Pork Technology and Beef Politics

Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America
by J.L. Anderson
West Virginia University Press, 2019

Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America
by Joshua Specht
Princeton University Press, 2019

Animal agriculture has increasingly come under fire from the likes of vegan activists and climate-conscious consumers. But these contemporary pressures take place against the backdrop of the long sweep of American history, in which beef and pork became mass-produced, affordable commodities with production systems distant from the public consciousness. How did we get here? Two recent works of history, J.L. Anderson’s Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork and Power in America and Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America, underline how the histories of beef and pork in America can be easily read against one another. On the one hand, beef — long the preferred, bourgeois protein source for the American public — derived from animals that are easily managed in large numbers; on the other hand, pork — the “coarse” meat popular among the working and subaltern classes — was produced from hogs that have a history of resisting farmers, damaging property, and generally disrupting life for their owners and neighbors. These books elucidate how the history of each commodity followed a broadly shared path of technological standardization and corporate centralization: how corporations encompassed, molded, and reformed animal agriculture through standardized practices, large-scale processing, and risk mitigation.

Although each history is laid out as a path toward greater consolidation and standardization, Specht’s and Anderson’s tell entirely different stories. For Anderson, technological progress and the introduction of scientific practices spurred greater standardization, while for Specht, technology mattered, but politics mattered more. Although Capitalist Pigs’ close reading of hog-farming practices may suggest specific pathways to progress, Anderson is blind to broader political and social contexts, limiting his conclusion to a weak, apolitical technological determinism. In contrast, Specht displays considerable sophistication in pulling apart the complex relationships among agriculture, society, and the state, but he fails to imagine how beef could be affordably mass-produced in a better socio-technical configuration.

Anderson’s Capitalist Pigs outlines how technology and scientific practices allowed pork production in the United States to grow from small-scale farmers who keep pigs as secondary income (as “mortgage lifters”) to the massive many-thousand-head hog farms across parts of the American Southeast and Midwest. Focused on the details of hog farming, Anderson explains how hogs went from problem animals to commodity over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of the hog’s unruly and resistant nature, early farmers kept small numbers of them, either in local ranges or on pastureland alongside other crops and animals. To keep the destructiveness of hogs at bay, these farmers used cruel and painful behavior management practices, such as ringing — placing a large ringed piercing in a hog’s snout — that would limit a hog’s ability to root, dig, and even eat. During the first half of the 20th century, Anderson explains, increased adoption of rudimentary penning, breeding, and birthing technologies allowed for much larger swine herds. Yet with increased herd sizes came infectious diseases. According to Anderson, it was not until the incorporation of scientific standards and practices, starting in the 1920s, that the American hog farmer could consistently raise large herds and bring them to market without causing widespread disease.

Further innovation in hog confinement, sanitation, and veterinary practices allowed hog farmers to continually increase herd sizes in the decades following World War II. More recently, in the past three to four decades, concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, with herd sizes in the tens of thousands, have become commonplace across the United States. For Anderson, technological advances made standardized and concentrated hog farming possible but have also led to greater environmental and social trade-offs. These often take the form of issues related to manure management, labor, and the impact of CAFOs on surrounding communities. Despite the attention Anderson gives to issues surrounding CAFOs in the past few decades, Capitalist Pigs offers little to the reader in terms of political economy. What exactly is “capitalist” about the titular “capitalist pigs” is unclear. Similarly, the American state, whether as regulator, investor, or broker of agricultural trade deals, is almost completely missing from the book.

While Anderson’s narrative of technology driving efficiency and centralization remains relatively common for descriptions of changes in American agriculture over time, Specht hopes to show that the centralization and standardization of the American beef industry have more to do with politics and society than with technology and innovation. In Red Meat Republic, Specht charts the historical course of the “cattle–beef complex” — his term for the US beef industry and all its parts — from early settler ranching, to the massive herds, standardized practices, and international financing of the late 19th century, and finally to the processor-dominated, Chicago-based industry of the early 20th century. At each step, Specht argues, success and innovation derived from a combination of technology, government relations, and labor exploitation. After the Mexican–American War, cattle ranchers benefited from direct aid from the federal government in forcefully removing indigenous competition from the varied nations across the lower and upper Midwest. Even more so, large-scale ranching operations (often with capital investment from the East Coast, or even abroad) benefited from government contracts to supply beef to reservations that now housed the indigenous nations who previously lived on the rangelands. Despite accounting, management, and labor challenges, the large ranches of the mid-to-late 19th century were able to raise vast herds and effectively control the beef markets.

Even so, as Specht demonstrates, ranchers quickly lost their power, control, and profits to the even larger meatpacking and processing companies that grew out of the Chicago stockyards. Acting as intermediary between ranchers and local butchers and markets, the Chicago meatpackers, often called the “Big Four” (Armour, Swift, Cudahy, and Wilson), placed a bottleneck on the industry, pressuring both producers (made up of ranchers and, more recently, feedlot operators) and vendors, effectively eliminating large-scale ranches and making local butchers dependent on the meatpackers’ operations. Positioning himself against the more common narrative of technological innovation — e.g., refrigerated rail cars and standardized disassembly lines — spurring innovation, Specht argues that the Chicago meatpackers were able to consolidate power mostly because of the collapse of strong labor unions, a weak regulatory arm of the US government, and the ever-increasing demand for cheap beef coming from the growing American middle class. On top of these sociopolitical forces, Specht argues, meatpackers succeeded in consolidating profits and power by shifting the financial risks of beef production — disease, unruly weather patterns, and other externalities — onto the smaller, decentralized ranchers who depended on the Big Four to get their products to market.

Specht concludes Red Meat Republic with a brief description of Theodore Roosevelt’s confused relationship with ranching and the Big Four beef industry. An ardent supporter of “rugged individualism” and a romantic conservationist, Roosevelt saw the power that big corporations held as an infringement on individualism, but ultimately judged their success as an “inevitable development of modern industrialism.” According to Specht, Roosevelt sought to reform the excesses of capitalism — at least those that threatened Roosevelt’s ideal of the individual — without actually remaking or challenging it. This reformist perspective, Specht argues, would effectively pave the way for further consolidation in the industry, and in American agriculture more generally. The crux of the problem, for Specht, lies in Roosevelt’s assumption of “inevitability.” Aptly, Specht’s disavowal of the teleology of capitalist agriculture is where the difference between Red Meat Republic and Capitalist Pigs is widest. Anderson’s focus on technological innovation and adaptation in the hog industry runs counter to what Specht hopes to do in Red Meat Republic: demonstrate how political and social forces produced the cattle–beef complex, not ingenuity or some universalist drive to accumulate capital. But whereas Anderson whiffs on the forces at work in the US production of pork, Specht gets lost in his attempt to balance the technological with the political. For Specht, the question remains: if the contemporary standardized and concentrated animal agriculture system was not inevitable, what were its alternatives? Specht’s impulse toward complexity draws out the wrong conclusions — effectively, no conclusion — from the history of beef in America. This is clearest when considering how these two books consider the relationship between their respective commodities and the environment.

Whereas Capitalist Pigs provides a relatively simple formula for how hog farming could be more environmentally sustainable — namely, through technological improvement — Red Meat Republic ends up raising more questions than it answers, roughly concluding with some version of “It’s complicated.” And, although complexity remains an obvious feature of any history, the complicated nature of a problem does not preclude an appropriate set of solutions. While Red Meat Republic’s periodicity limits Specht from deeply engaging with the contemporary debates surrounding the climate impacts of beef production, the lack of a clear vision for what an improved “cattle–beef complex” would look like is disappointing. Still, by demonstrating that the current state of the beef industry was not inevitable, Specht keeps open the possibility of alternative realities. Even so, reading Red Meat Republic and Capitalist Pigs against each other underlines the importance of these histories for thinking about how to reform American meat production. If we are to take Anderson’s argument to its logical conclusion, increasing technological advances in hog farming might solve the environmental impacts associated with large-scale animal agriculture while bringing on even greater challenges. For Anderson, the consumer and the state take on the role of spectators while science, technology, and industry are at play. In contrast, Specht’s focus on the relationship among political, social, and industrial forces suggests reason for hope that a combination of consumer politics, political regulation, and improved technologies for raising cattle could lower the environmental impact of American beef production.

Despite the shortcomings of Specht’s conclusions, Red Meat Republic provides a far richer picture of the construction and nature of the current beef industry than Capitalist Pigs does for hog farming. Even though there are specific takeaways from Anderson’s work, Capitalist Pigs gets mired in minutiae and technological determinism. It’s not that technology and innovation will not provide solutions; rather, technological innovation cannot be completely decontextualized from the world in which it develops. By missing out on the power of the state and the consumer, Anderson’s technological vision falls flat. In contrast, by insisting on the role that both state and consumer played in the construction of the cattle–beef complex, Specht keeps open different, more radical possibilities for a better system constructed through demand pressures, government regulations, public–private innovation, or even further consolidation through the nationalization of animal agriculture, even if he doesn’t draw these conclusions himself. However, Specht would do well to remember that, whatever the future holds, technology will play a major role in the environmental and ethical improvement of animal agriculture.