Public perceptions wield increasing influence

By Andrew Heck

California’s Proposition 12 legislates changes to sow housing. The decision will impact most pork sold in the state, which comes from pigs raised in other parts of the U.S. While essentially damaging for both producers and consumers (who voted for it), it is a sign of the times.

Understanding the many perspectives that shape public trust in animal agriculture relies on a great deal of speculation, largely based on word-of-mouth, opinion polls, social media and purchasing trends exhibited by consumers. But connecting those perspectives back to the experience on-farm, for producers, can be less tangible.

The search for truth while finding common ground with the ‘other side’ can often end in a toxic stalemate when producers and consumers butt heads. Industry representatives make tireless efforts to ‘educate’ the masses, while many urbanites – largely disconnected from the intricacies of food supply chains – often resort to unreliable sources to find answers to their burning questions. The list of questions, and the need for answers, grows constantly.

Three sessions at the 2022 Banff Pork Seminar either directly or indirectly addressed the challenge of reinforcing public trust, exploring themes related to hog sector issues that continue to cause consternation for producers and consumers alike.

Clapping back at critics

For Patrick Moore, climate change concerns are a lot more smoke than fire. Activist hostility drove him away from Greenpeace, which he helped found.

In animal agriculture, emissions of carbon dioxide and methane are often cited as drivers of climate change – a widely held assumption by some consumers, even though certain academic thought leaders suggest the scenario is not as bad as it looks. Other figures, like Patrick Moore of Greenspirit Consulting, take that line of thinking a step further, which may or may not be entirely helpful for the hog sector.

Moore delivered a presentation during the second plenary session of the 2022 Banff Pork Seminar. A native of Winter Harbour, B.C., Moore grew up around the commercial logging industry, in a remote inlet at the far north end of Vancouver Island. He still lives on the island today. For a decade and a half, Moore was a founding and widely photographed member of Greenpeace Canada, until an ideological rift emerged between him and others in the group.

“We cared about people. That is the ‘peace’ in ‘Greenpeace,’” said Moore. “As time went on, Greenpeace drifted into the idea that humans are the enemy of the Earth, as opposed to part of nature.”

Moore’s early work gained international renown starting in the early 1970s, when he and other avant-garde activists decided to protest certain activities in the Pacific Ocean, including the escalation of Cold War-era tensions.

“I became a born-again environmentalist and sailed on a boat with a group of activists to stop U.S. hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska,” said Moore. “We sailed in the late fall in the stormy seas to the Aleutian Islands and got on Walter Cronkite’s Evening News and really changed the whole course of the nuclear arms race.”

Starting in the late 1980s, Moore began to draw the ire of his former peers and modern-day eco-warriors for his involvement with the ‘CO2 Coalition’ – a group dedicated to defending atmospheric carbon dioxide – and ‘Allow Golden Rice Now!’ – advocating for the production and consumption of a yellow-coloured, genetically modified strain of rice designed to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. Given his history with Greenpeace, some accuse Moore of forfeiting his earlier beliefs to become a paid lobbyist. Moore, however, remains unfazed.

“The truth of the matter is that every single scare story today is either about things that are invisible – like CO2, radiation and whatever’s in GMOs that’s supposed to be bad – or so remote – like coral reefs and polar bears – that no-one can observe for themselves whether the claims being made are true or not,” he said.

It may be difficult for some people inside and outside of agriculture to reconcile with Moore’s views. Certainly, he possesses the relevant education and experience to articulate his positions in a way that resonates with receptive audiences. ‘The facts’ may be black-and-white, but individual interpretation always leaves a grey area. Our emotional brain, as humans – whether hog farmers or food consumers – thrives in those murky waters, where our feelings have the power to blind us to reality, reinforcing our convictions and clouding our better judgment.

For producers, it would be wise to exercise caution around dismissing certain topics like environmental impacts and other concerns, such as animal handling and housing practices, that may be perceived as less ‘humane’ than desired by consumers.

Balancing the conversation is key

According to Vincent ter Beek, the rural-urban divide is real, and growing, but it is up to the industry to bridge this gap by demonstrating socially acceptable forms of change.

Vincent ter Beek is an ‘agricultural immigrant,’ having come to the industry with a background in history and journalism, not farming. As an admitted outsider, Ter Beek today sits at the helm of Pig Progress, recognized as a true global authority on pigs and pork, but, unlike Moore, he seeks a sense of balance as it relates to industry issues. Ter Beek delivered a presentation during the closing plenary session of the 2022 Banff Pork Seminar.

“My Twitter timeline is a curious amalgam of people living in cities and working in journalism – often left-wing and sometimes vocal vegans – and people working in agriculture – complaining that many people in cities have lost touch with reality,” said Ter Beek. “I listen, will treat everyone with respect, but it’s in my best interest not to choose sides.”

For the hog industry, Ter Beek’s insights may be cumbersome or even outright frustrating. In fact, Ter Beek is not a moral judge of the sector, but instead a conscientious ally, offering praise alongside constructive criticism. A noteworthy takeaway message from Ter Beek is that the temporary discomfort associated with adapting to public pressures may be one way to secure industry success, going forward.

“City people have lost touch with agriculture, I often hear. They’ve lived away from agricultural reality for too long. They don’t realize that, for a pork chop, sausage or spare ribs to be created, a living creature has to be grown and slaughtered,” said Ter Beek. “For opening up to the outside world and becoming more understood, it is also important to ask the question: does the swine business want to show everything that is happening in the farm?”

On the flip side, producers should not necessarily rush to make rash decisions, simply out of fear. Consumers hold a lot of power, collectively, but the loudest opponents of animal agriculture are an extreme, small minority of critics, and while their sway should not be ignored, sensible interaction between the industry and animal welfare groups often excludes these voices for a reason.

Many animal activists have few boundaries when it comes to attacking the hog sector, often very unfairly, but Ter Beek uses an analogy, ‘the Instagram test,’ to demonstrate how words and images matter. A lack of transparency around certain hog production practices can generate suspicion, and that suspicion is exactly what activists use to strengthen their arguments.

“We all know that, by 2050, there will be more than nine billion mouths to feed,” said Ter Beek. “They may not all be eating meat, but if everyone at least has some money to spend, the demand for meat will only grow. And where will these extra people of the future live? Most likely, the vast majority will live in cities.”

Tail docking and castrating piglets, and the use of gestation crates for sows, are arguably the most contentious pig handling practices still used today in North America. In Europe, the top-down parliamentary approach of enacting legislation has forced hog farmers to change the way they work, or to go out of business. Like it or not, it was inevitable there, and the writing may be on the wall here as well.

Ter Beek’s pointed reflections on the hog sector are not only timely but critical for the industry to address, sooner than later.

Animal welfare cannot be taken lightly

Converting to group sow housing is costly, but it has become a societal expectation. Fortunately, open systems have production benefits on top of improving the hog sector’s image.

Ter Beek’s views as an overseas magazine editor seemed to hit the mark even with some Canadian producers who are ahead of the curve when it comes to animal care, such as the panelists who took part in the ‘Welfare’ breakout session at the 2022 Banff Pork Seminar.

Last year, the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) made the decision to delay the implementation of an earlier amendment to the group’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, requiring all compliant hog barns to be converted to group sow housing. The initial deadline was 2024, which has since been pushed to 2029. All new barns constructed since 2014 have had this requirement, but whether building a new barn or converting an existing one, large capital costs can discourage producers from taking the next step, even with a looming moratorium inching closer.

When Daryl Possberg of Polar Pork set out to make the transition, in 2016, he began by retrofitting one-third of his sow space. After a successful pilot to evaluate how the new system might work, he took a phased approach by safely moving animals to an off-site farm while construction was underway, over a series of weeks. All things considered, he estimates the cost to be around $100 per sow.

“This is money well-spent,” said Possberg. “There’s value in getting this done in a tight timeline.”

A lack of profitability in the past half-decade is usually mentioned as a reason that conversion is not feasible, at present. Fears of compromising biosecurity, losing productivity or needing additional space are other hurdles. These are valid concerns, but as the clock continues to tick, it is incumbent upon producers and packers to find solutions.

Indeed, Maple Leaf Agri-Farms – supporting production for Canada’s highest-capacity hog slaughter facility in Brandon, Manitoba – has already fully converted to group sow housing. The transition was completed only a few months ago, and it would be hard for anyone to argue it is a bad look for the company. Rather, the opposite.

“There’s very little metal in the system. There’s great view lines – great to observe the sows and wonderful for visitors, who really enjoy seeing that sort of thing,” said Neil Booth, Production Manager, Maple Leaf Agri-Farms. “It’s great for those sows to come say ‘hi’ every day. You feel as though they appreciate you and want you to be around.”

Maple Leaf began planning its group housing conversion more than a decade ago, well before NFACC amended the pig code. While NFACC’s codes are voluntary, not legally binding – a popular talking point among animal activists – the code is a stipulation of commercial hog production under the Canadian Quality Assurance (CQA) and Animal Care Assessment (ACA) programs, and the incoming Canadian Pork Excellence (CPE) program.

Without certification and validation under quality assurance programs, producers are unable to market hogs through meat packers who are overseen by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The federally inspected system represents practically all commercially raised pork in Canada, most of which is exported. By removing a farmer’s ability to participate in the federal value chain, his or her operation would be effectively ended overnight – not a particularly attractive outcome for producers, who are heavily invested in their businesses. Critics, however, almost never have a financial stake in the matter – just an opinion about it. Despite the industry’s and government’s due diligence, backlash still abounds, in some cases.

Yolande Seddon, a researcher with the University of Saskatchewan, is a recognized expert in sow welfare, and, like Ter Beek, brings a thoughtful perspective that is unclouded by personal gain.

“In other areas of the world where hard deadlines have been set, there is evidence to suggest that has only resulted in a contraction of the industry,” said Seddon. “It seems a lot more mediated if we can support producers to have a reasonable extension.”

Does a contraction of the industry matter to those outside the industry? That depends on the level of comfort consumers have with relying on imports to fill potential voids. Canadian retailers have no obligation to source Canadian pork, but for as long as pork demand exists, meat coolers will continue to be filled with product that may or may not be Canadian. Cost-competitiveness helps ensure Canadian pork ends up with Canadian retailers, rather than meat coming from the U.S., Mexico, Brazil or other suppliers who are always looking for greater global market share.

“It is worth noting that supporting an industry to continue making progress on conversion will lead to improved animal welfare in the long run,” said Seddon. “If we encourage a contraction of the industry, that production is always absorbed elsewhere in the world, typically where cost of production and animal welfare standards are lower.”

While it is helpful when consumers understand this dilemma, it is no guarantee of sympathy for producers who are struggling to make the conversion. Moreover, convincing an increasingly skeptical public that the industry is committed to positive change has become a significant obstacle.

The Canadian Pork Council (CPC) predicts that half of all commercial barns in Canada will be converted to group sow housing by year’s end, but approaching a very high degree of compliance remains a lofty target. If the target is not met within the next six years, producers will undoubtedly be forced out of the industry, which will result in pork’s loss and other proteins’ gain, whether animal- or plant-based. The slippery slope is likely not worth testing out, even for the sure-footed.

Self-preservation requires self-sacrifice

If the hog sector remains stubborn on certain issues, rather than flexible, the industry’s reputation and business altogether could worsen with time. At present, time may not favour the industry.

‘The customer is always right.’ Well, not always, especially when it comes to the nitty gritty, technical aspects of a business, including pig and pork production. But even if the customer is not ‘right,’ he or she stands between the farmer, packer, retailer and his or her hard-earned dollar. It is the same dollar that we all cherish, regardless of our beliefs.

Every farmer raises animals with the best of intentions in mind, and despite the noise made by activists, an extensive and complex network of people, policies and other practices act as effective checks and balances. Raising animals for food, this is a condition the industry has grown to live with.

At the end of the day, financial pressures on producers are inhibiting change, but for most consumers, only the pork price tag matters. Whether the Canadian pork industry sinks or swims does not specifically affect most people, much as we would like them to identify with our plight. For long-term sector sustainability to be realized, the industry would do well to shift its perspective, in some cases, to align with ever-changing consumer perceptions more closely. Foolish pride cannot be the weight that holds us back beyond profits.

Is that easy? No. Does it always make sense? No. Is it affordable? Not yet. Is it helpful? Probably. Should the industry be confident that it is entirely possible? That is hard to say. But one thing that is clear, is that the answer might be looking back at us in the mirror.