the cost to the point where most people would reduce their consumption to special occasions and small portions stretched in dishes like stews--you know, the way people do in most of the rest of the world. The wealthy might still be able to afford multiple meat-centric meals per week.

But we may see the same thing happen anyway, even with industrial meat production, because of the growing middle classes in countries like China and India.

Costs of grass fed

It is easy to view the inputs of grass fed (finished) meat as cheaper than traditional grain finished, but there are real costs to grass finishing that are less obvious: grass is not cheap. I have expanded my farm twice so now carry 3 mortgages. Would I need the additional pasture / hayfield if I did not grass finish? No. At 6 months those calves would be off my property, in a feedlot. As it is, I need to feed those 6 month calves until they are 2, and his younger brother (age 1), as well as the snatches of grass their newborn sibling eats! The product is healthier for us, the methods are healthier for the land, but i wouldn't jump to the conclusion that the grassfed product has less input cost. You need a lot more land -- and you need to feed 2 seasons of hay (not cheap!) -- if you choose to be a grass finished operation as we do.

finally got around to reading

finally got around to reading this after letting it linger in my RSS reader for 10 days...excellent stuff, and i'm eagerly awaiting part two!

it also brought to my attention how contrary the "let the poor animals escape the farm and live free of human oppression" and the "use every ounce of the sun's energy" arguments are. taking the hard line on the latter amounts to "kill all the other animals, they're stealing precious calories that could be used to fuel humans." PETA (who are admittedly nuts) would scarcely take that as a good reason to adopt veganism.

some of you people are

some of you people are actually smart, i can tell by the ways you speak...but i see many flaws in your thinking against the american farmer. there are millions of farmers out there who live day to day on their work and that you believe us to be taking land from crops, to be poisoning the earth, etc could not be more wrong.

i appreciate the effort of the articles author but i fear he has failed in his convictions. the farmer and the pig, the cow, the chicken, the anything is not the enemy. if you want to point the blame on anything, point it at the public, the ones who, for the most part, remain unaware of the world around them.

There are a lot of small

There are a lot of small homestead farmers that raise their pigs on nothing but pasture and woods. Ourselves included. We raise one pig per pasture and they do very well on nothing but grass, roots, grubs and more. We never have parasite or illness and have never had to call a vet once for them. Half their pasture is grass and the other half is wooded with some marshy areas. They grow quickly and never need grain. What do you supposed wild boars lived on? We know of other farmers that also only pasture raise their pork and they do just fine. The breeders will usually add grain during the last cycle of gestation but that is all.

Unfortunately, most people are afraid to let their pigs range on pasture. We have a lot of people that stop by to tell us our pigs got "loose" in our fenced field. It's a sight no one ever see anymore.

Intelligent

Bravo. This article was so intelligently written I cannot identify which bias you hold. Good information for both camps. Thanks for taking the time to lay it out for us.

thanks

I try not to be biased at all, though obviously that's impossible. I'm a former vegetarian & vegan of many years who now eats meat, sometimes from local/permaculture sources (when available/affordable). I'm also a Nebraskan! My grandparents were sugar beet farmers in Alliance, NE. Thanks for stopping by.

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Funny

I liked your discussion here on the topic. My family doesn't eat pork but I'm a third generation farm girl and I find it hilarious sometimes when people retire and go to live off the land and then perpetuate misinformation on basic farming or animal husbandry. (ie. above mentioned Dr.) While I might not have a doctorate degree in a particular field, I am a fan of self education, research and checking your sources. Knowing that a pig is not a completely grass fed animal is something my 5 year old knows - just from visiting the zoo:). So the early part of the discussion was a funny reminder to me this morning. Now off I go to feed my chickens some vegetable scraps.....

Grass Fed Pig Breed

Actually, there is a breed of pig that is supposedly raised totally on grass. I have never raised one so I will not verify this claim as true, but they have a breed website and I have eaten one raised by a fairly reputable local farm. https://sites.google.com/site/americankunekunebreeders/Home/kunekune-pigs

This is from the site listed above:
"Kunekunes make great pasture pigs being unique in their ability to graze and to do well on grass alone. There is no need to "supplement" them with commercial pig chow if they are on pasture enough to sustain them meeting their nutritional requirements."

one more thing

Also, I wanted to say, I appreciate the author's frank appraisal of the local food movement, but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. I think one would be hard pressed to make a reasonable argument that locally, grass-based farming is not better for us and for the environment.

Pigs on grass

Pigs actually are capable of subsisting exclusively on forage. I had a hard time believing it at first too, since I thought they had to have the extra energy grains can supply. I now have it from three reputable sources that they've successfully raised pigs on pasture alone. Greg Judy (he's allergic to buying grain), Walter Jefferies of Sugar Mtn Farm (now uses whey to supplement pasture, but raised several years of pigs on pasture/hay only), and Slacker's meats (http://www.texasgrassfedbeef.com/id78.htm).

Do horses have rumens? Do Rhinos? Do Elephants? Do Geese? The answer is no, and they all live exclusively on forage unless humans feed them grain. A rumen makes digestion of cellulose more efficient, but hind-gut fermentation (what pigs do) works too.

It doesn't completely balance

It doesn't completely balance the equation, but having pigs forage a field for their food eliminates the energy used to harvest the crops. I am not sure how many calories a tractor burns through to harvest an acre of legumes, but if you set your pigs on the same acre, it would be more efficient than giving them feed from a sack.

Google kunekune and consider a new paradigm

Kunekune pigs are now in America and they can fatten mostly on grass. Bye bye big feed bills, hello grass-fed and finished PORK. Bye bye commercial white? and lean? pork and bite into some perfectly marbled Kunekune.

http://lonesomestar.com/meatkunekune/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loa6Dz4Ejpg

I guess my pigs fly along with many other breeders at our association as stated by Daniel above. Thanks...

This article is full of crap

This article is absolute fricking nonsense. The most eco-friendly diet a human can have is to be an omnivore! The reason for this is that animals can convert vegetation that is not palitable by humans into MEAT and MILK which a human can easily digest! If we were all vegetarians we would be forced to clear and convert MORE acreage of native vegetation into crops that are edible to humans, wheras livestock can browse/graze natural vegetation with NO energy inputs or destruction of plant biodiversity. Furthermore ruminant animals play a role in the production of soils and incorporating soil organic matter which SEQUESTERS carbon and FIGHTS climate change. Not to mention than when an animal harvests vegetation for itself it uses NO fossil fuels! Think for yourself people!

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I didn’t know that pigs are

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Seriously, doesn't anyone

Seriously, doesn't anyone remember when Wilbur only eats greens for like, a day, when he's trying to be all superior to Charlotte because he's grossed out by her eating bugs. He ends up getting all weak and faint and then it's Charlotte's turn to be smug.

I need no high authority on raising livestock than E.B. White.

nice one

"If the pig were really such a bad caloric bargain, it never would have made it as a domesticated animal." What you mean??
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nice one

"I try not to be biased at all, though obviously that's impossible. I'm a former vegetarian & vegan of many years who now eats meat, sometimes from local/permaculture sources"
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