Warnings about climate change are far from new. What marks summer 2022 is that this season is no longer a warning: it is a reality that we have to face immediately rather than later, says pig welfare expert Dr Irene Camerlink.
The many extreme heatwaves, wildfires, droughts and floods that are occurring simultaneously across the globe show that climate change is here now, and we need to adapt.
In one news interview about a wildfire, a resident said, “I never thought it would happen to us.” Many people will think this way to prevent fear, but these days it is better to be prepared than ignorant. Animal production and welfare may be at high risk when an emergency happens. As the pig sector is so international, events at local or national scales will affect profit margins at the worldwide scale. To prepare the best we can, it is good to minimise risks to what is under threat: feed, water and pigs.
Feed is the main cost in pig production, and everyone is hit hard by the increasing costs of grain. We therefore have to consider alternative routes. Luckily, pigs are opportunistic omnivores that can digest a lot of different feed types. One option is to use innovative new feeds such as algae; another is to aim for lower growth but also lower feed costs. Choosing a less productive breed may result in more robust animals, which can counterbalance other challenges as well.
Water is the most important commodity to be aware of. In just one week in late July 2022, Mexico declared a state of emergency over the worsening droughts, California enforced water restrictions and even England issued a drought warning. We cannot do much about the national water supply, but what we can do is invest in local (or our own) water retention systems. This can include, for example, harvesting rainwater and incorporating ponds in the landscape. Planting vegetation to retain water and to provide shade creates a microclimate around the farm that can be a few degrees cooler and provides a backup water supply.
Heat stress in an immediate concern for pig production and welfare. Heat stress can be prevented through management, building design, nutrition and genetics. For example, some breeds are more resilient to higher temperatures than others. There are many solutions that are scientifically studied, as well as examples that can be drawn from farms in tropical countries. Pigs regulate their body temperature through wallowing behaviour. Outdoors, a mud pool will be the perfect wallow, but indoors their only option – if any – is to wallow in urine and faeces. This is undesired from a hygiene and meat quality perspective, and it is therefore good to explore alternative ways for pigs to thermoregulate.
Sustainable farming is often mentioned in relation to emissions, public perception and animal welfare. “Sustainable” has become a buzzword that has started to lose its meaning. Practically, we have to make sure that pig farms can sustain themselves in spite of the emerging threats. This may mean a reconsideration of the current system in order for pigs and pig farms to thrive rather than survive.