Even with the growth in consumption in poultry meat, pigmeat in its various guises remains the most popular, accounting for 36% of all meat in the world (UN FAO).
While it is excluded entirely by Muslim and Jewish faith communities, it is in huge demand globally. Despite having just a few hundred pig farmers in Ireland, pigmeat is our third-largest export sector after dairy and beef, accounting for €586m of sales in 2020 and employing 7,000 people in processing and distribution.
Policy that will impact the sector
Unlike all other meats, Irish pigmeat enjoys access to all significant global markets, including China. It is therefore a sector that is impacted positively by trade deals entered into by the EU, including the post-Brexit agreement.
In terms of things to watch, a resolution of issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol is vital for pig producers in the Republic of Ireland as 360,000 pigs go north for processing every year. Anything that disrupts trade flow across the Irish border is a particular threat to the pig sector.
Like their poultry counterparts, pig farmers are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pig manure is a high-value fertiliser that can be used on pasture and tillage land during the slurry spreading season at levels that don’t damage waterways.
Pigs are the next most efficient converter of feed after poultry and the fact that they are not a ruminant means that they have lower emissions per kilo of meat than their beef or sheepmeat counterparts.
This makes the sector relatively well-equipped to address the climate targets that are currently being prepared for the different sectors of the Irish economy.
The biggest single issue for Irish pig farmers in the coming decade is how the EU will legislate on animal welfare issues in relation to pigs. There are two proposals, in particular, and while both have perceived welfare benefits for pigs, the reality is that they could be counterproductive.
The EU is actively considering making tail-docking of young pigs illegal. However, the unintended consequence of this policy is that pigs are likely to attack the tails of other pigs, meaning that when one issue is solved, another is created.
It is a similar issue with farrowing pens for sows giving birth. Removing the cage gives the sow freedom to move around, which in theory is good, but the problem is that in practice this increases the risk of the sow lying on her piglets and causing injury or even death.
While these proposals are at the consideration stage within the EU, there is a considerable likelihood that they will be picked up as a specification standard by supermarket customers, even if they never become legislation.
The consequence for pig farmers is increased cost of production with arguably a worse welfare outcome in both cases.
Antibiotics and disease
This is an area where the EU will be active and seems likely to legislate to give effect to the 50% reduction target for the use of antibiotics. This is a key element of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy and the pigmeat sector was traditionally one of the higher users of antibiotics.
Commercial pig production units are among the most bio-secure in farming but that doesn’t guarantee prevention of disease. African swine fever has been particularly prevalent in the Asian pig herd with outbreaks in eastern Europe also discovered.
This has had a particularly devastating impact on China, leading to a production loss estimated by USDA at 18m tonnes between 2018 and 2020.
China and many Asian countries are particularly vulnerable to disease because of the domestic structure of the industry – small family units where pigs are fed scraps is fertile disease-spreading territory. This created an export opportunity for European exporters over the past two years but this disease remains high on the risk register of all pig units, including in Europe and Ireland.
Labour shortages have been an issue in several sectors of the Irish and UK economies as society reopens after COVID-19 and the UK adapts to life outside of the EU and its associated loss of access to migrant workers.
The issue of labour supply is particularly critical in pig processing because factories aren’t as automated as their poultry counterparts and welfare problems arise very quickly if pigs cannot be processed at the scheduled time for any reason.
Huge numbers of pigs had to be euthanised in the US when factories closed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is a scenario that Irish pig producers do not want to contemplate.
Our water framework directive seems set to be increasingly demanding of pig producers. This may impact in terms of finding a home for nutrient-rich slurry which may become more difficult to dispose of on grassland or even in the local vicinity. This could result in extra costs for pig producers to find satisfactory outlets at greater distances from the point of production.
Concerns also remain in terms of where animal welfare legislation may take pig production into the future. Changing any aspect of this technologically sophisticated and highly competitive enterprise could fundamentally alter efficiency.