For years now, and particularly with the pandemic which gave people more time than ever to sit and research the facts behind their purchases, consumers have become increasingly interested in the concept of sustainability. From the environmental impacts of different foods to their ethical concerns, conversation about what goes on people's plates is more heated than it's ever been. But despite the new buzzword attached to it, thinking of the planet has never been a foreign concept to the pork industry. How could it be, when farmers are the tenants of both the animals under their care and the earth they raise them on? With creativity in pigs' feed, advancements in genetic selection, and commitments that look to the future, pork remains an industry that is mindful about its practices.
Fighting food waste
One of the most obvious ways that pork is sustainable is in its flexibility with feed options. Pigs, to put it lightly, are not picky eaters, and that's a trait many farmers have been able to capitalize on. For instance, Jimmy Tosh, founder of Tosh Farms, explains that he is able to cut costs on his facility by feeding his pigs byproducts. Specifically, Tosh often uses excesses of household names that would otherwise go to waste, ranging from grain-based products like fortune cookies to less eccentric options such as various dog foods. In doing so, he is able to raise quality protein in a move that both eliminates waste from other industries and high grain costs on his facility.
Also working off of byproducts, research exists on the incorporation of agricultural food-based waste into pig feed. Specifically, there is information to suggest that fermented plant biomass, when used as a feed additive, can both improve the weight, overall meat quality, and gastrointestinal health of pigs. Especially given the growing body of research pointing toward improving overall swine health via the gut biome, these ideas are promising ones that build on the industry's ideals.
Aside from the specifics of what foods are being put into a feeding trough, the pork industry has been laboring to make the feeding process on swine operations more sustainable as well. Namely, precision feeding, or altering how pigs are fed based on the objectives of a facility, is an increasingly popular strategy for managing costs of production and a farm's ecological impact. Because precision feeding requires tailoring the amount of food provided to the needs of an animal instead of providing a single, standard amount to each swine, it increases individual nutrient efficiency while lowering nitrogen, phosphorous and greenhouse gas output, meaning farms can spend less for better results for their profits and the land they work on.
From innovation in types of feed to the way swine farms care for their animals, the pork industry has and will continue to make strides toward feeding its animals as responsibly as possible.
Another area where the pork industry has worked toward sustainability has been in its dedication to advancing genetic selection within livestock pigs, particularly when viewed from an animal welfare perspective. As the pork industry recovered from the farming crisis of the 1980s and contract farming became more popular, so too did the idea of selectively breeding gilts for better overall animal health. Farmers have become especially interested in reducing tendencies toward lameness and prolapses in order to curb pork's ongoing problem with sow mortality, and while this has obvious benefits for an animal's lifespan and comfort levels, this extra level of care also benefits farmers in the returns they get on their facilities.
In that vein, on the very forefront of wellness-based research in the industry is the idea of immunocastration, or the process of castrating pigs via an injection instead of through surgery, which can be time and resource-heavy, not to mention uncomfortable for the animal. Part of this investigation into immunocastration does stem from consumer concern over animal welfare in the process of surgical castration, but research is also pointing toward immunocastration reducing boar taint and increasing meat quality, yet another way profit can work alongside sustainability in pork.
While the idea of immunocastration remains in development, the fact remains that the pork industry is and always has been seeking to innovate for the improvement of all life associated with it. More than just caring for animals, however, this process of genetic improvement can have a ripple effect.
Research suggests that breeding pigs to better suit their environment creates farms with higher stability, which in turn improves food security and employment opportunities in surrounding communities and the continued success of the industry. In other words, pork's habit of selective breeding supports both the animal itself and the people who have a need for protein. What's more, as technology advances, selective breeding, particularly with herds as diverse as the United States, can potentially be an outlet to reduce pork waste output. In one example, researchers at the University of Guelph were able to selectively breed pigs with lower phosphorus content in their manure. This effectively creates herds that pollute land less, and decisions such as these could be particularly helpful for countries with fewer water treatment facilities built into their infrastructure.
Prioritizing sustainability through smart genetics has ethical, economic and environmental benefits, and the pork industry has not and does not shy away from that as it continues to develop.
Commitments to the cause
Finally, although the industry has spent years dedicating itself to sustainable causes, it's also worth noting the work leaders in the industry are doing to continue the process of research and sustainable farming in the future. For example, Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, has sworn to cut its carbon emissions by 30% by 2030 and has been working diligently to combat pollution risks from pork and food waste at large. However, on an even grander scale than that are the standards of the pork industry as a whole.
As the body that represents pork production in the United States, the National Pork Board has always had an interest in setting an example. Since 2008, the board has worked to uphold the We Care commitment, which dedicates the organization's actions to the following:
- Food safety
- Public health
- Animal well-being
- The environment
These principles serve to guide the pork industry because sustainability is not just the environment; it is the people and community it supports. By examining the values of the commitment holistically, producers and consumers alike can realistically evaluate how to create the most change in their communities and across the world for a brighter, nutritious future. For example, in commemoration of 10 years of We Care, Pork Board in 2018 created an understanding with the United Soybean Board and the National Corn Growers Association to study different facets of farming's impact, such as soil health, carbon emissions and natural resource usage. What's more, even solely within the board, there are teams committed to studying factors such as the nutrient cycles within farms to see how producers can be good stewards of the earth they work on.
Sustainability is no easy goal to chase, especially in a time when its definition seems to be constantly shifting. However, pork as an industry nevertheless fights to uphold it while also generating jobs and honoring the hard work of its farmers. The pork industry does, yes, still have room to grow, but especially considering its production of a comforting, affordable protein for many different cultures, let's not forget about the past successes it stands on today.