The Pig Industry Crisis


Despite £30 billion being poured into European agriculture every year, the industry is in crisis - not least pig farming. Farming accounts for less than 2% of the EU's output (GDP) and yet it attracts this incredible subsidy. Without it, red meat would be so expensive that consumption would collapse; even with it, the industry is staggering. This monumental sum is topped up even further by our Government with special payments to 'needy' cases.

In September 1998 the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) also joined in and gave an additional £3million to the battered pig industry to help it market its products and stave off collapse. By February 1999, Farming News announced that despite this, the market for pig meat had again collapsed to an all time low. According to the MLC, losses for the nine months to January 1999 topped £150 million.

Why the crisis?

Farmers are not short of reasons. They blame a strong pound, which cuts the cost of imports and encourages retailers to buy foreign. Some say there's an oversupply of pig meat, which is driving down prices. Others claim UK farmers face increased costs for getting rid of sow stalls, because of the banning of bonemeal in pig feed and for joining quality assurance schemes.

Supermarket chains, however, deny they're buying more from abroad. Eg Tesco is claiming that all their fresh pork is British as is 60 per cent of their own brand bacon. Marks & Spencer say they sell only UK fresh pork and sausages and refuse to buy any meat from animals kept in stalls and tethers, wherever it comes from.

The whining of UK farmers has got up the nose of Europe and its producers are hitting back. The Danish Bacon & Meat Council claims it has also been a victim of low prices and faces costs not incurred by UK producers. They cite £8 million a year to control salmonella, increased costs following a ban on antibiotic growth promoters in `finishing' pigs and the cost of dealing with slurry. (17)

The constant cry of UK pig farmers is, of course, that they have the `best welfare standards in the world' and this is costing them dear. They're now attempting to save their bacon by launching consumer campaigns with the message that pigs are in paradise on Britain's factory farms.

In 2000, the Meat & Livestock Commission and the Government jointly funded a £4.6 million ad campaign to promote British pig meat. Almost every daily newspaper in the country carried the ads, urging consumers to buy British pork with the slogan ‘Look after the farmers who look after their pigs’.

Three out of four of the ads were judged misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), following a complaint by Viva!.

Viva! stated that both pictures and copy presented a misleading picture of pig production in Britain’s pig farms. The ASA upheld our complaint saying: “... the three challenged advertisements misleadingly implied that pigs reared under the scheme led a more free life than they did”. The MLC was asked to withdraw them and to take greater care not to mislead in future.

The ASA found that consumers reading the ads would be unaware that most pigs were not kept outdoors, that most pigs are intensively farmed and that, despite the ads’ claims of good living conditions, they could consider the size of pig stalls to be ‘tiny’.

It is particularly distasteful that the government used taxpayer’s money to fund ads that deliberately set out to deceive the public.

It is almost impossible to understand how livestock farming (not market gardening, however) has managed to secure such preferential treatment when it is so damaging - to health, the environment and animals. Whole industries have been devastated in the name of axing subsidies, particularly mining, steel and ship building - but not livestock farming and the intensively grown fodder.

We all should be aware that this industry has powerful and influential supporters who will fight to the bitter end to preserve their right to untold amounts of public money. Even at the mention of reform, French farmers descend on Paris and cause havoc.

Even victories have to be treated with caution. The announcement that 7 antibiotics have been withdrawn from farm use has a double edge. It may mean that remaining antibiotics will be used more liberally. Viva! argues that instead we must alter the conditions so that this appalling chemical cocktail is no longer required.

The crisis facing animal farming is not short term but a sign of increasing problems. Viva!’s answer is to end intensive farming and to encourage the public to stop eating animals. And what's the industry’s answer? Paul Blanchard, manager of the Meat and Livestock Commission's Stotfold Pig Development Unit has no doubt. The pig industry must:

"optimise genetic potential from our stock at the lowest cost of production possible". He continues:

"The UK industry is, on average, achieving only two thirds of the genetic potential of pigs. Exploiting more of this potential is a challenge we must meet to survive in business."

In other words the industry wants to continue down the road of industrialisation; manipulating animals to make them grow larger, with low fat, in the shortest possible time.

Genetic engineering - the industry’s answer

Pig Farming magazine states the health of the future industry lies in ‘welfare, marketing, the genetic revolution and the need to lower costs and increase efficiency.’

In Pig Farming, April 1999, John Webb, geneticist at Cotswold Pig Development Company is sure that genetic engineering will shape the future of the pig industry. He states that the ‘genetic revolution’ has brought frozen embryos, allowing scientists to move genes around without risk, cloning, sex determination, in-vitro meiosis, selecting and cloning embryos.

He says: “Technology also provides the key to insert genes that would help improve pig meat quality, cause faster growth and ensure healthier pigs”. He states that using a Meishan sow, scientists could add a growth development factor to increase litter size, a gene to provide a better carcase, a gene to determine sex to ‘ensure more efficient males and eliminate boar taint by removing genes responsible for skatole and andriosterone”, so producing “36 top quality piglets per sow per year”.

“That modern pig could then be cloned to provide producers with a regular income”. (9)