Two global pandemics and Brexit leave the UK’s pig sector in jeopardy

The ongoing economic shocks from COVID-19, the sector-specific worries of African swine fever and the logistical upheaval from Brexit have left the UK’s pig industry in peril.

22 February 2021, at 7:17am

For British pig farmers like Simon Watchorn, the start of 2021 has brought fresh problems after a pandemic-ridden 2020.

Reuters reports that British pork producers have seen their profits eroded by COVID-19 and an outbreak of deadly African swine fever (ASF) in Germany, and are now having also to deal with Brexit red tape that has hammered exports and hurt demand from key buyers such as German sausage makers.

Pig prices, especially for sows, are tumbling just as feed costs soar.

"We've got expensive feed, ASF, COVID, and now we're struggling to send stuff abroad. People have fallen into the red. If the situation doesn't change they'll be shutting shop," said Watchorn, who is based in Norfolk, eastern England.

Pigs remaining on his farm have grown overweight and some have lost up to half their value since COVID-19 disrupted meat processing last year.

This year, Watchorn said Britain's exports to the European Union have been so disrupted following the country's exit from the EU's single market and customs union on 31 December that he no longer discusses price when sending older female pigs, known as “cull sows”, to slaughter.

"We said we'll sort the price out later, it was just about (the abattoir) taking them," said Watchorn.

About 90% of Britain's cull sows go to Germany to be processed into sausages, patties, salami and other cured meats.

Government data show 862,000 UK pigs were slaughtered in January, down 10% from the same month last year, while sows and boars saw a steeper 29% decline to 14,000.

With Britain's EU meat exports currently at just 50% of normal levels, prices in the heavily export-dependant sow market have slumped by almost two thirds since last summer, only just covering the cost of sending sows to slaughter.

A glut in supplies

Meanwhile, ASF has been sweeping across the globe, decimating the hog herd in China, the world's top pork producer, and it reached Germany in September last year.

China and other Asian countries banned German pig imports in response, leaving Europe with excess supplies and falling prices.

In a poll of 69 members of the National Pig Association (NPA) conducted last month, more than 80% said they are, or expect to be, in a loss-making position this quarter.

Prices for animal feed grade wheat in Britain are up 80%, year-on-year, data from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) shows, while UK pig prices are at 1-1/2 year lows as farmers struggle to compete with cheap EU pork imports.

EU pig prices are at four-year lows and its cheap pork products are flowing into Britain uninterrupted because UK authorities are phasing in customs checks on EU products over six months rather than imposing them immediately from 1 January.

A German meatpacker told Reuters German pork exports to the UK are flowing smoothly and even increasing, as British customs authorities are "waving the imports through without fuss".

Some trucks are returning to the continent empty in order to bring the next EU load to Britain without delay.

"It's especially galling that imports are flowing in freely. We don’t mind a level playing field, but this isn’t level or fair," said Richard Lister, a pig farmer from Yorkshire, north England.

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