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Time to reinvent the pig industry?

An animal-welfare campaigner presents his view of the pig industry in 2025.

Changes in the market and public attitudes mean that the current model of industrial pig production must evolve, according to Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser of UK welfare group Compassion in World Farming.

Speaking at the 2016 International Pig Veterinary Society conference in Dublin, Stevenson outlined his views of how the pig industry should look in 2025, focusing on the most important aspects of animal welfare and also touching on the challenges ahead for the sector arising from market changes.

Confining sow stalls to history

“First thing on my wish list is that by 2025, sow stalls will be replaced by new housing systems globally,” Stevenson said.

He congratulated the great majority of European pig farmers who comply with the EU ban on sow stalls — also known as gestation crates — and praised those countries that have already or started to phase out this housing system well before 2025.

However, he called for an end to the current exemption for the first four weeks of pregnancy on the grounds that it may be detrimental to embryo survival and development. Studies have shown that good system design and skilled management allow mixing of sows without adverse effects to reproductive performance.

By 2025, farrowing crates should also have been replaced by free farrowing systems, he said. Studies have shown that when well managed, piglet mortality is no higher than in conventional systems that do not allow the sow to turn around.

Cutting castration

Castration of male pigs by surgical methods is due to come under a voluntary ban in the EU within two years, but Stevenson expressed his concern over the slow progress made so far on this issue.

Rearing entire male pigs is an effective solution, or “the simplest option is immunocastration,” he said. Immunocastration — which involves no mutilations or testicular damage — is induced through the administration of a boar taint vaccine, which temporarily delays puberty, thereby reducing both boar taint and aggressive, sexual behavior that can cause stress and injuries.

“It is unacceptable to put pigs through the pain of castration when a viable alternative is available,” he said.

Tamping down on tail docking

He also called for an end to routine tail docking of young pigs, a procedure that is already banned in the EU. Exemptions for farms on which other measures to curb tail biting have failed are abused too often, in Stevenson’s opinion.

European authorities have recently linked tail biting in pigs to “inadequate environmental conditions” and specifically to “a lack of appropriate enrichment.” Pigs have an inquisitive nature, which can be satisfied by the provision of suitable materials that should be “complex, changeable and destructible.” Recommended materials include straw, green fodder, miscanthus grass and root vegetables.

The same guidelines state that metal chains and rigid plastic pipes are of only marginal interest and should not be the only items provided to enrich the pigs’ environment.

“Farmers who get their pigs to slaughter without either tail biting or docking are operating a very good system,” said Stevenson, highlighting that an intact tail is among the best single animal-based indicators of good welfare in pigs.

Selection for excessive litter sizes and routine teeth clipping should come to an end before 2025, he added.

A ‘fundamental change’

Finally, Stevenson called for a “fundamental change” in the approach to animal welfare. Rather than focusing on preventing poor welfare, he said that positively good outcomes should become the new aim.

The lead has come from the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, which advises the UK government. It has proposed that all farm animals should have at least “a life worth living,” and that a growing number should have “a good life.” This allows the animal to have positive experiences, which include a spacious, stimulus-rich and safe environment and the opportunity to engage in behaviors they find rewarding, such as exploration and interaction with other animals.

The current industrial model of pig production cannot survive, according to Stevenson. He called for the industry to reinvent itself to become a supplier of high-quality meat produced to good environmental and animal-welfare standards.

Turning his attention to future market changes, he said that the sector should prepare for a reverse in the trend toward ever higher global meat consumption. Root causes of such a sea-change could lie in a growing number of studies linking high levels of meat consumption to ill health, or to awareness that animal protein production can have adverse environmental impacts that could prevent the achievement of the Paris Agreement target on global warming.

Time to reinvent the pig industry?
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