Saturday, January 15, 2011

Swine and Mankind

Nancy and I have been enjoying some locally-produced, hazelnut-finished, red wattle pork. We purchased it from Heritage Farms Northwest. The oil in the hazelnuts results in a pork fat that’s significantly softer than other pork, indicating a lower saturated fat content. The red wattle is a relatively rare breed of hog, and definitely NOT a producer of “the other white meat.” Last Sunday we enjoyed a breakfast of scrambled eggs with some diced grilled pork chop (including the thick layer of fat, of course!) and caramelized onions. Very rich. This one meal carried us both until well past our usual dinner time. Each of us finally ate something later that evening, more because we felt it was time than feeling all that hungry. Fat satisfies. Fat “sticks to your ribs.” Carbohydrates do not satisfy. The sensation of hunger returns more quickly on carbohydrate-based diets than on fat-based ones. Swine have been the source of dietary fat and protein for some time.

Archaeological evidence indicates that swine were first domesticated about 9000 BCE in the East Indies and southeastern Asia. Swine have been especially amenable to human selection. Many different breeds have been developed over the years. Interestingly, pigs can change back just as easily. When given the opportunity, pigs promptly revert within only a few generations to a wild or feral state in which they acquire the body form and characteristics of their wild progenitors many generations removed.

Swine were introduced to North America by Hernando De Soto in 1539. Their importance to the subsequent history of this continent (and the rest of the world) is hard to over-state. Beginning with their unforeseeable role as a vector for zoonotic diseases (diseases transmissible from animals to humans) that decimated the native American population, continuing through their subsequent role in sustaining the mostly-rural population of the developing nation, and ultimately forming the foundation of Midwestern US agriculture. And the pig’s importance is not limited to North America, which is home to less than 12% of the world’s hogs.
“World distribution of swine, by major areas. (Based on estimates from the FAO Production Yearbook, FAO/UN, Rome, Italy, 1994, pp. 192-194, Table 90).” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
When one compares the modern pig with its ancestor, the European wild boar, it is obvious how much “gentic manipulation” has taken place! Not through some high-tech approach, obviously, but by a long process of selecting for desirable traits and against negative ones. Disposition would be an obvious criteria!
The European wild boar. From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
But body structure and the degree of “finish” or fat would be others. Through the 19th century, lard-type hogs were favored because of the value of lard. This is reflected in the type of animal that was preferred in the livestock show-rings of that era.

“A Poland China gilt of the chuffy type. Small, refined animals of this type dominated the American show-ring from 1890-1919.” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
But tastes changed and soon a taller animal was preferred. Fashion is fickle in the breed ring as well as on the designers' runways. It's interesting to note that this trend precedes the low-fat-is-the-healthy-diet message of the last half of the 20th century. Data from 1929 indicated that one average hog carcass provided enough meat for two people for a year, but enough for three people for a year. This over-production of lard was a significant problem, depressing hog prices.
“A Poland China boar pig of the rangy type. Long legged, weak loined, “cat hammed” animals of this type dominated the American show-ring from 1915-1925.” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
Today’s animal has been selected to produce a maximum of lean meat with even less fat, in part as a response to the market’s demands (which, of coarse, is responding the “conventional wisdom” that animal fat is bad for us).
“1994 World Expo top placing Poland China boar.” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
For anyone who doubts that genetics can make some constitutionally lean and others constitutionally heavy, look at the differences that genetics can play in the leanness of swine.
“Breeding made the difference! The hogs received the same ration and were slaughtered at the same weight. Not the difference in the amount of lean meat, with the hog on the left being superior.” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
Consider the implications for humans! Some of us, due to our genetic inheritance, will tend to be leaner than others. Biology isn't fair. And an impaired metabolism may mean that we will carry more fat than if we had not incurred this metabolic damage. What we need to understand is what we must do to be as lean as we're capable of being.

Finally, I’ve heard that these lean hogs have to be raised in confinement with some degree of climate control because their lack of fat makes them susceptible to heat and cold. If we're going to raise livestock, we need to be aware of the conditions the various breeds were selected for.We'll need to choose breeds that match our conditions and management goals.

Next posts:
Lard, Glorious Lard! (the uses and benefits of lard)
Try, Try Again (rendering lard at home)

Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker. 1997. Swine Science. Interstate Publishers, Inc.


  1. Informative post, Peter!
    I'm a hog and cattle farmer in Wisconsin.
    It's interesting that hog farmers selected for too lean animals, and have recently began to select fatter animals for breeding. I wrote a post on this:

  2. Thanks. It is interesting that fatter animals are being selected. The pendulum swings again ...

    I'll be exploring your other blog posts, too. Nice job!


    Pete B