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

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

Pigs in gestation crates

(Mercy for Animals, MFA)

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."

Exhausted Walkato sow

(Photo: Farm Watch)

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.

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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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