18 September 2012

Why gestation crates should be banned in the US

Gestation crates part one: the United States should ban the use of gestation crates within the pig farming industry. 

What are gestation crates? Gestation crates are confinement stalls where an individual pregnant female pig, or sow, is kept throughout her pregnancy. Each stall, typically measures about six to seven feet in length and about two feet in width, and is enclosed with horizontal metal bars. Each crate generally has a floor with slats or slopes to funnel her excrement out of the crate. (Wikipedia. 2005. British Broadcasting Company. 12 Apr. 2005.)    

The length and width of each gestation crate mirrors the length and width of an adult sow; therefore, she is unable to turn around, unable to run, unable to physically interact with other pigs, unable to lie down on her side or at all. In the unlikely event she is able to lie down, she can do so only on her chest. However, since the floors of each crate lead to an excrement removal system of some kind, she would be lying down in her own excrement or excrement “residue.” If she is even more unlucky, then her flooring will not consist of slats but, instead, of a wide sloping “v-shape” with both sides sloping down toward the middle of the crate. (This would look as though she was standing on top of the letter “v”) In this scenario, were she to lie down, she would do so in a well of excrement. Should she decide to forgo that, she is then forced to spend most of her life bracing her stance on a sloping floor. 

In addition to the physical constraints of the gestation crates, she, along with all the humans that work within these operations, must constantly live with the overpowering stench of urine and feces. The ammonia from the urine appears to be the more offensive to the senses, and the more damaging to her breathing passages. 

Although the gestation crate as a method of pig farming has been in use since the 1960’s, gestation crates as the standard of practice in pig farming, like those involved with Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operations (CAFOs), did not become the norm until the 1990s. (White, Derrel. "The Sow Gestation System Debate." The Truth About Agriculture. 2012. 10 Sept. 2012.) 

Gestation crates a way of life: A typical breeding pig’s “useful life” (use as a breeder until sent to slaughter) is about four years. Her first pregnancy typically begins at age seven months, with each pregnancy lasting about four months in duration. ("The Truth Behind Pork." Farm Sanctuary. 2012. 10 Sept. 2012.) When giving birth is imminent, she is moved to a farrowing crate where she delivers and then nurses her litter from 10 days to 3 weeks. (Id.) “[Four to eight] days after weaning [her] piglets, [she is] typically returned to gestation crates and …re-impregnated.” (Id.) This cycle continues for the remainder of her “useful life,” thereby confining her to a gestation crate for the majority of her life. Her release from continual confinement comes only at the time of her slaughter. 


Those against the use of gestation crates as a housing system for pregnant sows believe that this system is unnecessary, extremely harmful, and unethical. Specifically, they believe that alternative housing systems exist and the continued the use of the gestation crate system negatively affects animal welfare, the health of the consumer, and the health of the environment. In addition, those against the use of gestation crates believe this inhumane treatment of an animal triggers humanitarian issues and calls for a re-evaluation of an “ends-driven” market system. 

Alternatives to gestation crates: Surprise, there are alternatives to gestation crate housing. During this debate, opponents of gestation crates have successfully drawn attention to three other alternatives currently in practice: 1) group housing; 2) deep-bedded group housing; and 3) pasture-raised. (White, Derrel. "The Sow Gestation System Debate." The Truth About Agriculture. 2012. 10 Sept. 2012.) 

Animal welfare: One of the goals of the animal welfare movement is to provide an animal within the agricultural industry as good a life as possible. Meaning, that they are to enjoy safety, health, and the ability to conduct themselves in a way that most closely mirrors how they would behave outside of captivity. Gestation crates, by no means allow that to happen. 

Consistent accounts have shown that these sows are sometimes horrifically mistreated and pumped full of antibiotics to compensate for the unhealthy conditions. There have been accounts of sows either trying to escape or commit suicide by ramming their heads into (or through) the bars of their cages. Further accounts have cited cases of uterine prolapse, which appear to be a result of repeated pregnancies (exacerbated, to some degree, by the sedentary lifestyle) and physical abuse that damages the organ at issue. 

Health of the consumer and environment:  The reality is that whether or not we choose to eat pork, more times than not, we know and love someone who does. Therefore, the health of the pig as a food product is a legitimate concern as it affects the health of the food supply and then the health of people. Health conditions of CAFOs have always been of concern and it is unclear whether a transition away from gestation crates will improve the situation. It is intriguing, though, that the Swedish based system of group housing was developed as a means of farming when antibiotics were banned from the industry. This move suggests that the group housing system may have been chosen as a way to decrease disease and maintain a healthier environment for the sows. ("Deep-Bedded Hoophouses." Rodale Institute. 2011. 10 Sept. 2012.) 

In addition, the Swedish “deep-bedded” group housing system appears as though it may also positively affect the issue of excrement run-off pollution most readily associated with CAFOs. (More to come on housing alternatives in Part Two of this article series.) 

Humanitarian: If one accepts the idea that how we treat the animal population sets a bar as to how low we can go in treating other humans, what will become (or what is) permissible in the treatment of human women when the bar for the treatment of females in another species is so incredible low. Unfortunately, we have already seen permissive obscene treatment towards women through accounts of the behavior exhibited in war crimes, stoning, female genital mutilation, etc. There is a connection here. 

Furthermore, how can we condone a way of business that rounds up all the females to imprison, and repeatedly rape and impregnate them, as a means of production? Should this be taught as a successful business model to be duplicated? 

An “Ends-Driven” Market System:  For argument sake, even if gestation crates are the most efficient and effective way to mass produce a “quality” pork product that generates high profit, and is of low cost to the consumer – does that mean it should be done? Just because there is the ability to exploit does not mean that it should be done or that it is the right path to follow. An absolute tenant of the most profit should not drive the practices within our market economy. 


With the dynamic of gestation crates explained, along with a solid rationale for banning this practice, why is it that some within the agricultural and commercial food industry defend its use and wish to keep it the standard of practice within the pig farming industry? Proponents of the gestation crate housing system cite many reasons as the rationale for not moving towards alternative housing methods. These include, but are not limited to: lack of alternatives, associated costs/financial concerns, sow welfare, and a complete non-acknowledgement of any problem with the current gestation crate structure. 

Lack of alternatives: As addressed above, gestation crates did not become the standard of practice until the 1990s. Pig farming must have been successfully practiced another way prior to this time period. This is not to suggest that it was done better or worse before gestation crates, but it was done another way. Therefore, there are alternatives. Studies performed on pig farming housing systems suggest, that if “freedom of movement” is not rated higher than other welfare concerns, then all of the four housing systems could have an equal welfare rating. Therefore, at the very least, these studies show that there are at least three other equal alternatives and, therefore, again, there are alternatives. (White, Derrel. "The Sow Gestation System Debate." The Truth About Agriculture. 2012. . 10 Sept. 2012.) 

Associated costs/financial concerns: Proponents argue that the costs are too high, especially in these economic times. Yes, there would be a cost to transition operations using gestation crates towards a “group housing” system. The amusing part of this argument is that this industry does not intend to shoulder the burden of the transition; instead, it passes it along to the consumer. The consumer is the one who has demanded the transition, and even though the consumer has to pay, overall the increase is small.
“According the Dr. Lusk and Dr. Norwood of Oklahoma State University who have done some of the best consumer behavior work related to animal welfare to date, the cost increase associated with group housing systems compared to confinement systems is really inconsequential. While a move from battery cage systems to cage free egg production systems increased costs to the consumer by more than 21%, a change from gestation crates to group housing systems would only increase costs to the consumer by 1.7%.” (Id.)
Granted, this small increase may not affect certain economic groups, but it definitely affects those already struggling to pay for food. This should be where the conversation about costs occurs. It is a serious concern that needs to be addressed by both sides of the debate: How will it affect the consumers already struggling to pay?

In addition, a closer look needs to be taken at the argument that the financial costs of transition are too high – effecting both farmer and consumer. Instead of taking the industry’s word at face value, let us look a little deeper. When farming operations begin to quote large numbers for transition costs, what is that number really about and would the operation be spending it regardless of a forced transition?

Operations built in the 1990s (again when gestation crates became the standard of practice – so typically the start of a lot of these operations) typically have a 20-year depreciation span; therefore, these operations are in a position where there is a financial motivation to move towards another system. For those farms even older, there is even more of a financial incentive. (Salak-Johnson and McGlone. “Changing From Sow Gestation Crates to Pens: Problem or Opportunity.” The Pig Site. 2009. 11 Sept. 2012.) One might hypothesize as to why corporations are jumping on the transition to group housing now, as opposed to ten years ago when the movement to ban gestation crates started to gain some momentum? Could it be that these farming operations were not at a depreciation point financially worth transition? Do we just find the industry at a point where it is in transition anyway, so why not follow consumer/retailer demand to ensure a piece of the market in the future? That said, when the industry begins to cry foul at the costs associated with transition, were these costs to upgrade farming operations already on the table with or without the move to group housing? If so, the move away from gestation crates is not to blame for elevated pork prices.

Sow welfare: Proponents claim that no other “housing” program of pregnant sows will serve the purpose that the gestation crates offer of the immediate benefit to the sow’s health, nutrition, and safety. This is inaccurate. There are at least three other alternatives in practice today, as listed above, and each alternative can be adjusted to address all of the welfare concerns brought forth by the pig farming industry.

Failure to see a problem: Finally, some proponents do not even register a problem with the gestation crate system. For instance, in a response to Professor Peter Singer calling for New Jersey’s legislature to pass a pig farming welfare bill similar to the gestation crate bans in other states, Richard Nieuwenhuis, head of New Jersey’s Farm Bureau replied:
“The Humane Treatment of Domestic Animal standards [New Jersey regulations] contain detailed requirements for all areas of swine production. In the case of keeping swine, the standards require that farmers provide an environment that supports swine health and safety. This includes ensuring that swine have adequate space to stand, lie down, rest, get up and move their heads freely.”
“The subject of gestation crates has been considered under these rules and it was decided that their use did not constitute ‘inhumane’ conditions.” (Bittman, Mark. “Gestation Crate Denial in New Jersey.” The New York Times. 2012. 14 Sept. 2012.)
This begs the question, what would he consider inhumane? Also, it would appear that he might not have ever seen a gestation crate farming operation. Either way, it is difficult to even converse with someone who will not acknowledge that there may be a problem. Someone such as himself may be the last of those who come around to banning gestation crates and then only do so because of financial incentives.


Based on all of the arguments for and against gestation crates as a housing system for pregnant sows, gestation crates should be banned within the United States. There are viable, cost effective, and humane alternatives; and the pig farming industries’ arguments defending the practice of gestation crates are neither compelling nor persuasive. As we move forward in the banning of gestation crates towards an alternative housing system for pregnant sows, we need to seriously evaluate the alternatives, know what we are supporting and become a loud voice in the regulations defining what this new housing system will entail. 

Coming Soon: Gestation Crates Part Two: Alternatives to Gestation Crates: What Are We Fighting For?

Zoe Snyder
San Francisco, CA Zoe is an attorney-turned-consultant, writer, and chef currently living in San Francisco, California. She is passionate about nutrition, health, the environment, animal welfare, feminism, and how it all intersects. Zoe became vegan seven years ago through a confluence of events, including: health issues; avid research; watching her two pups’ personalities develop; swimming with dolphins; and, at the time, living in the vegan smorgasbord of Los Angeles. Since then, she has trained as a Gourmet Raw Food Chef at Living Light Culinary Arts Institute and credits her chef training with her endless culinary creativity in both the raw and cooked realms.

Photo credit: Farm Sanctuary