Industrial hog production is leading to devastating issues for Manitoba
Vicki Burns and Janine Gibson.
For the last three decades, hog production in Manitoba has become increasingly industrialized with the number of pigs per barn jumping to the thousands and the number of actual pig producers dropping from over 14,000 in 1971 to a mere 200 today.
The pigs that are the basis of this industry are often referred to as animal units. The production system is under constant pressure to produce more piglets at less cost, resembling an industrial assembly line.
The pigs never see the light of day or have the opportunity to root in straw or breathe fresh air.
How far we have moved from family farming to this industrial model, where thousands of animals are kept inside buildings with minimal human contact, feed is automated and they must live above pits of their own feces and urine.
This industrial hog production that dominates the Manitoba landscape is resulting in devastating issues that are in the headlines now.
Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) has now infected more than 50 barns in Manitoba, caused the death of thousands of piglets and is creating fear about how widespread this epidemic will become.
The intense confinement of thousands of animals in barns closely located to each other is a significant part of the problem.
The hog barn fire near New Bothwell in June killed 3,500 pigs, bringing the total number of pigs killed in barn fires over the past decade to 64,000.
But instead of seeing this as a problem to be solved, the Pallister government — with Manitoba Pork’s support — has reduced the fire-safety regulations in the barn building codes to require fewer fire alarms, fewer smoke detectors and cheaper firewalls.
The use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in hog production is part of a growing worldwide problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as MRSA.
Small amounts of antibiotics are fed to the pigs to allow them to grow in industrial conditions.
T. Khanna, R. Friendship, Dewey and J.S. Weese in 2007 showed MRSA is common in pigs and provides further support to concerns about transmission of MRSA between pigs and humans.
Other studies are demonstrating the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in manure lagoons and nearby groundwater (J.C. Chee-Sanford, et al.).
The pigs are not the only things that suffer in industrial production.
The environmental impacts are very real, as evidenced by the declining water quality of many lakes, most notably Lake Winnipeg.
Phosphorus and nitrogen in the animal manure, which is spread on fields as fertilizer, runs off and gets into waterways that end in Lake Winnipeg.
These nutrients feed the sometimes toxic blue-green algae blooms that occur each summer. The phosphorus and nitrogen causing the algal problems also come from human sewage and chemical fertilizers, but there is a correlation between the expansion of the hog industry in Manitoba from two million to eight million pigs per year in the 1990s and the doubling of the phosphorus in the lake from 0.05 mg/l to over 0.10 mg/l (Bunting, L., P.R. Leavitt, et al.) in that time period.
Since the closing of the single-desk marketing system for pigs in the mid-’90s and the resulting vertical integration, the hog industry has seen many ups and downs financially.
In 2008, Canadian hog producers were actually paid $50 million to decrease their sow herd size as the market price had dropped so low.
There are other models of hog production, similar in some ways to the family farms of decades ago.
One such model is organic management, which is good for the animals, good for the environment and good for people.
In Quebec, organic hog farming has taken hold and now accounts for 10 per cent of the industry with revenues of $25 million annually.
In Manitoba, we still have a few small-scale hog farmers who are feeding the growing public desire for humane and organic meat, a market that is expanding every year.
The Canadian Organic Trade Association has verified that more of the income from organic production remains in local communities, providing healthier direct agricultural employment (Crowder, D; Reganold, J.P. Financial Competitiveness of Organic Agriculture on a Global Scale, 2015).
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in their 2017 report The Future of Food and Agriculture, states "Business as usual is not an option."
The industrial model of hog production is simply not sustainable and Manitoba would do its hog industry a favour by pushing for more ethically, environmentally and economically sustainable methods.
Vicki Burns and Janine Gibson are members of the Hog Watch Manitoba steering committee.