Pork Belly Futures

Pork Belly Futures

In July of 2011, after a run of 50 years, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ended the trading of pork belly futures.  There was a time when the consumption of bacon, the most critical third of a BLT, saw a bump in the summer, and the future price of pork belly was something of an indicator for a busy summer season of sandwich eating.  In this century bacon seems to be embedded in everything, and every season is bacon season.   So there is no pork belly future, only a pork belly present.  I’ve been thinking about pork as a commodity because, well, I have to stop myself from thinking of my pigs as future pork belly.  Usually, at this time of year and under normal circumstances, I’d be looking at my pigs, judging their size, and projecting that size into November.  Several of them are clearly not going to be optimal butchering size before winter, and in the back of my mind I worry about this.  Of course, size only matters if you’re thinking in terms of things like hanging weight and price per pound.  So why should I care about how much they weigh?

A few days ago I paid a visit to a couple of pigs down the road from us.  These pigs are cousins of my pigs, and I was curious to see how they were getting along.  I’d heard from their owners that the pigs were approaching slaughter time and that they were very fat.  I found the pigs fenced into some pasture (no one was home), and my neighbors weren’t kidding; these pigs were obscenely fat.  They lay in the dirt like beached whales and acknowledged my presence in their pen with a grunt without so much as moving a muscle.   Jane Grigson, in her 1967 classic, Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, wrote that European village pigs in the 1800’s “should be too fat to walk more than one hundred yards.”   My neighbor’s pigs would fail that fitness test at the twenty yard line.  My pigs, by comparison, are in olympic condition.

American Guinea Hogs put on too much fat if not fed a balanced diet that’s heavy on pasture and light on everything else.  That trait along with their small size, slow growth and stubby legs spelled trouble for the breed with the rise of industrial agriculture and the decline of the small farm at the turn of the 20th century.  Industry wants speed, efficiency, and confinement, and the guinea hog is, if nothing else, symbolic of what can be lost in the process, the same process that produces tasteless tomatoes, monstrous breast-heavy chickens, and vast tracts of genetically modified monoculture.

That there’s been an awakening to what’s been lost in our embrace of the factory farm and an effort to save the old biological diversity of our food is, without question, a good thing. But isn’t there a contradiction here with regard to my pigs?  On the one hand I applaud the effort to bring the guinea hog back from the brink of extinction.  On the other, I don’t want to eat them.  If the reason for reviving the guinea hog is to salvage an old, more interesting source of food and I’m arguing that they’re not to be eaten, then why should my pigs, any domesticated pigs, exist at all?   If not food, the domesticated pig lacks a raison d’etre?  I think what’s happening here is the exposure of a flawed anthropocentric argument. Surely, in a purely hypothetical and highly improbable world in which people stopped eating pigs, there would, in a very short period of time, be about a billion fewer pigs on Earth. But domesticated pigs do not need human justification to survive as a species.  That they owe their existence, in part, to human intervention means nothing.  Pork belly futures may be dead, but my pigs are very much alive, and I think they’d rather stay that way.


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