On factory farms, the death rate of pig sows is soaring

It's not yet clear why this is happening, but there are plenty of suspects

  • A rise in mortality for factory farm pig sows has growers worried.
  • There are some obvious possible reasons, but studies are underway.
  • Rise in deaths points toward a need for more humane treatment of pigs.

While relatively little is known about the psychology of domestic pigs, what is known suggests that pigs are cognitively complex and share many traits with animals whom we consider intelligent. — Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus

Of all the animals that humans eat, perhaps the most morally troubling are pigs because they're considered to be highly aware creatures. The stories of their sentience are myriad and make a compelling case that they know just what awaits them at slaughter. That they continue to be raised as food is heartbreaking on the face of it to many, and the conditions at pork factory farms have long been troubling. (In addition, 5,500 pigs drowned in North Carolina during Hurricane Florence.)

Now there's a new problem with industrially bred pigs that has even the pork industry alarmed: Sow deaths from prolapse—a condition that causes a sow's rectum, vagina, or uterus to collapse—are skyrocketing. According to The Guardian, the pig mortality rate nearly doubled between 2013 and 2016 on factory farms with more than 125 sows across 800 pork companies. Some farmers are reporting prolapse as the cause of 25% to 50% sow deaths.

Warning: This post contains troubling images.

Wally, the slaughterhouse-truck-escaping pig, with the author at Soulspace Farm Sanctuary(Photo: Syd M Johnson)

Why are sows dying like this?

The cause of the deaths is not altogether clear. The National Pork Board is partnering with Iowa State University on a multi-year study aimed at understanding what's happening. (Iowa's the top pork producer in the U.S.) They intend to collect data on about 13% of food sows on more than 100 farms in 16 states. That's about 400,000 pigs.

As of now, there are a handful of possible causes that have been suggested:

  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Mycotoxins in feed
  • Overfeeding to promote growth
  • Abdominal issues
  • Overly restrictive confinement systems
  • Overbreeding

(Photo: Farm Watch)

A sedentary, crowded existence

According to The Guardian, "An estimated 97% of the US's 73 million hogs are raised in closed barns or confined feeding operations." These dense-packed, restrictive environments include gestation and farrowing crates in which sows can barely move, and in which they spend most of their lives. It's a brutal way to exist as pigs have little, if any, opportunity for health-sustaining movement and exercise, and are kept from doing the things pigs like to do.

Farmer Paul Willis tells The Guardian, "I have a neighbor that has been raising pigs [in a confinement system] … and they have a dumpster, and I can go by there almost any time of the day or week and it's full of dead hogs." One company is producing the Hercules' Arm Pig Hearse, which its website calls "A unique and revolutionary way to effortlessly remove, on your own and in total safety, heavy dead pigs from stalls and haul them away to the designated area." The company adds that the device "has been specifically designed to eliminate any risk of back injury and make work so much easier."

(Mercy for Animals, MFA)

Pigs in gestation crates

Genetic manipulation for more salable pork or more pigs

Well-known animal-welfare advocate Temple Grandin of Colorado State University also spoke to The Guardian about this problem, suggesting that shifting pork-industries priorities have wreaked havoc on pigs' bodies.

In the late 1980s, she points out, pigs were bred for rapid weight gain, more backfat, along with a more lucrative loin. Later on, though, breeding goals changed as the American diet became more fat conscious.

Eventually breeding moved to pigs who could produce more piglets. New president of Mercy for Animals Leah Garces suggests this could be the cause of the prolapse epidemic: "Over the last few decades, sows to have been bred to have less back-fat—because people don't want to eat as much fat—but we also want them to produce more and more babies. And that's not biologically possible; their bones are weak and they don't have enough fat to support the reproductive process. We've bred them to their limit and the animals are telling us that."

Sows now produce an average of 23.5 piglets a year in litters of ten. After about four litters, they're done. As Grandin puts it, "They're breeding the sows to produce a lot of babies. Well, there's a point where you've gone too far."

(Photo: Farm Watch)

Exhausted Walkato sow

Considering the porcine future

Some in the pork industry are looking to establish more moderate, sustainable methods of raising pigs, including smaller farms—such as Willis' Niman Ranch, a subsidiary of Purdue—and backing off productivity goals. As Grandin puts it, "You have to figure out the optimal number of piglets these sows should have. One thing people have trouble with is asking what is optimal—not maximal, but optimal—when it comes to breeding." Hopefully, reports such as the National Pork Board's will definitively pinpoint what's causing this increase in sow deaths.

There's also another solution worthy of mention, and it's pretty obvious: We could cut back or stop eating pigs.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
  • French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
  • Solar panel "paved" roadways are proving to be inefficient and too expensive.
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.