DR. Don Research Update
A close look at humane pork production in Europe

By Don Lotter

January 7, 2004: There are some areas of society where Europeans are ahead of North Americans and other areas vice versa. One area where the Europeans are clearly ahead of us is in the ethics of animal husbandry, and this shows in their public awareness and legislation. Pork production is one of the critical areas in animal ethics.

In North America, pigs, which are intelligent animals, are increasingly being raised in an inhumane, crowded, stressful, factory-style way, a system in which the word husbandry no longer applies. Organic pork production methods have reversed this, but organic production is about 1% of total and is limited to consumers’ willingness to pay 50%-150% higher prices. There is middle ground, and UK researchers have done a study detailing the costs of production of two middle-ground pig husbandry systems, with respect to ethical husbandry methods, in between conventional factory-style and organic and compared the four systems’ costs.

The four husbandry systems were:

  1. Fully slatted housing, which has the lowest space allowance per animal, totally slatted floors and no bedding.
  2. Partly-slatted housing, which has a proportion of the floor as a solid lying area but no bedding.
  3. Straw-based has space allowances greater than the legal minimum and the provision of straw as a bedding and rooting substrate. (Definition according to the Freedom Food program, a British certification organization which has requirements for raising welfare standards for pigs.)
  4. A free-range system in which the pigs have access to a straw-bedded hut at all times, together with an outdoor pen in the early stages and paddocks later.

The cost of pig production was lowest in the partly-slatted system. The rearing costs in the fully-slatted, straw-based, and free-range were 3%, 7%, and 8%, higher respectively. Organic production figures were included for comparison and costs in that system were 144% higher. The higher costs of the straw-based Freedom Food system were mainly due to increased labor costs in handling straw.

Profits were per kilogram of pork were: $0.014 fully-slatted, $0.029 partly-slatted, $0.094 Freedom Food, -$0.013 free-range, and $0.071 organic. Freedom Food and organic both had price premiums, the others did not.

The environmental costs of manure leakage and leaching from repeated use of the same free-range ground was not calculated – nor the costs of rotating free-range pastures such that manure loading stays below environmental threshold values.

The authors suggest that these results show that improved pig welfare can be achieved with a modest increase in cost, and that their implementation will depend on consumer desire for more humane production of pork.

Bornett, H.L.I., J.H. Guy, and P.J. Cain. 2003. "Impact of animal welfare on costs and viability of pig production in the UK." Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16: 163–186.

Don Lotter has a Ph.D. in agroecology and has worked in sustainable agricultural development in North America, Latin America, and Africa over the past 25 years. He can be contacted via his website www.donlotter.com

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