ResearchArticles de fond

Circulatory [food] systems: Icelandic bloodmaring, reproductive technologies, and the porosity of female agricultural bodies

  • Anne Elyse Lally

Corps de l’article


Pulling myself up into the saddle on one of the training horses relegated to my care at Miðkot, a family farm located outside of Hvolsvöllur in South Iceland, I was startled by a man walking on the hay strewn across the concrete of the main barn. “I’m here for your blood,” he told me in the typical Icelandic drawl, backlit in the afternoon sun framed by the double doors. I was concerned by this comment, jarred into reality after a morning spent in the exclusive company of animals. It took me a moment to realize that he was there to retrieve the roughly 40 five-litre jugs of horse blood housed in a trailer parked in front of the decaying garage down the hill from the barn.

Each of these five-litre jugs of blood composed the raw material distilled into equine chorionic gonadotropin (eCG) — a hormone present in the blood of pregnant mares used to induce early fertility and stimulate other reproductive function in a variety of livestock. A common biotechnology in large-scale agricultural operations throughout North America and Europe, eCG is produced in Iceland by Ísteka,[1] a private company based in Reykjavík that contracts farmers to keep (and process) bloodmares. Bloodmaring is a colloquial Icelandic term for the on-the-ground processes by which blood is harvested from mares impregnated for this purpose. The value of these female horses’ reproductive power is twofold: they produce offspring to be sold into the horse meat industry while simultaneously generating eCG-rich blood during their pregnancy. This article seeks to expose the obscured links of the bloodmaring supply chain from rural Iceland to agri-business in North America and beyond, exposing the interconnections of human and nonhuman animal bodies inherent to livestock production and reinforced through the processes of consuming meat.

I move beyond the contested essentialism of ecofeminist concepts of the body and nature[2] into the fields of feminist new materialism, posthumanism, and feminist science and technology studies to explore how trans-species bodies are porous, co-constitutive, and perpetually interacting within the agricultural supply chain through which mares’ blood circulates. As described by Diane Coole and Samantha Frost, new materialism means “returning to the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and the place of embodied humans within a material world; it means taking heed of developments in the natural sciences as well as attending to transformations in the ways we currently produce, reproduce, and consume our material environment.”[3] Rebekah Sheldon characterizes feminist new materialism as theorizing “the concept of matter as a site in which to build a materialist account of complex causality within open systems — one that adheres neither at the level of a closed totality nor from the perspective of the atomized individual but rather as a trans-individual assemblage whose motions are greater than the sum of its parts.”[4] Within these theoretical frames, mares’ blood exists as both a starting point for on-the-ground inquiry and a speculative tool for understanding the intercorporeal flows of materiality pulsating through international systems. Jane Bennett’s concept of “vital materiality”[5] is pertinent to understanding these open systems and the bodies within them, as it “captures an ‘alien’ quality of our own flesh, and in doing so reminds humans of the very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and nonhuman.”[6] Such kinships create beings inadvertently implicated in the processes of Karen Barad’s “technological intimacies”[7] of contact and “intra-action” — in short, “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies”[8] — eked out by industrialized food production.

These theoretical frames are integrated under the interdisciplinary umbrella of multispecies studies.[9] Thom Van Dooren describes how the field is composed of myriad approaches “united by a common interest in better understanding what is at stake — ethically, politically, epistemologically – for different forms of life caught up in diverse relationships of knowing and living together.”[10] In approaching the Icelandic bloodmaring industry through this multispecies, feminist materialist lens, bodily borders are rendered porous through injections and digestions. Physical borders are dissolved by the interpenetrations of international markets that function to obscure nonhuman animals and their labour — as bleeding “employees” — as well as the components of their commoditized bodies injected into other commoditized bodies. In concluding, I attempt to answer the question of what is to be done once we expose these inter-corporeal relations binding the human, nonhuman, and matter through time and space — and how feminist ethics of care are central to this. This question begets larger inquiries integral to contemporary food studies, as the exploded networks of agricultural production continue to entwine human and nonhuman actors in novel, often surprising, orientations. In pulling apart the components of these intra-actions, food studies can begin to address the ethical implications of biotechnologies embedded in the foods we consume.

My ethnographic data is compiled from participant observation conducted at multiple farms throughout North and South Iceland over 13 cumulative months of dissertational fieldwork from 2013 to 2015.[11] My fieldwork focused on the processes by which larger economic and social currents accrue in the bodies of livestock via the repetitions of everyday practice; as such, I participated in all aspects of agricultural production on the farms I lived at, including milking the cows twice a day, training young horses, constructing pastures, herding cows and sheep on foot and horseback, aiding in myriad livestock inseminations and subsequent births, collecting bloodmare samples, and shovelling a lot of manure.[12] My exposure to the equine industry in Iceland occurred most intensely during six months spent at and around Miðkot, Ólafur Þórisson’s horse farm located outside of Hvolsvöllur in the south of the country, from May 2014 to November 2014. Due to proximity, I also frequented a farm with a large herd of bloodmares run by Óli’s sister, Bóel Þórisdóttir, at Móeiðarhvoll, located between Hella and Hvolsvöllur. These field experiences were contextualized by a series of formal interviews with farmers, veterinarians, academics, agricultural professionals, and government officials in the nearby towns of Hella and Selfoss, as well as the capital of Reykjavík and the northern region surrounding Akureyri.

Bloodmaring in Iceland as Compliment and Conflict

The southern and eastern regions of the nation house the major Icelandic producers of raw materials for eCG.[13] One of the largest herds of bloodmares in the region was located down the road from Miðkot at the farm Kross. I would often see Björgvin Þórisson, one of multiple vets working as subcontractors for Ísteka, extracting blood one by one from approximately 165 mares on open fields as I drove by. This exposition of practice illustrated how ambivalent most farmers were about the process. Most small to medium family farms, the predominant model in the country, cannot derive a substantial salary from one type of agricultural product while adhering to typical, small-scale agrarian practices. Instead, they draw income from a variety of goods (milk, beef, horse meat, lamb, hay) and services (horse training, labor, and most recently farm-based tourism). Bloodmaring functions as another source of income within this patchwork of practices employed by modern farmers in Iceland, particularly after the economic collapse in 2008.

Sigurborg Daðadóttir, the Chief Veterinary Officer at the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, described the development of bloodmaring in Iceland as an economic compliment to more traditional modes of production in an interview with the author in 2015.[14] Ísteka was established about 25 years ago to produce eCG for export as the equine population (roughly 80,000 mares) is composed of a relatively disease-free stock compared to North American herds. “They started in the southeast of Iceland... there is a tradition to produce a lot of foals for slaughter and not riding horses, especially in the earlier days. So it started there, for extra money for those farmers,” explained Sigurborg at her office in Selfoss, South Iceland. The bloodmaring model complemented the extant horse meat industry that remains popular in Iceland today, incorporating biotechnology into a traditional form of agricultural practice. The ever-increasing demand for eCG in the international meat market inspired increased production in Iceland, embedding the practice in other production models. Contemporarily, most farmers who keep bloodmares in the south do so as a supplement to medium-sized dairy operations — the mares offer significant returns on a minimal investment limited only by the grazing capacity of their fields.

Sigriður Björnsdóttir, a state veterinarian at the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority working in the equine studies department at Hólar University College, adamantly excluded bloodmaring from the sphere of Icelandic agriculture in a 2014 interview with the author.[15] She clarified that bloodmaring falls under the category of animal experimentation and therefore is governed by animal welfare laws established by the European Union. As such, she does not perceive the industry as a compliment to what is typically considered traditional Icelandic agriculture: dairy farming, sheep farming, and horse breeding. The origins of the eCG industry are often traced to the 1970s, when farmers breeding horses for meat in the east were approached by biopharmeceutical firms to compliment their extant business model with blood-drawing. Farmers in the South tell an undocumented story of how the first company collecting mare blood in Iceland went bankrupt in the early 2000s, but in about 2005 Ísteka revitalized the industry. Sources of eCG are difficult to trace in food systems due to the obscuring qualities of the international supply chain and a lack of specific laws regarding its production, distillation, and subsequent sale to pharmaceutical companies. Ísteka perpetually denied my interview and information requests, and the networks of international partners of the company are unpublished. For all of the literal visibility of the industry on the ground in the Icelandic countryside, there is a complete lack of transparency beyond the collection of blood. How does eCG travel in and through economic and food systems, and who benefits?

Transatlantic Biotechnologies — Linking Icelandic and North American Agricultural Bodies

Reproductive technologies in agriculture entered a new sphere of technologization in the 1890s to 1910s in the United States and Great Britain.[16] Research on the efficacy of pregnant mare’s serum gonadotropin (PMSG) for reproductive stimulation in livestock began in 1930 due to its applicability to other species — including cows, pigs, sheep, and other hoofed ungulates – and its relative chemical stability. Biotechnological developments continued through the 1970s, and the isolation of the source of the serum on a cellular level spurred a change in nomenclature to equine chorionic gonadotropin, or eCG.[17] Bloodmaring functions within a larger network of technologies of reproduction that “often interrelate and can be viewed as co-constitutive.”[18] These technologies range from basic artificial insemination to more complicated biological interventions like superovulation, wherein eCG compounds are used to induce the release of multiple eggs in a donor cow that are then fertilized to produce viable embryos implanted in less viable recipient cows. In industrialized systems in North America and Europe, eCG exists as a biological tool in the standardization of agribusiness, allowing for the intensification of livestock’s generative capabilities en masse. The serum is currently used in conjunction with progesterone to synchronize herd ovulation, improve artificial insemination rates, and improve embryo transfer outcomes in meat cattle, dairy cows, and to lesser extents in goats and sheep.[19] Outside of the agriculutral world, eCG is used to induce ovulation in captive non-domestic animals housed at zoos and wildlife preserves, including bottlenose dolphins.[20]

Although research and development on the utilization of eCG applied to the dairy, beef, and lamb sectors is currently occurring in Canada,[21] the predominant application of eCG in North American production systems remains within the American and Canadian pork industries. Oestrus, or the mammalian period of fertility, is systematically induced in, and therefore standardized across, young sows, using a combination of eCG and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). Now an industry standard, eCG/hCG treatment results in greater lifetime production numbers per porcine individual and synchronizes insemination schedules, providing near-absolute control over the species’ notoriously variable first instance of reproductive heat.[22] In Canada, Merck Animal Health distributes eCG as a component of the injection P.G. 600 for this use.[23] The standardization of herd reproduction is increasingly relevant to Canadian farmers as the number of pigs steadily increases in conjunction with a downward trend in overall number of pig farms since 2006.[24] The average number of pigs per farm has compounded annually, from 345 in 1991 to 1,901 in 2017 — mirroring the overall national trend towards agricultural intensification and automation.[25] The action of biopharmaceutical herd standardization and the maximization of reproductive outcomes within North American pig farming industries bind the corporealities of Icelandic horses to the transatlantic bodies of pigs within an increasingly intensified agricultural system.

Bloodmaring on the Ground

At Miðkot, the mares were put out on six separate fields to be impregnated by six stallions at the end of May and remained there until July, when the bloodmares were integrated into one large herd. The mares typically displayed eCG in the late summer; a small blood sample taken from each mare was sent to Ísteka by mail to be tested for the presence of the serum. Not quantifiable in specific timelines, the first appearance of eCG occurs as the outer fetal membrane (chorion) develops in the mucous membrane lining the uterus, or endometrium, at the earliest stages of impregnation.[26] Mares that displayed the serum were transitioned to bloodletting, and samples continued to be taken until all mares displayed the serum or were revealed to not be pregnant.[27]

Ólafur Þórisson, his rotating cast of familial helpers, and I collected the bloodmares and their foals from their grazing field once a week in the fall of 2014, herding them into a small pen attached to a repurposed sheep barn. He identified specific mares according to their physical characteristics, unique haircuts, or numerical brands — some of these horses had names derived from their past lives as training prospects, while others’ names were eroded by time or never given in the first place due to their physical characteristics rendering them unfit for training. We would encourage a small group of snorting mares into the barn, where two stalls composed of a bricolage of found objects were located at the end of two chutes; a splintered 2x4 closed behind the haunches of the mares kept them immobile, along with a rope cinched around their stomachs to create the sensation of restraint. A halter attached to a long lead-rope was then slipped over the head, to varying degrees of success, and the lead line tightened around an upper bar to hold their heads up, exposing their necks.

Björgvin Þórisson, the veterinarian contracted to collect blood in the region, arrived once the mares had been herded into the barn and sorted into the chutes. He and his occasional canine companion, a poodle that relished in licking up any blood spilled during collection, arrived shortly after 7:00am on Mondays. After small talk centered around current events, like the contemporaneous eruption of the volcano Bárðarbunga to the east, he would begin preparing the restrained mares’ necks by shaving their thick coats, a sign of the impending winter, at the upper jugular vein. He applied a topical anaesthetic, and after a few seconds he administered a lidocaine injection via syringe to further numb the area. Björgvin then inserted a high-volume needle attached to plastic tubing that I would hold into a plastic jug, often tagged with a crude stencil of a horse and a foal, with a small amount of liquid anticoagulant pooled in the bottom. The blood pumped rhythmically into the jug until it reached the five litre mark. At that point Björgvin quickly removed the needle from the horse’s neck, applying temporary pressure as needed to quell the bleeding. We labelled each jug according to the mares’ ID numbers and filled the trailer to be collected by a separate Ísteka representative later in the week.

The front of the stall was a repurposed gate, which the mares would lean up against until their blood draw was complete. We would then undo the halter and open the latch, allowing adequate clearance for the gate to swing open as the mares rushed outside to a large field. The mares reacted according to their varying degrees of human exposure prior to being integrated into the bloodmaring herd; those that were handled in the past were more passive, while others that were deemed bloodmares at birth were aggressive. Some mares were notorious for their resistance, occasionally breaking the stalls while trying to project themselves over the gate. Harpa, a grey mare who would often emerge from the chute blood-spattered, was infamous for her ability to flip herself over in the small stall. Björgvin likened her to the eruption of the volcano Bárðarbunga as we pulled and pushed her weight, guiding her to stand upright after much consternation. She remained in the rotation in spite of her protestations, as she yielded a high concentration of eCG over the maximum number of weeks.

We took blood once a week for a period of eight weeks, or until Ísteka no longer detected the serum at the laboratory. Ísteka incentivized the growing of herds through an increased price per litre of blood after the overall output exceeded a designated amount, and as such there was always a push to add mares. However, the feasibility of this was contingent on arable lands, and was a source of mild discontent for the farmers keeping bloodmares. This discontent was typically alleviated by the pay-out in the fall. In 2014, one mare could generate up to the equivalent of 650 Canadian dollars in a season, dependent on the purity and concentration of the derived serum. The season officially closed in October, when the majority of the byproduct foals were sent to slaughter.

Digesting Invisible Corporealities in the Supply Chain

In consuming pork mass-produced in North America, an eater unknowingly dines on a variety of material agents, including but not limited to eCG.[28] According to Bennett, metabolizing “reveals the swarm of activity subsisting below and within formed bodies and recalcitrant things, a vitality obscured by our conceptual habit of dividing the world into inorganic matter and organic life.”[29] Consuming the invisible matter of eCG indicates the “congealments of a materiality that is a process of becoming”[30] both literally, in terms of biological process, and in connecting the “nested set of biomes”[31] of interspecies relations. The processes of digestion, and the microbiomes within the human digestive tract now also implicated in this chain of intercorporealities,[32] forge intimate ties between eater and eaten through the physical reconstitution of biological matter within bodies. The vitality of consumed bodies emanates beyond their porous borders; Nancy Tuana’s notion of “viscous porosity”[33] insists “the boundaries between our flesh and the flesh of the world we are of and in is porous.”[34] Eva Hayward describes metabolizing as a “transmedium mediation” through which corporeal boundaries are reduced and “animate forces mov[e] across bodies and objects”[35] and accrue the textural residues of such interactions. Eating dissolves the boundaries between one’s body, the bodies of those eaten, and the swarms of microscopic bodies churning within — breaking down the materiality of flesh and blood to be reconstituted within a self composed of many selves. The blood of a mare in Iceland is, unknowingly to the eater, integrated into their body along with the practices, people, and nonhuman actors involved in its extraction and dissemination. In her attempt to account for the embodied experience of consumption often overlooked by traditional agro-food studies,[36] Emma Roe describes the meaning of consuming as twofold: “to trace food through a network is in fact to trace energies through a metabolic network, and on the other hand it is to trace meaning-making enacted through how foodstuff is handled.”[37] Human and nonhuman bodies alike wear the accumulations of material interactions, condensed through ingestions and absorptions of the nutritional elements of food as well as chemicals and toxicities in our environment.[38]

Tarsh Bates describes how an art project wherein she baked bread leavened with Candida (C. albicans — the yeast most commonly associated with yeast infections) elicited disgust in her audience not just for that bread, but conventionally-leavened bread also offered alongside the Candida loaf. In rejecting the conventional bread, the audience indicated “an immediate awareness of all living organisms within all bread.”[39] Bates characterizes this as a failure of “our suspension of disbelief that we ingest fungi, bacteria, molds, etc.…”[40] This suspension of disbelief serves to obscure not just the presence of microorganisms or bodily residues (such as blood) present in food, but the webs of interaction that extend beyond the food products before us. The invisibility of fungal agents related to Candida, although a known ingredient in leavened breads, indicates how willing consumers are to forget, or supress, the intercorporeal nature of consumption. This fact begs the question: how many other corporealities are we overlooking when we sit down at the dinner table? Whereas pigs (and pork) are the visible consumer product of these schemes, disbelief obscures other bodies indicated in production. As described by Nan Enstad, the “inequities of global capitalism also have become part of our bodies.”[41] Bloodmares remain invisible to the consumer, akin to the “super-exploited”[42] international (often female) labourers in Anna Tsing’s ethnography of Walmart capitalism. These equine commodities differ from human actors, however, as they do not contribute pure labour to the model, but their physicality as a resource. “When is an employee not a worker?”[43] is an important sentiment within the multifaceted, differential grades of the supply chain, particularly in terms of nonhuman actors.

Rosi Braidotti describes how “contemporary capitalism involves investments in ‘life’ as an informational system”[44] — the value of gene sequences and biotechnological informatics lie in their communicative capacity. This is particularly evident when such informational systems are applied across nonhuman species. eCG’s ability to transform bodies through its hormonal effects underscores Braidotti’s “fact that sexuality carries transversal, structural, and vital connotations.”[45] New forms of subjugation emerge when “the markers for the organization and distribution of differences are now located in microinstances of vital materiality”[46] found in sex hormones unleashed on the free market. A “postanthropocentric feminist approach makes it clear that bodily matter in human, as in other species, is always already sexed and hence sexually differentiated along the axes of multiplicity and heterogeneity.”[47] The exploitation of bodies remain the same while motivations, rationales, and market desires shift around livestock ensnared in agriculutural systems intensified by the commodification of their sexual bioinformatics.

Looking Forward: Feminist Care in the Multispecies Supply Chain

Exposing the vital materiality inherent to food systems reaching across oceans and corporealities poses more questions than provides answers by, as Donna Haraway describes, “link[ing] actual beings to actual response-abilities.”[48] Consumers and theorists alike grapple with the ethical implications of inequalities borne from the increasingly advanced and equally convoluted biotechnological interventions of agri-business. Haraway sees our implications as a call to action, albeit a vague one — “in eating we are most inside the differential relationalities that make us who and what we are and that materialize what we must do if response and regard are to have any meaning personally and politically.”[49] Mares and foals in South Iceland appear, in some residues, on the average Canadian dinner plate, along with the intimacies of their everyday lives (and deaths). Delineating the biosocial parameters of human and nonhuman life is necessary to unpacking the intricacies of existence within a multispecies sphere.

In spite of larger socioeconomic inequalities overarching agricultural systems, processes of care endure in the texture of everyday practices on the ground. The ethical questions surrounding the practice of bloodmaring were common conversation at Miðkot. Sarah Nielsen, Óli’s partner, structured her views as a provocation: Would you want to be a bloodmare? Allowed to live unfettered by human intervention for much of the year, the labour of bloodmares was confined to a period of a few months. The mares were free from the daily repetitions of training, grooming, and agricultural work, and allowed ample pastureland to graze and engage in equine social behaviours. In short, they were cared for. Was it morally wrong for them to bear a foal a year, albeit via natural processes of insemination and birth? Did their lethargy on the field after blood draws translate to abuse? Was their fear in the chute, although temporary, psychologically damaging? It is difficult to weigh the subjective value of these aspects of nonhuman reality. Perhaps the larger question here is not about the individual lives of bloodmares, but the larger food production system sustaining the industry. An awareness of the intercorporeal nature of not just eating, but of the interspecies “relations of use”[50] we unknowingly engage in, is the first step in establishing concrete response-abilities to nonhuman actors in the supply chain.

Maria Puig de la Bellacasa describes how “for interdependent beings in more than human entanglements, there has to be some form of care going on somewhere in the substrate of their world for living to be possible.”[51] The role of care is vital within domestication processes, particularly as exposed through mundane practices driven by larger socioeconomic demands that may contradict our own ideologies. Repetitions of daily life accrue in the physicalities of domesticates, forming connections through time and space that transform as technologies more readily interpenetrate human and other bodies. In this sense, “the ethical of biopolitics in technoscience is not about stable norms of morality managed among humans; it includes a range of elements, societal forces, and practices and doings of agencies constantly reconfigured in function of material conditions in specific situations.”[52] Van Dooren describes an ethics borne from multispecies studies: “this is about the difference between an ‘applied ethics’ that is formalized and prepackaged in the armchair for later use, and a genuinely ‘emergent ethics’ that grapples with the specificity and complexity of lived worlds.”[53] The task of contemporary food studies is to expose who (human, nonhuman, etc.) is bound to the supply chain of agricultural production, along with the ethical quagmire we often unknowingly implicate ourselves in via consumption. An emergent ethics bound to care may be a starting point for beginning to rectify the obligations we inherit from our digestions.

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