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Sustainable Pork Production: What Does it Really Mean?

08 April 2016

GLOBAL - You can’t pick up a business or food publication these days without coming across the word sustainability. It’s the buzz word of the decade, but what exactly does it mean to pork production?

Some groups would have you believe it means shunning technology and returning to simpler times — bucolic scenes of pigs on pasture taking in the sunshine and fresh air while feasting on troughs of organic grain.

Ecological engineer Marty Matlock, PhD, has a different view of sustainable pork, however.

“We could have 10 billion people coming for dinner by 2050 on a planet with limited resources,” says Matlock, professor at the University of Arkansas who serves as the executive director of its Office for Sustainability.

To meet this goal, he says, the world pork industry needs to dramatically increase production over the next 30 to 40 years — without increasing land use. As it is, Matlock reports, more than 43% of the earth’s land surface is already in use for food production. “If we are to preserve land for other living things, we must double our food production on the land we already have in production. We must stop expanding the agricultural footprint if we are to protect biodiversity.”

“The environmental impact of pork production is directly linked to production efficiency. And by increasing efficiency, we decrease those things needed to produce pork,” he says.

More intensified production is key to sustainability because it reduces the land and other natural resources needed to raise pigs, Matlock says.

“The definition of sustainability is really quite simple — it’s about continuous improvement on the farm. It’s about getting better at the things that matter to us. It’s about increasing efficiency and decreasing bad impact,” he says. “It’s sustaining the prosperous production of pork.”

Matlock insists that sustainability is nothing new to modern pork production, citing genetic improvements, increased feed efficiency and advances in herd health as examples of continuous improvement.

Conversely, he adds, every pig lost to mortality — and for that matter, every bit of pork tossed into the trash bin at the end of a meal — has a negative impact on sustainability because the resources that went into producing that pig were wasted.

What’s new

Toward that end, the sustainability expert says, the conversation about sustainable pork production should not stop at the farm. It needs to involve all links of the pork supply chain and focus on the environment, including land, air and the watershed.

“We have to worry now about the supply chain,” Matlock continues. Pork is no longer locally sourced — it’s a global market that’s expansive and complicated. Producers can’t assume the market will take care of itself. It’s up to them to make sure that feed and other resources they need are safe and secure because, if it isn’t, it could threaten the economic viability of their operations.

As a case in point, he cites the outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus that killed about 10% of the US hog population between 2013 and 2014. Authorities believe the virus might have originated from contaminated, reused bulk containers — flexible intermediate bulk containers also known as tote bags. They’re used by distribution companies that generally service a large network of feed-mill customers across the Midwest and beyond. It’s a good example of how supply-chain mishaps can adversely affect the continuous improvement that constitutes sustainability, Matlock says.

Social media pressure

Misinformation spread far and wide via social media can also threaten the pork industry’s efforts to become more sustainable. “These days because of the internet everybody thinks they know everything but half the things they think they know aren’t correct,” the engineer quips.

For example, animal welfare is everyone’s concern, but pork producers who run top-shelf, ethical operations can have their reputations destroyed by another producer’s bad actions. “Even when you’re doing the right thing, it’s harder to convince the public,” Matlock continues.

The solution is to be actively transparent about production practices. When mistakes are made, they need to be corrected openly, not dealt with internally as in the past. “Again, this is all part of continuous improvement — which is sustainability,” Matlock says.


Consumers also have to realize there are production trade-offs that can compromise sustainability. “If you want free-range pork, for example, that’s fine, but you have to realize that there’s a cost to the environment” because this type of production system requires more land to raise pigs, Matlock says. That in turn means higher prices at the meat case.

These types of tradeoffs need to be communicated to food retailers and consumers. “We need to have grown-up discussions” and convey key messages about technology’s role and value in making agriculture more sustainable.

To do that effectively, he adds, producers of pork and other meats need to be better prepared to prove the value of the technologies they employ. “You’d better have data to demonstrate the value of decisions made. Capture those improvements under a sustainability banner,” Matlock suggests.

He expresses some frustration that data being collected throughout the livestock and poultry industry isn’t being aggregated. He’d like to see more producers sharing data with industry organizations that in turn could get the word out about their efforts to do more with less and, in turn, become more sustainable.

Matlock would also like to see the pork industry promote success stories — by sharing how a producer reduced ammonia from lagoons with an innovative process, for instance, producers can expand practices that increase pork industry sustainability. Demonstrating efforts to improve feed efficiency, reduce waste and lowering the farm’s carbon footprint is also important because things that emit carbon generally come from energy use, which costs money.

The pork industry, he says, needs to use the data it gathers — not only to build its knowledge system, but also shed fears about making claims. Then “shout it from the mountain top” that pork isn’t just the other white meat — it’s safe, healthy and sustainable protein.

Taken from Voice of Sustainable Pork

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Top image via Shutterstock

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