It’s one of the most difficult questions of our age: is it possible to improve conditions for animals on industrial farms while still meeting humanity’s insatiable demand for low-cost meat? Sujata Gupta profiles the researchers and farmers trying new ideas on a very unusual pig farm.

Passing fields of soy, corn and towering bleach-white windmills fanning out across windy plains, I arrive early one morning somewhere between Chicago and Indianapolis at a place that promises “sow much fun”. 

The Pig Adventure, housing 3,000 sows and producing 80,000 piglets per year, sits alongside a 36,000-cow Dairy Adventure. This is “agro-Disneyland”, a place where rides have been replaced by adorable pink piglets and 72-cow robotic milking parlours.

I line up next to a retired couple and an extended family with three freckled kids from Chicago, and our tour starts inside a sleek lobby outfitted with touch-screens and billboards illuminating the intelligence of pigs – as smart as three-year-olds, better at learning tricks than dogs, outranked in brainpower only by chimps, dolphins and elephants. We pass through a mock shower where animated bubbles slide down the walls to clean us, and into a wide, carpeted corridor. Everything smells as pleasantly antiseptic as a dentist’s office. Arriving at a viewing area, we ogle some real pigs through thick, soundproof panes of glass.

Here, visitors can see for themselves how, even in today’s global, supermarket era, ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations’ – or factory farms, as they’re better known – can continue to operate on gargantuan scales while still paying heed to animal welfare. Places like The Pig Adventure exist because this clash of practical and moral needs is becoming a massive consumer sticking point.

The fact is, with a global population projected to reach nine billion by 2050, meat-eating is skyrocketing. To keep up with the demand, we need to produce considerably more meat than we do today – but we also want to reduce animal suffering. Conscientious carnivores may harbour romantic visions of returning to an earlier, more wholesome way of life, where animals live outdoors surrounded by rolling hills and lush woodlands. But such ideals are expensive and impossible to scale up, leaving today’s farmers asking how, or even if, we can both mass-produce animals and treat them right.

Is there any way to reconcile these demands? There are no easy answers, but that’s not stopping some researchers, farmers and veterinarians trying new ideas and technology to improve conditions of large-scale pig farming while also meeting humanity’s insatiable need for meat.

To understand how we got to this point, we first need to examine how centuries of breeding created pigs as we know them, and the way they are farmed. 

The birth of the modern pig is a love story of sorts, the tale of how a Western sow and an Eastern boar came to find one another.

Before moving to the farm, pigs roamed the forests, foraging several kilometres a day for food. Like today’s feral pigs, these animals were fierce and agile, unlikely candidates for domestication. But the animals had one great boon: they made excellent garbage disposal units, eating up scraps and refuse that might otherwise rot. That perhaps explains why, several thousand years ago, humans in China and Europe independently domesticated the pig.

In the early 1600s, European farmers began selecting for larger pigs – genetic analysis has revealed that, as a result of the breeding, the Western pig developed two to three extra vertebrae.

Then improved breeding came in the form of a fat, black pig from China. Nobody knows how that first Chinese pig wound up in Europe, but genetic evidence dates that momentous encounter at around 1700. Initially, these couplings vexed the Europeans, who warned farmers against breeding their pigs with the Chinese interloper. Soon, though, the Agricultural Revolution made growing plants and animals year-round paramount. European farmers, stuck to a seasonal fattening cycle, began to realise the Chinese pig’s potential.

True acceptance came soon thereafter when the offspring of these pairings were observed to fatten faster than the European hog alone and produce considerably more offspring. Soon enough, the modern pig, a European–Chinese cross, thundered onto the scene, ravenous for food and sex.

In the US, breeders in Philadelphia had also begun selectively breeding Chinese pigs by the late 1700s. Meanwhile, Midwesterners were facing a surplus of corn, and so began fattening pigs on their crops and shipping them instead. In 1816, the Ohio Valley Shaker Society mixed local pigs with Chinese pigs ordered from Philadelphia. Pretty quickly, this new hybrid pig, with all its desirable qualities, became America’s pork.

Farming of the modern pig on an industrial scale, however, only really began in the mid-20th Century. In the 1940s, a shrinking agrarian population, coupled with a newfound fear of hunger, meant the time was ripe for moving Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line – a mix of machines, tools and employees working seamlessly in sequence – over to the farm. After observing the Chicago meat-packing operations, Ford himself once called slaughterhouses “disassembly lines”.

Electric lights and climate control let farmers move pigs indoors, where they occupied less space and ate less food. Antibiotics kept diseases in check. But lots of pigs in small spaces invariably led to problems. Piglets’ tails were cut off to prevent tail-biting and the males were castrated to stop them from developing ‘boar taint’, chemical compounds that alter the flavour of meat (people describe the taste as onion-like, perspiration-like, urine-like, bitter, and faecal). Meanwhile, breeding females, still wired for a more solitary life in the wild, began fighting over territory and food. Less aggressive sows grew thin and sickly.

In the 1960s, a new practice emerged that would shape the future of pig farming: the introduction of the “gestation crate”. These two-foot by seven-foot enclosures house a pregnant sow individually, protecting her but restricting her movements to the extent that she cannot turn around. Back then, they were seen as a welfare advance. Sows received personalised care. Injuries dropped. And piglet counts increased. The pig factory had reached its apogee.

Today, however, attitudes have changed. Gestation crates have emerged as a touchstone animal welfare issue. “Animal advocacy groups have been very successful in reducing sow animal welfare to whether a sow can turn around,” says Thomas Parsons, a veterinary researcher who directs the Swine Teaching and Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

The European Union completed a ban of these crates in January 2013. New Zealand is poised to follow suit in 2015 and Australia in 2017. In the USA, where corporate pressure rather than legislation tends to drive changes in the food industry, scores of companies, including Smithfield Foods – the largest pork producer in the world – and McDonald’s, have pledged to eliminate gestation stalls from their supply chains.

For several years, Parsons has been talking to pig farmers around the USA about how to transition from gestation crates to a different kind of open pen. He and others at the University of Pennsylvania created the pen prototype over a decade ago, adapting European practices to meet the needs of North American farms.

So how does it work? I am seeing for myself today at Parsons’ lab.

Clad in borrowed blue overalls and rubber shoes, I wade into a sea of some 200 pregnant sows. One chews my shoe. Others brush up against me as they wander around the pen, threatening to knock me off balance with their 500-pound heft.

An electronic feeding station sits in the middle of each pen and when a sow saunters in, a door closes behind her to keep others out. A machine inside the station reads the 15-digit tag on the sow’s ear to see whether or not she has eaten for the day and, if not, how much food she should receive. Without this machine, the sows, who are very hierarchical, would fight over access to the communal trough, explains Parsons. Pigs who aren’t eating wander the grounds or congregate inside the large cubbies that line the pens like giant shoeboxes.

Last summer, Parsons helped install a similar system on a much grander scale at The Pig Adventure. Those pens, which house 85 to 200+ sows apiece, are viewable from a circular observation room high above the action and resemble rows of greenhouses filled with pigs instead of plants. A farm manager I spoke to referred to the pens fondly as “concrete pastures”. But there’s more to the pens than meets the eye, says Parsons. Those cubbies let sows of the same clique hang together and keep others out. The long pathways let sows escape the onslaught of a bully.

Parsons clearly isn’t keen on the phrase “concrete pasture” and says he avoids the term “factory farm”. “Words matter,” he tells me on several occasions. His caution stems from a position between two polarised communities: animal farmers, and animal advocacy groups concerned by conventional farming practices.

Parsons grew up on a pig farm in Massachusetts and his family descends from a long, long line of pig farmers. “The second best thing you can be as a farmer’s son is to be a veterinarian. The first best thing would be to come home and take over the farm.” His brother freed him from that duty, and after veterinary training Parsons went on to gain a doctorate in neuroscience. For a long time, he worked in the basic sciences, using animal models to better understand human hearing and deafness. But a fellowship in Germany and trips to farms around Europe kept the plight of pigs and pig farmers in Parsons’s orbit. Eventually, he decided that others could carry on the ear work but he was less sure that anybody would improve the living conditions of gestating sows in a way that was also financially viable for both the farmer and the consumer.

Even so, Parsons and colleagues’ pen design can affect productivity, says Jon Hoek, vice president of pig production at Belstra Milling, the farm behind The Pig Adventure (an umbrella company known as Fair Oaks runs the tourism arm of the Pig and Dairy Adventures, while farmers retain control of production).

“The transition has been difficult,” Hoek says. Before the switch, he explains, an average sow successfully birthed and nursed 31 piglets per year. Now, however, her success rate has dropped to 29 piglets, meaning each sow produces 308 less pounds of pork annually, or 1,232 fewer quarter-pound servings. (Pigs on the company’s five other farms continue to gestate in crates).

What’s more, shifting sows from individual to group housing comes with other challenges. In crated systems, sows have limited interactions and never get the chance to fight. But in a pen, scuffles are a part of life. I’d seen so myself at Parsons’s lab.

On the day I’d visited, 10 sows, marked by two orange stripes across their flanks, re-entered the pen after several weeks of birthing, nursing and getting pregnant again. They bounded across the slats separating the pen from the gestation crates, where they’d been barricaded for a week during the artificial insemination round. For several minutes, all was quiet. Then suddenly, two Orange Flanks, each now uncomfortably positioned near the bottom of the pecking order, began butting heads like rams in battle. Loud snorting ensued. Soon one sow retreated. The other, emboldened by her triumph, struck up another fight. Surprisingly, this alpha Orange Flank scored another win. She was moving on up.

Such fights make for tricky business. Reintroductions must occur before the embryo implants into the uterine wall – about two weeks after insemination – otherwise the sows can miscarry. With large systems like that at The Pig Adventure, it can be challenging to prevent the pigs, who are constantly moving throughout the system (Parsons calls it a “big chess game”), from fighting when their embryos are particularly vulnerable. Parsons says some farmers who have switched over to these pens keep sows in gestation crates for five or six weeks after insemination, instead of one, to thwart the problem altogether, but that comes with a potential welfare trade-off.

He suspects the fighting can provide some sows with stimulation, a way to express their natural urge for hierarchy, but at the possible risk of pain and injury. His team has also noted that sows in the pen typically enter the feeding station in the same order, with dominant sows getting first dibs. Once you get to a large enough group, the aggression seems to go down some because the hierarchy is less rigid. “It’s just too hard to remember who you don’t like,” he says.

Parsons acknowledges that production levels may initially fall as farmers learn the nuances of the new system, but they’ll ultimately rebound. According to Hoek, 94% of pigs carry their piglets to term at Belstra’s best farm, but at The Pig Adventure that rate has dropped to 88%. Hoek concedes that The Pig Adventure will eventually regain its high birth rate.

Perhaps there could there be another way to encourage pigs to live peacefully in open pens. What if, Parsons and others have begun to wonder, we could breed pigs to be more suited to communal housing? “The industry for 30 to 40 years has been selecting for animals to perform in some type of stall or crate,” says Parsons. “I can see where we might be inadvertently selecting for traits that would be successful in a stall but problematic in a pen.”

This has some precedent. Some 30 years ago, Bill Muir, a geneticist at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, started looking into animal welfare on chicken farms. Then as now, many chickens lived in battery cages, enclosures the size of a filing cabinet that could hold up to a dozen birds. The chickens, who like to peck everything, began pecking each other – occasionally to death. That led to the acutely painful practice of beak-trimming on day-old chicks. Muir suspected he could build a better battery-cage chicken, one that didn’t peck at all.

Muir started off with several 12-bird battery cages, each housing sister birds with intact beaks, and isolated calmer family lines, selectively breeding along those lines. The results were astounding. Annual mortality among birds with intact beaks had started at an astronomical 68%, but after just six generations it had dropped below 9%, the same level seen in single-bird cages.

Yet most conventional breeders still only look at an individual’s genetics and not at how that individual interacts with the larger group. With the push towards group housing for chickens and pigs growing stronger, Muir, along with Piter Bijma, a geneticist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has been creating statistical models that quantify the influence of a single animal on her groupmates. Recently, the Wageningen team tested their models on actual pigs. The researchers estimated a pig’s likelihood of aggression from the models, and then selectively bred them. Sure enough, they were able to predict the more aggressive members.

Researchers have the tools to breed for less aggressive families, says Bijma. “It’s not at all to the animal’s benefit to have [so many] characteristics of its wild ancestor.”

Farm animals inhabit human-designed homes and bodies that we have tweaked, and continue to tinker with, across millennia. We are, without exaggeration, the creators of their world, and they our greatest resource – and heaviest burden. If they suffer, does the fault lie in our failure to innovate? 

What began as an experiment to cross-breed Chinese and European pigs in the 1700s has now reached a scale so large that it demands our attention, whether you agree with industrial farming or not.

In the maternity ward of The Pig Adventure, I watch thousands of piglets nap under heat lamps or suckle fervently at their mamas’ teats. As I’m leaving, one of the workers comes up to the glass carrying a newborn piglet that has been scrubbed clean. The family from Chicago crowds in for a closer look. What should we name it, the worker asks through a microphone. The youngest freckled Chicagoan suggests “Liam” and the matter is settled. The worker returns the little piglet to his mother and we all disperse. On my way out, I peer into the glass one last time, but Liam has been lost in the throng.

This is an edited version of an article originally published by Mosaic, and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence. For more about the military funding issues raised by this technology, visit Mosaic’s website here.

See more images of The Pig Adventure.

If you would like to comment on this, or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook or Google+ page, or message us on Twitter.