Expert insights into the changes and challenges facing pig production in China and Europe have been presented to an international audience at the EuroTier exhibition held in Hanover, Germany 16-19 November 2010.
The occasion was the second Chinese-European Pig Summit, organised by the German Agricultural Society (DLG) in association with the China Animal Agriculture Association (CAAA) and European Pig Producers (EPP).
In his welcome address, Carl-Albrecht Bartmer, president of DLG, said pig farmers everywhere would need to make use of modern techniques of housing, feeding and husbandry in order to meet the increases in pork consumption that are predicted for the coming years.
Pork consumption rate
The average rate of consumption of pig meat per person in China may not increase above the present level between 2010 and 2020, said Dr Ma Cheung, vice-secretary general of the CAAA. But the growth rate of 60-70 million people per year forecast for China's human population over this period would still take the total annual amount consumed to about 52 million tonnes by 2020.
Herd productivity is an issue for Chinese pig farmers, said Dr Ma. Out of the 65 million farms producing pigs in China, about 62 million are extremely small. But even changing the annual production of each smallholder by a single pig would mean 62 million pigs being added to or taken from the national total.
Consumption is equally susceptible due to the large numbers involved. Incidents such as the incorrect naming of the H1N1 influenza virus as swine flu and the decision by a Beijing community to have one meat-free day each week have shown how consumer perceptions can have a highly significant impact on the demand for pork.
Livestock production in China faces an increase of restrictions aimed at protecting the environment, Dr Ma reported. Most Chinese pork at present is produced in the East of the country, but a move to more northern areas could be considered in order to gain better access to land and grain.
Pig breeding resources
New initiatives have been launched to improve China's pig breeding resources, said Dr Wang Lixian, head of the Swine Science Division at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. After rather slow progress in the last ten years, the decision was taken in 2009 to re-launch the national swine genetic improvement program and in 2010 an expert group was formed to work with selected nucleus herds.
The plan is to focus on 50 nucleus farms with about 50,000 purebred sows for the 2010-2012 period and to double these numbers between 2013 and 2016.
Health & welfare
Animal health and welfare are key issues for the sustainability of pig farming in Europe, said Dr Andrea Gavinelli, who heads the animal welfare unit in the European Commission's directorate-general for health and consumers. An EU-wide law on animal health has been proposed, which would direct the emphasis strongly onto biosecurity and prevention. Welfare shares the spotlight as the wishes of Europe's consumers become increasingly influential in shaping the EU's policies on animals.
The EU animal welfare directive having the most impact on methods of pig production at present is due to take effect on January 1, 2013. Dr Gavinelli reminded the audience that, as from that date, holdings with sows in the European Union cannot use individual stalls to house their pregnant animals from four weeks after insemination until one week before the expected farrowing date.
Other parts of the same directive require an increase in the living space allowed sows and gilts, Dr Gavinelli added, and also stipulate that these animals must have permanent access to materials suitable for rooting.
Erik Thijssen is a piglet producer with herds in the Netherlands and Germany and he is also President of European Pig Producers, the knowledge exchange group that currently has about 460 members. He told the meeting that welfare regulations form only part of the challenges for Europe's pig producers. No-one knows what effect the implementation of the new rules on sow housing will have on the sector in the European Union, Thijssen commented, but it is likely to be big considering the number of sow places that remain to be converted and the cost of the conversion.
Pig farming in Europe also must deal with the environmental aspects associated with its increasing concentration on fewer and larger farms, with the average number of pigs per farm in western European countries having shown a five-fold increase in the past 20 years. Again there are added costs to be taken into account, said Thijssen. By one calculation in the Netherlands, cleaning the air to remove ammonia and employing approved methods for manure handling adds between €10 and €12 to the cost per pig place in finishing facilities.
Sustainability is more than just a buzzword, it is already a reality in the policies of large food producers and retailers in the United States and in Europe, said Dr Gerald Behrens, head of global marketing/ food producing animals at Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health. There are related aspects such as the massive public pressure being applied in several countries against the use of antibiotics in producing pork.
Societal considerations are clearly a central part of the sustainability debate, Behrens continued, but it is a mistake to assume that all consumers are the same. For example, a major consumer survey conducted in the European Union has found large differences from one country to another in the importance that people attach to the concept of food safety. This diversity may reflect that, in the minds of consumers, food safety is not a matter of science – it is emotional.
Robert Hoste, pig production economist at the LEI Agricultural Economic Research Institute of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, pointed to the cost of meeting such societal demands on pig farms. One Dutch study concluded that fulfilling a list of demands (including food safety, animal welfare and environment protection) would add about 15% to standard production costs on a typical unit.
In fact, he declared, the real problem in Europe is not the extra cost per kg of pig meat associated with meeting society's demands. It is more the fact that every farmer must find the investment for the housing change needed to suit the legislation. The question, said Hoste, is who pays, the producer or the consumer? He described a new system in the Netherlands where retail packs are given stars according to the production method behind them and are priced accordingly. This is a positive development, he said, because it means that the person who asks for higher welfare pays for it.
• Wageningen Universtiy and Research Centre
• CAAA (in Chinese)
• Boehringer Ingelheim