Pig farmer calls for rethink on new welfare code

Rural Life

9 July 2022

Sally Rae

North Otago pig farmer Ian Carter believes proposed new rules for the pork industry will destroy the production side of the sector in New Zealand. PHOTOS: SALLY RAE/ODT FILES

Thousands of submissions have been received on the draft National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (Nawac) animal welfare code for pigs released for public consultation. The pork industry says the proposed changes could force farmers out of business and put the price of New Zealand-born and raised pork out of the reach of many New Zealanders, while Nawac says it is bound to write standards that meet the purposes of the Animal Welfare Act. Business and rural editor Sally Rae reports.

For the past 35 years, Ian Carter has loved "feeding the population".

He has spent the past 19 years running his 2200 pig farrow-to-finish indoor farm in North Otago, producing enough pork to feed 20,000 New Zealanders a year.

"I do enjoy doing it because I think they [consumers] value what I do, but it’s not them that set the rules," he said.

He believed if it was the pork-eating public that did set the rules, then there would be a different view "than taking the view of extremist groups and minority groups".

For Mr Carter believed freedom of speech had gone too far, with modern technology meaning momentum could be gained to put across views not necessarily logical or appropriate. What he found scary was how regulators felt the need to respond.

"If the regulators engaged in more proactive comms [communications] to deliver the facts, the discerning consumer would have somebody they could go to for information."

As it stood, the average New Zealander did not know who was telling the truth — the regulator, the industry or the narrative from the "extremists".

He believed a proposal to dramatically change pig farming would result in poor animal welfare outcomes, including the deaths of "thousands" of piglets, and force more farmers to exit an already beleaguered industry.

Given New Zealanders’ love of pork, the upshot would be a reliance on even more imported pork, produced using practices banned in New Zealand, and from countries where African swine fever was present.

That was not helped by the proposed elimination of tariffs, currently of up to 5%, from pork imported from Europe, following the ratification of the EU-NZ Free Trade Agreement.

Pig farming in New Zealand is a small industry which feeds solely New Zealanders and that was part of the problem, he said.

With only 90 commercial pig farms left, and because it did not export, the industry had "no voice" in Wellington.

For years, much noise had been made about the amount of imported pork — about 64% of New Zealand consumption.

While there was talk of the need for a level playing field, that was not possible — the draft code was above any imports, meaning none of the imported pork met the same regulations as its New Zealand counterparts.

Mr Carter believed the proposal would "destroy" the production side of New Zealand’s industry while the processing side would "just run on imported meat".

The proposal included major changes to the minimum space allowance required for grower pigs, a ban or significant limitation on the traditional use of farrowing systems (farrowing crates), an effective ban on mating stalls and would set a minimum weaning age of 28 days for piglets.

The Carter farm employed three full-time staff, who all had families and were part of the local community.

Without the piggery on the 335ha property — 750 bull beef are also grazed — it would take one person to run it.

There were other economic flow-on effects to the farm’s various service providers, including transport operators and grain growers.

About 900 tonnes of grain was used each year, along with 80% of the by-product produced from a local dairy factory. All nutrient outputs from the piggery were utilised on the land, which reduced reliance on other fertilisers.

Mr Carter has been involved in industry politics for most of his career, including serving as chairman of New Zealand Pork from 2012 until 2018.

He was directly involved in the implementation of the industry’s PigCare programme and he has opened the doors of his piggery for media events, adamant there was "nothing to hide".

That included five days filming on his farm for the film MEAT, which aired in cinemas in New Zealand and the United States.

Representing the industry on the Animal Welfare Forum group in Wellington gave him exposure to other animal sectors at governance level, and he has also travelled extensively to pig events around the world.

Those experiences provided him with a strong understanding of farming practices and public perceptions and behaviours, both around the industry and purchase of pork products.

"As a relatively small but complex domestic industry, it is poorly understood by the public and tends to create an emotional response, regularly positive around our products and an industry challenged by imports, to strong negatives around our misunderstood farming systems," he said.

A perception that pigs were in muddy pens with small shelters — the origins dating back to pictures in old English farm books — still existed for many, he said.

But modern farming systems in housed operations, such as farrowing crates, had been in place for more than 50 generations of pigs.

One of the strengths of any living species was its ability to adapt to its environment, and the modern commercial pig knew its environment as housing. "These are not bush pigs. They have been born and bred for so long by this method," he said.

Those that took time to understand the systems were usually surprised and respectful of the lengths farmers went to in order to understand and look after the needs of their pigs.

He acknowledged some found the notion challenging, but if a farmer was given the time to explain the reasoning behind farrowing, most people usually accepted it. The opportunity to deliver that message was getting harder, he said.

Mr Carter said confinement or restricted movement was being used more often in humans to provide for positive welfare outcomes; he cited children’s car restraints and the use of lockdowns to manage the spread of Covid-19.

"It certainly wouldn’t be acceptable in human systems to enforce something which knowingly reduces the newborn chance of survival."

In his own operation, as the first sow was walked to her crate, the second pig was already happily following, with nobody behind to guide or prompt her.

By the time the first pig was confined, the second was waiting in her crate. "There’s no reason for her to [otherwise] do that," he said.

Mr Carter was directly involved in an earlier review of farrowing crates by NAWAC and believed its conclusion still stood "as there has been little conclusive science for other systems that deliver a better overall welfare for the sow and her piglets combined than the farrowing crate".

"They still statistically provide the piglets the best opportunity to survive and prosper," he said.

While he supported the desire to work towards a reduction of confinement for the sow, that must only happen once systems had been well-developed and implemented to minimise the risk of significant animal welfare problems.

While he supported the desire to work towards a reduction of confinement for the sow, that must only happen once systems had been well developed and implemented to minimise the risk of significant animal welfare.

"I’ve got this bent on life: if it’s not clear of where you’re going to, then you stay with the status quo until it becomes clear."

Trials were being done on open farrowing crates and the results did not necessarily provide better outcomes, he said.

Consumers had been provided with well-labelled, alternatively-produced product (free-farmed) in the market to meet their preferences for some time now. Yet the fastest-growing animal protein category in New Zealanders’ consumption was imported pork, which had no constraints on farming systems.

Free-farmed pork did not necessarily mean better animal welfare, and there had been a "decimation" in numbers in that sector over the past 10 years.

They were less economically viable, the environmental issues were more challenging, and the system relied on more feed — which was increasing in price — and straw, which was getting harder to source. It was also a labour-intensive system amid what was already a challenging labour market.

"Everything is against their sustainability going forward; yet that’s what regulators expect us to move to.

"Where’s your vision? Where’s your forethought here?" Mr Carter said.

He has questioned the capabilities of the NAWAC committee to develop a code suitable for the industry, saying he believed the process was broken, so a "poor outcome" was inevitable.

"To put up a list of options for the public to largely decide, further demonstrates the complexity of the situation, that a solution isn’t clearly evident for NAWAC.

"For the good of our pigs, public perception of welfare shouldn’t be allowed to override science-proven welfare," he said.

Pig farmers were expected to include economic analysis of what it would cost to make the proposed changes, but that was impossible to do given the current situation in the world.

They had not readily been able to get to Europe to see what was working over there, and there were complicated factors around sourcing materials and labour, so it was incredibly difficult to cost.

Ask Mr Carter — whose positivity and enthusiasm for the farming sector has always been evident — whether the issues in his industry are wearing him down, and the answer comes quickly and succinctly: "S... yes."

This week, he has been preparing his submission for the draft code, as submissions closed yesterday. Then there was an issue over the designation of a Significant Natural Area (SNA) on his property, and then with a railway crossing which provided access to his land which was potentially in jeopardy — all of which took him away from farming.

But his biggest frustration was around succession — his two adult sons were both showing interest in the farm — and, as it stood, the piggery was an essential economic component of the farming operation.

A first generation farmer — his parents emigrated to New Zealand from England when he was 18 months old — he had always had the goal of being able to pass his operation on to another generation.

His objective had always been to leave his family something that allowed them to prosper, and that was one of the reasons he got involved politically.

"I’ve been through challenges for the pig industry all the time I’ve been in it. We’ve come up with solutions, we’ve got there and we’re still farming pigs."

With their own young families, his children were at a different life-stage to him and he wanted them to see pig-farming through a fresh lens, and see how they could potentially make it work.

In the meantime, Mr Carter — who cited his two biggest concerns as his pigs and his consumers — said he just wanted to farm and produce food for people "and have the people that consume my food value what I do for them".

"If they don’t like what I do, I’ll change my ways to meet their needs."