It’s black. It’s hairy. Its slow. It’s an outcast. And if we don’t kill and eat it, it might disappear forever.
It’s Georgia’s ancient Kakhuri ghori, or Kakhetian pig. And it’s our guide through the oxymoronic future, present, and history of meat eating.
After more than 10,000 years together, a huge range of domestic animal breeds grew up in tandem with human agriculture. These breeds developed diverse genetic characteristics specific to various areas, climates, environments, cultures, tastes, and techniques. However, in the name of modernisation, globalisation and economic efficiency, livestock farming across the planet has become more and more concentrated on a smaller number of fast-growing, high yielding animal breeds. Pigs are prime examples, with a small handful of breeds — British Large White, American Yorkshire, Duroc, and Polish Landrace — dominating the vast majority of commercial pig farms across the world. At the current rate, because of this ongoing selection for the most productive livestock breeds, we are predicted to lose about ⅓ of all indigenous domestic animal breeds around the world in the next 20 years.
It’s no secret that industrial livestock farming isn’t exactly great for the environment, either, accounting for nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions and an even bigger percentage of total freshwater resources. Big farms of singular livestock breeds are susceptible to pest invasions and disease outbreaks, so the land is laden with chemical pesticides and the animals are pumped with antibiotics (which end up in our food chain). It’s not a pretty picture.
But perhaps, rather than tearing it all down and trying to start again, we can change the meat industry from within. By focusing on rediscovering and reviving localised livestock breeds. It could work out better for everyone, including the profit-driven big meat producers.
Animal breeds adapted to particular areas need fewer inputs to survive in those places (as opposed to, say, using an entire lake to irrigate a desert to grow grass for cattle). Their natural resistance to local pests, predators and diseases, plus their contributions to a healthy, balanced, more sustainable local ecosystem (like manure nourishing the soil for plants) would go a long way towards eliminating the need for chemical pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers, cutting out at least some costs along the way.
Let’s go back to our guide: Kakhuri ghori is said to be one of Europe’s oldest breeds of domestic pig — 3,500-year-old Hittite texts from modern-day Syria refer to their Caucasian Kashka neighbours as “pig-raising nomads”. However, since the Soviet Union’s relentless drive towards massive industrialisation from the 1930s, the scrawny, slow-growing native Kakheti pig was marginalised in favour of fat, fast-maturing, microwave popcorn-like commercial hogs from abroad. Dozens of ancient animal breeds from other former Soviet Union countries have already been lost forever through a similar process.
Unlike common pen-bound pigs, who are fed grains, Kakhetian pigs have historically been grazed (like sheep or cows) across Kakheti’s lush river plains, rolling golden hills and mountainous woodlands. Those left today still feed themselves by scavenging woods, forests and paddocks, requiring very little husbandry and human attention. They are leaner and more sturdy than conventional hogs, yet their meat is famously tender and has great depth of richness.
However, following a deadly outbreak of African swine fever in 2007, the Georgian government — desperate to have their animal products recognised as safe for export to the EU — ordered the systematic killing of millions of domestic pigs and boar, ultimately wiping out 70-80% of all hogs in the country. This included targeting the few remaining Kakhuri ghori populations, since they are harder to contain and monitor than common pigs and are therefore seen as greater risks for spreading the virus. So the entire breed was brought to the brink of extinction.
Luckily, however, a very small number of pigs survived and Elkana, a group founded in the turbulent 1990s with the mission of protecting Georgia’s unique biodiversity and rich agricultural heritage, is dedicated to returning Kakhuri pork to prominence. Kakhuri ghori piglets — which by the way are incredibly cute, with black and white zebra stripes — bred at Elkana’s conservation farm in Zemo Khodasheni were offered to local farmers, for free, to be raised. After several years of successful breeding there grew a steady, healthy population of pigs carrying the ancient Kakhuri ghori genes.
However, if nobody eats the meat, then the farmers are unable to sell it. If the farmers are unable to sell it, then they have no interest in raising the animals. So they return to raising the commercial breeds.
Elkana, along with chefs from some of Tbilisi’s top restaurants, the Agricultural Research Center, and other groups, are trying to promote the taste, texture and nutritional advantages of Kakheti pig in order to spark demand and, in doing so, stop the breed from disappearing. They organise public tastings and teaching sessions, and they research experimental new products — including a Spanish-style Kakhuri ghori Jamon iberico, which interestingly was the exact route that made the native Hungarian mangalitsa pig famous and helped saved it from extinction.
The problem they run into, as in other countries, is that many people’s taste receptors, cooking skills, and purchasing habits have been shaped by generations of cheap, flavourless meat that is little more than a protein-carrying device which needs sauces, spices, and accompaniments to be enjoyed. Traditional breeds, like the Kakhuri ghori, seldom need enhancement. They are not fed specks of soy or grain in feedstock pens. They eat whatever gives them nutrients they need for a healthy life, rather than what they need just to get fat fast. Those nutrients are passed on through the food chain to us.
If the meat we eat is this much richer – in taste and in nutrition – then we have much less need to eat as much of it as we do now. We can start to eat it in a different way. Meat so flavourful could carry a meal simply as a side dish, or base for a sauce, instead of being the main event (as Dan Barber’s Third Plate describes). We could get vital proteins, omega-3, B vitamins and other essential nutrients without having to wash down half a kilogram of bland hormone-fed, sauce-smothered steak with vitamin dietary supplements (which are an added expense not part of everybody’s daily budget).
Changing the way we eat meat is already vital for survival considering that, despite broad awareness of the meat industry’s evils and the rise of trendy meat-free diets, all signs and statistics point towards the global demand for meat rising rather than falling every year — and we’re not only talking about China’s booming middle class, the quick and easy-to-throw-out-there explanation, either. Just think of how many hip contemporary burger joints you’ve seen, and how popular they often are…
As crazy as it sounds, the sustainable future we hope for might actually rely on us eating more meat. Not more amounts of meat, but more types of meat. More diverse breeds of animals. Because if we don’t, then our range of options will only continue to get narrower and narrower, and poorer and poorer in health and quality. It won’t be easy — requiring both top-down and bottom-up change — but if Kakhuri ghori is anything to go by, it should be a tasty ride.