Friday, November 12, 2010

Mangalitsa pigs

I am linking to an article about a rare pig breed that's apparently becoming a culinary craze in the US right now. Also some photos of the breed, which is called Mangalitsa.

According to the article, this breed is a lard breed first developed in 19th-century Hungary. Until recently, namely before the global boom in cheap oilseeds like rape, soy, coconut, palm, and sunflower, lard was a major cooking ingredient. Fried stuff was fried in lard, not vegetable oil. Consequently, pig breeds that produced a lot of lard were prized. The transition to vegetable oils and lean meats meant that these breeds were no longer so useful, and many farmers replaced them with faster-growing, low-lard pigs.

Now connoisseurs of high-end cured meats are heaping praise on the Mangalitsa and other traditional lard breeds because they make great hams and prosciuttos.

Something I find interesting about this trend is the interplay between rare breeds and increased production. If a rare breed becomes successful and widespread enough, it becomes a new homogenous set of genetics that we should try to diversify. In the case of the Mangalitsa pig, it would seem that now farmers and eaters desiring a more old-style, fatty hog will make Mangalitsas widespread throughout the US. Perhaps it will become the go-to heritage breed, as the article indicates it has in Europe. This is a good thing, because it will mean not only that a rare breed will have been saved from extinction, but that it will survive not as some museum relic or biological curiosity, but rather as a vital, vibrant piece of the food system. It's good to whittle away at the predominance of the industrial Large White hog breed in the US. But if within sustainable farms and food systems the Mangalitsa in turn becomes the predominant breed, that is problematic too. Having two breeds comprising the US hog population is better than having just one, but the best thing is to have a widespread diversity.

It reminds me a bit of what has happened with indigenous crops in the Andes. Right now I'm working on a project to recuperate indigenous crops in our part of Colombia, which was inhabited by the Muisca people. Such crops include achira (Canna indica), cubios (Tropaeolum tuberosum), fig-leaf squash (Cucurbita ficifolia), and other fascinating species. But in my research I'm finding that many people in Colombia working with these or other indigenous species are looking to Peru and Bolivia to recuperate our native plants. It's understandable, because Peru and Bolivia have a diversity of Andean crops. But if we replace our Colombian heritage crops with Peruvian heritage crops, we're losing something, not gaining. Granted, it's better to promote indigenous crop species from Peru than to replace all indigenous crops with European wheat, onions, and carrots. But the best thing is for each place to maintain its own native genetics, not a standardized pan-Andean version of things. Peru has hundreds if not thousands of native potato varieties, for instance, many more than we have in Colombia. But our Colombian varieties aren't found in Peru, and are specially adapted to our climate. It would be a shame to focus only on Peruvian potatoes, even if they are more numerous or interesting, because then we'd lose our own unique varieties.

Anyway, returning to the Mangalitsa pig, I hope that its discovery and expansion in the US will not be a replacement for other heritage breeds, but rather that it will lead to an awakening of the genetic diversity we have in the US and Europe. Then the Mangalitsas would truly be a success story--saved from extinction, serving as a boon to US farmers and eaters, and inspiring the investigation and preservation of other little-known heritage breeds.

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