A recent ABC 7:30 story has exposed the inhumane practice of CO2 stunning used on 85 per cent of pigs slaughtered in Australia. According to the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) it was a much-needed wake-up call to de-industrialise and re-localise our food systems.
The food sovereignty movement in Australia, and around Earth, wants to see a flourishing of small farms with increased autonomy, and access to and control of local processing infrastructure such as abattoirs, dairy processing and grain mills. Most small-scale livestock farmers are opposed to methods of industrial food production such as confining pigs and poultry in sheds and using what we believe to be inhumane methods, from tail docking right through to CO2 stunning. Most of us believe that the best person to slaughter an animal is the person who has been handling it, and the best place to do it is on the farm. But in the case of slaughter, most farmers’ options are limited, as consolidation to a dwindling number of mostly large-scale abattoirs over several decades has left us no say in how far we have to transport animals or in methods of slaughter.
Lauren Mathers is a pastured pig farmer and Chair and Director of the Murray Plains Meat Cooperative, which has nearly finished building a small-scale abattoir in Barham, NSW to service local farmers. She says, ‘I personally do not believe that gassing pigs is humane, but it is an approved RSPCA process. This is one of the biggest reasons why small abattoirs are crucial’.
Large-scale abattoirs prefer CO2 stunning because it allows a higher number of animals to be killed in a day, as pigs are kept in groups of two to ten while being lowered by a ‘gondola’ into a CO2 chamber. CO2 is what is called an aversive gas: that is, pigs have an aversion to the sensation it provokes, which is akin to suffocating. There are variations in the physical reactions witnessed in pigs (escape behaviours, gasping, squealing, frothing), which are largely dependent on the concentration of CO2 and also the breed of pig: industrial Landrace breeds are more prone to porcine stress syndrome than heritage breeds, which is some small comfort to small-scale farmers who predominantly raise old breeds. However, while some animals demonstrably experience more physical stress than others, for all pigs it takes on average 20–30 seconds to be rendered unconscious by the stunning process. The industry justifies this practice by arguing that as pigs are social animals, they experience less social distress when kept in groups during stunning. Yet at a 2018 humane slaughter seminar hosted by the CSIRO in Canberra, a researcher from Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand, where electrical stunning is most common, asserted that ‘everyone agreed that if we could get rid of CO2 we should’.
In contrast to their large-scale counterparts, small-scale abattoirs use captive bolt or electric stunning, both of which stun the animal senseless immediately. Cattle and sheep abattoirs also use captive bolt or electric stunning, which underscores the hypocrisy of claims that stunning animals in social groups is better for herd animals, as cattle and sheep are notably more stressed by being separated from the herd than pigs are. If the practice was genuinely about animal welfare, all herd animals would be stunned this way.
CO2 gas has been known to be aversive and to cause pain and distress in pigs for over twenty years, a point made by Dr Ellen Jongman on 7:30. And yet industry and government maintain a narrow focus on how to improve an inhumane practice designed for an inhumane system that is ecologically destructive, socially unjust and frankly, morally bankrupt. Rather than pursuing more research into less aversive gases in large abattoirs, the best alternative is for state and local governments to support a revival of small-scale local abattoirs owned and controlled by local communities such as the Murray Plains Meat Cooperative and others emerging around Australia. We need a degrowth economy that provides radical sufficiency for all, not a continuation of business as usual that primarily benefits the one percent.
Industrial agriculture and the global meat-packing industry have long demonstrated a lack of commitment to action on animal welfare, biodiversity loss and climate change, with a business model built on feed-lotted and shed-confined animals and low-paid and dangerous labour, and reliant on deforestation to grow the grain fed to intensively raised livestock. Australia needs to prioritise ecological, social and economic resilience. To do so, it needs to rethink the core assumptions such as ‘efficiency’ and increasing production that undermine animal welfare and rural economies, and to encourage the development of localised production and distribution systems embedded in communities.
Reimagining Regional Relationships
Lauren Rickards, Melinda Hinkson, Dec 2020
Rebuilding regional life by prioritising its location, local cultures and crucial importance to urban existence would compel us to look with fresh eyes at the relationships that shape and constrain agricultural production, relationships between the residents of cities and the bush, relationships between white and black Australians and our Pacific neighbours.
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