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Better Bacon

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by guest blogger Coach Mark Smallwood, Rodale Institute executive director

We do love our bacon. When the rumor of an "unavoidable bacon shortage" hit the airways late last month, American citizens went what can only be described as hog wild. There isn't really a bacon shortage, but the cost of pork will most certainly be rising globally in 2013. Devastating droughts in both the U.S. and the EU decimated corn crops, and since our industrial system of raising hogs means stuffing them with corn-based feed, the cost of feeding those hogs has gone up as corn has become scarcer.

Scaling up with more complex and more expensive plans for genetically modified drought-tolerant corn and bigger and "better" industrial hog operations to offset our losses just digs our hole deeper. Times of crisis afford us the opportunity to look at the status quo with a more critical eye. Two small changes to how we look at production and consumption could make a big difference in our food future.

1) Raise them differently. For thousands of years and in almost every culture, humans kept hogs as "garbage pigs." Their ability to eat almost anything made them the perfect disposal system. Although we've sanitized and mechanized our food production system today, we still use the pig as an industrial garbage disposal, feeding them mass quantities of corn feed and wastes from human junk-food production.

The modern farming movement toward pasture-based systems and heritage breeds isn't just for the pleasure of the gourmet food enthusiast. It's also a biologically appropriate way of raising food animals. Pigs are natural foragers and, like their wild sisters and brothers, thrive in brushy, woodland areas. This is the way pigs are meant to be raised. According to researchers in Iowa (the top hog-producing state), raising pigs on pasture just might cost less than raising them in CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations). Healthy pasture comes with valuable human health benefits when compared to CAFOs: far less water pollution, less smell, better soil, and much better air quality. Seeing happy and healthy pigs on pasture means we can be proud of where our food comes from, too.

So how do we go from a system where CAFOs produce more than 50 percent of our food animals to a healthier and more sustainable pasture-based system? We believe that creating models for small farms to incorporate into their operations can go a long way toward localizing and civilizing pork production. Dozens of innovative farmers around the country have already been working pigs into their diverse farming operations, grazing them in apple orchards or as field prep in areas planted with soil-improving daikon radishes.

Pigs can forage in underutilized areas on a farm, so a small swine operation can complement the farm business as a whole, improve the land, and add value for the customers. Hogs will literally pig out on roots, tubers, brush, worms, mushrooms, mice, nuts, and crop debris. Plus, well-managed pasture is two to three times cheaper to maintain and requires less labor than crops grown to make feed for industrially raised animals. Supporting these farms and pioneering farmers rather than demonizing them by labeling their alternative breeds as invasive species (as is happening in Michigan right now), is a must for widespread acceptance.

2) Maybe, just maybe, we need to eat less bacon. Although the country's overall meat consumption is down nationwide, America still consumes more meat per capita than almost any other country in the world. With our expanding waistlines and skyrocketing diet-related medical costs, smaller, slightly more expensive portions of bacon might be just what the doctor (and the farmer) ordered.

Coach Mark Smallwood has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale Institute in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to the institute's 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced its research efforts, and launched "Your 2 Cents," a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers. In recognition for his sustainability efforts, Coach was chosen as a messenger for Al Gore's Climate Project, presenting to more than 15,000 people on the effects of global warming. Last, but certainly not least, as a longtime organic farmer and biodynamic gardener, Coach has raised chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs and driven a team of oxen.

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