Today on Rootstock Radio, we speak to Barry Estabrook, author of the books Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat and Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Barry was a contributing editor of Gourmet magazine and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Men’s Health and Reader’s Digest. A two-time James Beard Award-winner, Barry’s article for Gourmet magazine on labor abuses in Florida’s tomato fields received the award for magazine feature writing, and his blog received the award for best blog of the year.
Of his book Pig Tales, Barry admits that “it really started with an incredibly good-tasting pork chop.” And in thinking about this exquisite taste, or rather the difference in taste between industrial pork and pasture pork, Barry was prompted to look into the bigger picture of pork production. Through writing and researching Pig Tales, Barry has become incredibly knowledgeable about pigs and pork production, from overuse of antibiotics in the industry to the amazingly high intelligence of these animals (equal to that of a 3 year old child!)
Barry says that his two books Pig Tales and Tomatoland are “rooted in this notion of commodity agriculture.” And that, although our current agriculture industry leaves much to be desired, “there is something we can all do. And we can start doing it the next time we go to the supermarket.” Barry’s solution? Vote with your dollars. Choose the pasture-raised pork and the organic tomatoes. Be the change.
Interview with Barry Estabrook
October 3, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Barry Estabrook. He is the author of two books. One, Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, and Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Barry was a contributing editor to Gourmet magazine and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Men’s Health, and Reader’s Digest. And [he is] a two-time James Beard Award winner: Barry’s article for Gourmet magazine on labor abuses in Florida’s tomato fields received the award for magazine feature writing, and his blog received the award for best blog of the year. Welcome, Barry.
BARRY ESTABROOK: It’s my pleasure, thank you.
TM: I am so honored to be talking with someone who has written books about two of my most favorite products, and that would be pork and tomatoes. And how excellent to have an expert on how those two products not only are produced but just what their impact is on us. You are truly what I’m going to call a warrior in the Good Food and farm movement, but I think others would say you’re an investigative food journalist. And I’m curious, how did you get interested in writing about food and this part of the food industry?
BE: Well, when I was a young fellow just starting out, I spent a couple of summers in high school working on a dairy farm in the Midwest. And you know, it was excruciating work and extremely hot. And when I graduated from university with an expensive bachelor’s degree, my first job, to my parents’ chagrin, was on a fishing boat off Nova Scotia, which was also excruciating but frigid. So I learned early on that while I found food production fascinating, the work was not for me. So I just pursued my interest in food production through journalism. It’s a lot easier, believe me!
TM: Well, we’re going to have to say kudos to those farmers out there who are working, day in and day out, for our delicious food that we love. But you know, I said that pork is certainly one of my favorite meats, and at the same time I’m with you: I’m very, very concerned about how it’s produced. And I wonder if you might tell our listeners a little bit about what you’ve learned when you dove in and started writing Pig Tales: Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat.
BE: Well, the book really started with an incredibly good-tasting pork chop. It was like otherworldly. And I sort of traced its history back to a farm in upstate New York where the fellow raised old heritage pig breeds—fatty, slow-growing pig breeds—on open pastures. And it made all the difference; there was no comparison. So I thought, you know, how could these two, industrial pork and this sort of pastured pork, it’s the same species—how could it be so different? And I decided to look into the whole picture of pork production.
TM: I’m thrilled that… That’s kind of exciting, because of course that’s where all, I think, our inquiries maybe should begin, on, you know, this something that happened to us. And a delicious pork chop—what a great way to start the inquiry! And so I think some of our listeners might know, there are many, many different kinds of breeds of pork, of course, and so can you say a little bit about that?
BE: Well, you know, there are many different breeds. But really, I think, from a conscientious food consumer’s point of view you only have to know two things. There are modern, highly bred, extremely slender pigs that are really only adapted for these vast enclosed buildings, the modern agribusiness. And then there are the older breeds that have kind of been forgotten in the race to breed a fast-growing, very lean pig for the industry. And they’re slower growing, they can live outside, and the reason that they’ve stuck around for all these generations is because they produce extremely good meat. These breeds, the older breeds include [unclear] Tamworths, Berkshires, Gloucestershire Old Spots, names like that, while the new ones are pretty much just an extremely intensively bred, specialized variety, usually something that started as a Yorkshire pig but they’re, like I say, they’re really products of these breeding facilities.
TM: And aren’t they like bred to—well, I’m just thinking of the other white meat—to have just be somewhat lean and kind of look like white meat?
BE: Well, that was one of the original ideas, which led to this breeding of these extremely lean, fast-growing pigs, which, you know, presents all sorts of problems. They’re so lean that they really can’t live outside, especially when it’s cold; and they’re very, very high-strung, nervous if you will, and prone to stress. So they have to be pretty much kept in these small, enclosed areas because they can’t handle anything else. So you gain a lean meat and a fast-growing pig, and you give up flavor and a pig that can live a normal life.
TM: Well, you know, I was pretty excited and proud that you were a James Beard winner and that your James Beard award had to do with a blog. So of course I had to go on your blog. And for our listeners out there, if you want to go onto Barry’s blog, can you say what it is, Barry?
BE: The name of the blog is PoliticsOfThePlate, all one word, dot com. And it’s really a collection of short pieces about how food is produced, all foods, that I’ve written over the past decade or so.
TM: And actually there were some photographs as well on it that were quite alarming. I’m just wondering, these heirloom or old varieties of pork, were [did] they also have some disease resistance or… They didn’t have a lot of antibiotics then. How did they raise these pigs without all the antibiotics that they must use today just by virtue of the fact that they crowd up, crowd these pigs together so closely?
BE: Yeah, I mean, in a typical industrial pig barn there’ll be two thousand pigs, up to two thousand pigs crammed cheek-by-jowl, literally—you could almost walk across the whole building, never touch the floor, just on pig backs. They’re just that crammed together. And they’re on a cement floor. Their feces are allowed just to sort of slip through crack and slats in the floor, and they build up there. There’s horribly unsanitary conditions.
And the pigs are so crowded, and you couldn’t create a better incubator for an epidemic of disease; you couldn’t if you tried. So they have to give them antibiotics, at least so that they can live long enough to be slaughtered, every day. The typical industrial pig receives very low levels of antibiotics in its food or water, you know, which ultimately is leading to these superbugs, these bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, which make people sick too.
TM: Yes, we are… Definitely, antibiotics is one of our largest problems right now. And I keep reading these articles about both, in poultry especially, this desire and move towards trying to get antibiotics out of the poultry industry. And I know it’s going kind of slow. In fact, I think I heard something like by 2020 we were going to try and get all of our poultry without antibiotics, and no one sees how that can happen. But they’re not trying to do that with the hog industry, are they?
BE: Well, they’re moving in that direction, but like you said, it’s very, very slow. And you know, there were diseases that you used to be able to cure—you know, go to, these are diseases or infections that you’d go to the doctor and you’d get a prescription for ten days’ worth of pills, and you wouldn’t think about it. And now these same infections that used to be cured ten years ago with a round of pills are killing 23,000 Americans a year because the drugs don’t work. About half of those resistant bacteria evolve on farms where these animals are getting low-level antibiotics all the time. So these aren’t people who work on the farms, because bacteria can travel in the air, travel in the water, travel on the meat itself, travel on the clothing of the people who do work there. So it’s become a, you know, it’s a very serious national issue.
And the sad thing is it’s not necessary. Eighty percent of the antibiotics that we use in this country are fed to perfectly healthy farm animals—80 percent. Yet somehow in Europe, in the European Union, they decided to get rid of them a few years ago and aren’t having problems raising pork without them.
TM: And they’re still making great dried meats.
BE: It can be done, you know. You have to change a few farming methods, but it’s not drastic. Their farms over there—I visited a couple farms in Denmark—they look just as industrial as ours and it’s a big, profitable, international business, yet they don’t use antibiotics. There’s really no excuse.
TM: Why are we doing this? Even though doctor after doctor and even all the scientists say we must cut antibiotics, why can’t we take on some of these production practices that the Europeans and others have used? By the way, there are many pigs being grown today in the United States without antibiotics. Why is it there’s such a, it seems to me, a “No, we need these antibiotics in the hog industry” that these farmers can’t seem to give them up?
BE: Well, you know, our own Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to control the use of all drugs, including antibiotics, has known since 1976—its own scientists, since 1976—that’s forty years—
TM: Oh, that’s a long time!
BE: —has known that this is a prescription for disaster. But every time the bureaucrats or anybody tries to do anything, you run into two of the biggest, most powerful lobbies in Washington, D.C., and that’s big pharmaceutical companies that make these drugs, which are loving it, right?—80 percent of their business goes to farms—and also big agriculture. So between the two of them, they’ve shot down every serious attempt to control antibiotic use. And it’s growing every year.
TM: Winston Churchill, who said “I love pigs—cats look down on you, dogs look up to you, but a pig looks you in the eye”*—what I’ve heard is that pigs are very intelligent animals. I wonder if you came across that much when you were studying for writing your book.
BE: Well, like most people, you know, I knew that pigs were smart, real smart, going into the project. But once I started interviewing university professors in cognition, animal cognition experts, I was floored by how smart pigs are. I mean, I spoke to a professor at Purdue University in Indiana who did a major research project where she taught pigs how to play a computer game successfully, and they got very, very good at it. Interestingly, professors at the University of Cambridge in England did research that showed that a pig in fact has the cognitive, the mental capacity of a three-year-old child.
TM: That is amazing.
BE: Pigs have what psychologists call a sense of self, which until very recently they thought only humans and maybe great apes possessed. Sense of self is really an ability to sort of look to yourself and project what another, the other guy will do. And pigs can do that, no problem. A pig gets to know and can work well with, know well and work well with eighty other pigs.
TM: Wow, that’s remarkable!
BE: Yeah, I know. And there was an experiment they were doing at some university agricultural school to find the ideal temperature to keep pigs at, you know, where they would be happiest and flourish. And they’d been fiddling around, and some researcher got the idea, well, let’s set the thermostats up so that the pigs can set their own temperature. And the pigs learned how to do that. The researchers found out that they were keeping the pigs too warm in the wintertime, and thus a great deal of money was saved.
TM: I’m afraid that if we keep talking much longer, I’m going to be a vegetarian.
BE: Well, you know, the point is that this is a very smart animal, and if it’s kept in these confinement barns it can exercise precisely zero of its instincts—nothing. It can’t exercise its intelligence; it can’t exercise its instincts for rooting; it can’t exercise its very powerful social instincts, because they’re a social, they live in herds in their natural state. A pasture-raised pig, a pig raised outside where it’s got the sun on its back, it can roll in mud, it can root, and it’s got companionship, gets to exercise all of its piggy instincts and intelligence. So it’s so different. There couldn’t be more difference. If you go into one of these vast pig barns, you see these bored, scared creatures that can’t do anything.
TM: It’s actually painful to think about that, especially if you think that there’s…you know, if you look and say, wow, intelligent as a three-year-old? That’s kind of painful to think about.
BE: Way more intelligent, way, way, way more intelligent than any dog. And what would you say to someone who kept their dog locked in a little cage, 24/7, for its entire life?
TM: Yeah, with lots and lots of other dogs.
BE: Right, right—you’d be put in jail.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Barry Estabrook, James Beard Award–winning author of Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat and Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.
I keep asking this question over and over again: so how can we shift pork production, do you think?
BE: I get questions like that a lot, and it can be very, very frustrating, you were right, when you think about what can we do? But the one thing about food that’s different from global warming or a lot of the other things, the war on terror, is there is something we can all do, and we can start doing it the next time we go to the supermarket. And that’s vote with our dollars.
You know, ten years ago, if I said you should seek out and buy pasture-raised, good-quality pork, it would require effort. You’d almost need to know someone who raised pigs to get it; it was hard. Now it’s no longer difficult. Farmers’ markets have it, cities are, you know, lots of small boutique butcher shops are springing up. Large stores like Whole Food Market, the company, or natural food stores, they all carry pork that’s pasture-raised and hasn’t been fed antibiotics, so it can be done. And that’s, I think, where it starts. It starts with us. And if that’s all we do, that’s good enough, I think.
TM: That’s what we can do.
BE: That’s what we can do. And you know, change can happen.
TM: And for all of us, listeners and all of us who we know, our families and so on, it really starts with what, the information that you have been providing. So a big thank-you for that, because if we don’t know there’s a difference, then we won’t do anything. So really getting the word out and sharing this is really, really a good thing.
BE: I really think that the modern industrial food business is dependent, depends on keeping us ignorant. You go into a supermarket, they don’t want you to think about where that pig came from or how it was… They don’t even want you to think that that pork chop came off an animal. You know, it’s sitting there in its Styrofoam tray. The same for the tomatoes, the same for the milk—anything. They don’t want you to stop and think about that. They’re quite happy to have us be in the dark about what we buy.
And I think, you know, the difference between that and the smaller, artisanal agriculture movement is, you know, small farmers want you to know. They’ll drag you onto their farm and almost bore you with their enthusiasm, wanting to show you everything.
TM: If you don’t mind, it’s kind of interesting that the two books that you’re very well known for then is the Pig Tales, but the jump from pigs to tomatoes is kind of a big jump. But Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. I’m going to assume that these two books in some way are related to each other. What do they have in common?
BE: Well, they are. They’re rooted in this commodity notion of commodity agriculture, where the most important thing is price—low price, inexpensive food. Taste doesn’t come into the picture; nutrition doesn’t come into the picture; the welfare of workers doesn’t come into the picture. It’s just cheaper, cheaper, cheaper, the price of food in this country over the past generation. And when you start driving the price so low, you end up with things like tasteless tomatoes that, as I found out in my book, were too often harvested by people who were literally enslaved in this country—literally.
TM: Can you tell us more about that? How’s that, that they can be enslaved? Is it because they had no other work or they’re not being paid well?
BE: No, they were literally… In the tomato industry, in the first decade of this century, there were 1,500 people probably freed from slavery gangs in the tomato field. And generally what would happen, they were immigrants, many of them, and they would get working with these harvesting gangs, and all of a sudden they would be building up false debts. They were totally fabricated—I mean, and so their bosses would say, “You can’t leave, nor am I going to pay you until you pay off this debt by working.” And they would never—you know, these would go on for years.
And people were, a lot of them just fell into this by somebody offering them a bus ride from the border to the tomato fields, and then telling them, “You owe me $500 for the bus ride,” and they don’t have money, and he says, “Well, you’ll have to work it off with my friend Harry here.” And so it was horrific, and for what? These tasteless winter tomatoes. And again, the reason? Farmers, I suppose they don’t deserve a lot of sympathy here, but the farmer can’t go to Exxon and say, “I need to get lower fuel prices for my farm equipment.” He can’t go to Monsanto and say, “I want lower prices on my chemical fertilizers and pesticides.” But he can go to his workers and say, “Your salary’s going to be lowered.” And that’s what’s been happening across the board.
The same thing with the pork industry, you know—cheaper, cheaper, cheaper meat. Animal welfare went out the window. The working conditions for people who work in these facilities, and especially the people that work in the slaughterhouses, are deteriorating, all in the name of very cheap commodity meat, that its only virtue is that it’s not expensive.
TM: When you look at what food costs across the whole world, we have the cheapest food. So it’s kind of hard to talk to people about why we should pay more for food, but we should, in my opinion. You know, when you talked about how antibiotics are spinning off superbugs, and then now tomatoes—did I read that the tomatoes are sprayed with sometimes a hundred different herbicides and pesticides?
BE: Well, in Florida they can use, over a hundred different herbicides and pesticides are listed as approved for use. A cold comfort is typically one field might only get hit with three dozen of those hundred. Many of them are carcinogens, cause birth defects, cause neurological problems. That residue is still on a lot of supermarket tomatoes, according to the USDA itself. But the worse effects are the workers, because they’re right there and in some cases being sprayed directly with these chemicals. And they have extremely high rates of cancer and extremely high rates of birth defects among their children, probably traceable to the chemicals that are put on the crops.
TM: Well, you know, like you were saying that there are people who can breed hogs without using antibiotics, and we do know that there are organic tomatoes, but they’re very much more expensive, of course. All these pesticides must be very expensive, so how can these big places—well, I guess maybe you’ve already said it: they don’t pay their workers. But it seems like they’re putting out an inexpensive tomato compared to like the organic ones.
BE: Right. Well, the trade-off they use is they can often get higher yields, more tomatoes. You know, by spraying and hitting chemical fertilizers and all of that, at least in the short term you can get higher yields than if you’re just growing organic tomatoes, where you may have to deal with some pests. You know, that’s how they can afford to do it. But it’s a vicious sort of circle.
And if you talk to big organic growers—I was speaking with someone at Earthbound Farms, the huge organic vegetable company, and you know, when they first started out ten or fifteen years ago in a big way, they had huge weed problems. The weeds had to be done by hand in these vast fields in California and then in Arizona, and it was costly. But over time, that problem is going away, becoming less because, you know, if you can get the weeds out they don’t come back next year.
And the same thing with fertilizer issues. Once you’ve been farming a field organically for several years, if you’re doing it right, the soil becomes more productive because you’re recycling the nutrients back in, you’re improving it, you’re building up the organic matter in the soil. So a lot of time these chemicals kind of give a…you know, they’re like a shot of steroids, but the long-term health of the soil and health of the environment in general is sacrificed.
TM: Barry, it’s been great talking with you. And just once again, thank you for all the good work you’re doing.
BE: Well, thank you so much.
TM: Yeah, and I want our listeners to check out your blog again: PoliticsOfThePlate.com. Go ahead and log on and see what Barry has to say about pigs and tomatoes and just all the things about our food that we wonder about. And once again, thank you so much, Barry. It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you.
BE: Thank you.
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*Actual quote: “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” —Winston Churchill