Growing up on his family farm in Massachusetts, Dr. Tom Parsons knew that the successful farmers paid attention to what was happening on their own farms.
“Today, that luxury is gone,” said Parsons, professor and director of the Swine Teaching and Research Unit, School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “To be successful in agriculture, we have to be cognizant of issues going on outside our farms.”
Parsons described a “dynamic tension” that involves a growing global demand for animal protein coupled with changing societal views about agriculture. He said it’s important to understand a bit of agricultural history to understand the origin of modern views.
“During World War II, we dramatically scaled up our industrial chemical industry, largely to make ingredients for explosives,” Parsons said. “Once the war was over, we had infrastructure we didn’t know what to do with. People realized that we could repurpose this infrastructure and make nitrogen, which could be used for fertilizer.”
The result was more efficient worldwide crop production and better use of feed resources for livestock.
Parsons referenced what he calls the “green eggs and ham revolution” that has occurred throughout the past 20 years. “It’s a growing demand for meat and milk products,” he explained. “Animal protein has been increasingly desired by the world population. We have never needed animal protein to be more affordable.”
It’s important to note that China is the largest consumer of pork in the world—about five times more than what is consumed in the U.S. Also, third-world countries have become second-world countries; and as those countries became more affluent, dietary preferences changed. This shift has created a huge demand for animal protein.
Parsons noted that we tend to think of widespread poverty happening elsewhere than in the U.S., but the reality is that about 15 percent of the population is “food insecure” and doesn’t know where their next meal will come from. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) predicts that by 2050 animal protein consumption will outstrip the planet’s ability to produce what we need.
The challenge is to maintain a supply of affordable animal protein for a growing population while nurturing positive relationships between consumers, packers and retail outlets.
The paradox is that with ever-changing views of agriculture, consumers are asking more questions about food production. Compounding the issue is that fewer people are directly involved with agriculture. About 25 percent of the population was involved in food production in the early 1900s, but just 2 percent are involved in production today. Parsons said that statistical change resulted in a degree of success because it freed up more of the population to work in other fields, but the unfortunate byproduct of the change is that many are unaware of their food’s origin.
Another factor in the public’s view about how livestock is raised is the rise in pet ownership and the widespread views that animals are family members.
“It’s the perfect storm for concerns about animal use,” Parsons said. “Swine are clearly the most intelligent farm animal, but they are often personified in popular culture. At some level, we want to make these animals our ‘friends,’ but there’s also tremendous global pressure to produce more. We’re sending mixed messages.”
According to Parsons, the flash point for the swine industry is the use of gestation stalls, which have been widely accepted in the industry, but are becoming less popular. Gestation stalls allow for individual animal feeding, care and record keeping, and they protect handlers from aggressive animals.
“The problem is, the gestation stall is a 2-by-7-foot enclosure, and the sow can’t turn around,” Parsons said. “Animal advocacy groups have been very successful in reducing the discussion about how gestating sows are housed to whether or not they can turn around. But it’s a much more complicated discussion, and agriculture hasn’t succeeded in portraying those complications. In today’s media, that’s hard.”
Parsons explained that pigs in a group form a social hierarchy. “They compete for resources,” he said. “The dominant animals crowd in, which leaves the subordinates to clean up the leftovers. They’ll be under-conditioned, and that’s the last thing you want in prenatal nutrition.”
There are financial rewards for producers who raise pigs that grow quickly, and pigs grow quickly by eating a lot. “They get to eat a lot by being the first one at the feeder,” said Parsons. “If we select for animals that are first to the feeders, we’re probably inherently selecting for some aggression.”
Parsons said the vast majority of consumers either doesn’t know about the gestation crate issue or they don’t care. “That creates a lot of confusion,” he stated. “When the National Pork Board commissions a focus group to ask people how they feel about gestation stalls, the answer is that most people don’t care. Why are food companies asking for change if current public opinion isn’t that strong?”
Producers are well aware of the increasing push for certain production methods, and many (especially those who have unsuccessfully tried to raise sows in pens) don’t see elimination of gestation crates as a viable alternative.
“But they worry that if they don’t make these changes, they’ll lose access to the market,” Parsons added. “They feel that they’re being forced to make these decisions by someone who knows nothing about their business.”
How did we get to where we are today? Parsons refers to the “great divide of swine housing,” with swine producers on one side of the issue and animal advocacy groups on the other. “The animal advocacy groups have been arguing to eliminate the use of gestation stalls while producers want to retain stalls. Producers tend to focus on physical components, such as lameness, injuries, body condition scores—more immediate issues that have direct economic impact. The animal advocacy groups are more likely to anthropomorphize and think of the psychological health of the animals. That’s what has created tension between these two groups—they’re looking at different things,” he said.
While there have always been consumers on the niche market side who are willing to pay more for a value-added product, the new players are food purveyors who supply retail outlets.
Parsons finds it interesting that food companies aren’t targeting the niche, high-end market. “They’re looking at the future of their business because they realize that it will take time to change out,” he said. “Customers that far out aren’t customers today, but the companies are trying to anticipate what their thought process will be.
Parsons concluded, “We can’t afford to be any less productive. If anything, we need to be more productive.”