Porc Show reaches decade milestone

By Andrew Heck

The Porc Show’s highly engaging presentations and workshops are coupled with warm hospitality, providing guests with an all-around enjoyable experience.

The 10th annual Porc Show took place at the Quebec City Convention Centre on Dec. 12 & 13, featuring keynote speeches on global affairs, climate change and more, along with workshop presentations in the areas of animal health, farm management and consumer marketing. Customarily, most speeches are delivered in French, with live English translation, while others are delivered in English with French translation.

The cross-section of subjects spanned various parts of the Canadian and international pork industries, welcoming more than 700 guests to the conference for the second year in a row back in-person, following COVID-19.

Celebrating a decade of success, while navigating COVID-19 for two of those 10 years as a virtual conference, this year was a special moment for organizers and sponsors, who marked the occasion with a video shown to the audience.

“The sector is adjusting despite inflation, geopolitical factors and pricing. ‘Ever-evolving?’ I think that describes it,” said Sébastien Lacroix, President & CEO, Quebec Association of Animal and Cereal Nutrition Industries (AQINAC). “Over the past 10 years, we’ve shown the industry is strong and able to work through challenges.”

Pork industry faces climate change dilemma

Marco Dufresne casts doubt on emissions reduction targets for agriculture but also recognizes that the industry can’t wait for solutions to fall into its lap, either.

Marco Dufresne, Senior Vice President, Technical Services, Special Projects and Sustainability Development, Olymel recognizes that our industry can no longer ignore the wide-reaching impacts of climate change, which intersect environmental, political and reputational factors.

However, Dufresne believes agriculture and all industries need to consider the full spectrum of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sources across the value chain to address the problem effectively. Not just at the farm level, but also in processing and transportation. Recognizing that agriculture does not currently have many great options to satisfy society’s eco-conscious demands, it is incumbent upon the sector to show leadership in spite of the odds.

“If you don’t act pre-emptively, you face risks,” he said. “It’s a funny idea – sort of a mirage, really. Our objective is to be carbon-neutral, but we don’t know how.”

Dufresne cited Science Based Target’s (SBTi) Forest, Land and Agriculture Guidance (FLAG), which includes emissions reduction targets for businesses operating in swine, among many other areas. The internationally recognized organization has set a target of 33 per cent reduction by 2030 and 72 per cent by 2050. Accomplishing this ambitious feat is both unlikely and unreasonable, unless the world recognizes existing, natural ‘carbon sinks’ in agriculture, namely grazing lands, crop production and practices like using manure to offset reliance on nitrogen-based fertilizers.

“This is a part of the solution. We need to have more plants on the planet, and we need to increase the area where we grow all kinds of plants,” said Dufresne. “Even if we stopped all human activities and went back to how we did things in the 1850s, it would take 700 years for GHGs to deplete to the same level as then.”

Dufresne suggested that feasible energy transition to meet such bold targets is not yet possible, as infrastructure in agriculture is simply not ready. Getting closer to a solution will require mutual understanding among businesses, which Dufresne called, “a prisoner’s dilemma.”

“How can I make decisions that help my competitor and I stay in business?” he asked.

Balancing individual business interests with collective objectives is key. If businesses refuse to set climate priorities in sync, momentum is lost. This is the case in energy production, where global energy demand is huge but green solutions are insufficient to fill the potential void of phasing out fossil fuels. This also impacts pork and, by extension, many export-based agriculture sectors. Heavy, diesel-fuelled trucks used to move pigs have no useful alternative right now, as one example. Fuel-oil-burning cargo ships crossing the Pacific Ocean while carrying upwards of 70 per cent of all Canadian pork is another daunting fact, in context.

Dufresne offered a sobering yet realistic synopsis: “Together, we must lower our emissions while preparing to adapt to the coming changes.”

PRRS-resistant pig continues to progress

Lucina Galina is confident in the future of gene editing in livestock but understands public sentiment on the topic, and policy, remains mixed.

Lucina Galina, Director, Technical Projects, PIC is one of the masterminds behind her company’s PRRS-resistant pig, which continues to make progress toward commercial adoption, albeit not without some significant barriers remaining. Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) is one of the more destructive yet relatively common afflictions of hog operations in many countries, including Canada.

“Avoiding a PRRS outbreak has some obvious benefits when it comes to reducing antimicrobial use and costs for producers,” she said. “We believe gene editing offers huge potential for stopping the spread of PRRS.”

PIC is working with researchers to build upon existing knowledge to quantify the benefits of PRRS resistance, such as reduced antimicrobial use (AMU). The company previously commissioned Iowa State University to study AMU in U.S. PRRS outbreaks, which revealed many producers are relying on antimicrobials – increasingly criticized for their environmental and health impacts – as a management tool where a gene-edited pig may avoid the problem altogether. Some of these antimicrobials are considered medically important for human health, which adds to the controversy.

Along with continuing to characterize the potential benefits of a PRRS-resistant pig in commercial production, PIC is steadfast in testing and evaluating its breeding program that creates PRRS resistance in successive generations of pigs – the offspring of gene-edited individuals who pass along the trait.

Inheritance of the trait requires both a male and female PRRS-resistant pig to be bred, but consistently generating resistance in offspring requires more work, as the expression of this particular gene does not appear with all offspring. Galina suggested a hypothetical 1,000-sow operation could take anywhere from five years to a decade for resistance to take hold within the entire herd, using sperm from a PRRS-resistant boar.

“One point I want to make very clear is that this process is not ‘genetic modification’ [GMO],” she said. “Genetic modification is when you introduce foreign genetic material to an organism, whereas gene editing works with existing genetics in an organism.”

‘CRISPR/Cas’ gene editing is a precision genetic toolbox that singles out individual nucleic acids – the building blocks of DNA. This allows for the creation of new gene sequences at the same level as nature, in principle. This cut-and-paste approach to pig genetics is the heart of PIC’s work on PRRS resistance, which is an important distinction for pig and pork production scientifically, politically and economically.

GMO versus gene editing matters a great deal for regulatory approval globally. Many jurisdictions do not approve genetic modification of animals but tend to have fewer reservations with gene editing. However, even where gene-edited pigs could be approved, the pork from those animals, while perfectly safe to eat, may not be approved to export to some countries, including Japan – a large market for North American product.

While the journey toward successful application and acceptance has been time-consuming, in October 2023, Colombia became the first country in the world to issue a positive regulatory determination for PIC’s PRRS-resistant pig, implying the project is headed in the right direction overall.

Media, myths unfairly drive opposition to meat

A lack of widespread scientific literacy, and bad actors, have demonized livestock and meat, to the detriment of society, according to Catherine Lefevbre.

Catherine Lefebvre co-hosts ‘On s’appelle et on déjeune,’ a podcast produced by CBC Radio Canada. She’s also a certified nutritionist, travel lover and a defender of common-sense dietary advice.

“As humans, we don’t eat ‘nutrients’ – we eat food,” she said. “We can’t limit ourselves to the nutritional value of our plates. We eat for a lot of reasons, especially pleasure. Taste is high on the list, and price may be even higher.”

While issues such as animal welfare and environmental concerns have undoubtedly swayed some consumers’ opinions on livestock production and meat consumption, Lefebvre believes cultural factors and food insecurity are an elephant in the room, related to the broader discussion.

“A certain segment of consumers believes we’re talking too much about climate change. While climate change is important, it’s not the main consideration. Food security and affordability matter,” she said. “As dieticians, we say, ‘You should eat this and not eat that,’ but that doesn’t take into account what some consumers are able or willing to do.”

As an affordable and nutritious protein, pork is an attractive option for people with lesser means. As well, Canadians of cultural backgrounds where pork is preferred should not be overlooked, such as those of East Asian, Latin American and European extraction, whose cuisines all offer a host of exceptional and delicious dishes that can be prepared using Canadian pork. Lefebvre’s travels around the world have afforded her a nuanced understanding of what drives choice.

“I don’t even want to say how many times I fly on planes in a year. I’m a polluter,” she said. “Will I stop? No. From that perspective, you can consider how consumers think about meat. Consumers won’t stop, but production methods can get better to lower their ecological footprint. We have to live in a dietary system that’s sustainable; we have to adapt.”

When it comes to criticism of pork from a health angle, Lefevbre believes her ilk – those who leverage popular media to spread messages – are some of the worst culprits driving collective misunderstanding and disinformation.

“There are a lot of myths out there, like those related to cancer,” she said. “What is reported is heavily summarized, and the big problem with dietary studies is that we just do observation studies. We can’t ethically give bacon to a control group every day for 100 days straight and see if they get cancer; all we can do is survey people about their bacon-eating habits and consider their self-reported health status.”

Lefevbre also points out that lifestyle choices are underestimated. The person who enjoys eating meat while also staying active and sleeping well stands a better chance at maintaining their health than the person who doesn’t eat meat but has other unhealthy habits – poorly balanced diets and physical inactivity, for example.

Despite society’s deck being stacked against meat, Lefevbre holds hope that most consumers will continue to give meat a fair shake, while developing a greater sense of appreciation for food overall.

Ten years down, many more to go

The Château Frontenac – arguably the most iconic fixture of Quebec City’s skyline – carries a prestige that is embedded within Quebec’s culture, which contributes significantly to the consideration of finer details for guests at the Porc Show.

Be it the networking opportunities, subject matter or hospitality offered by the Porc Show, one would be hard-pressed not to appreciate this gathering of minds. The event thoroughly captures the breadth and depth of the Canadian pork industry, while also providing an experience that is uniquely French-Canadian, in a lot of ways.

For English speakers and producers living in western or central Canada, the Porc Show may appear intimidating or far-flung from the outside; however, a trip to this exciting event is well worth the commitment.