Pork barrelling down wrong path

By yielding to pressure from activists, Australian pig farmers have reduced their competitiveness

THE Australian pig industry has a problem. It is in the process of phasing out sow stalls but competing against overseas competitors that will probably continue using them indefinitely.

Sow stalls are individual pens used to house pregnant sows to prevent them from engaging in activities that lead to miscarriages, particularly fighting with other sows. Pig farms that use them tend to have higher productivity, in the form of more live piglets born per sow.

The Australian industry has come under enormous pressure from animal rights activists who insist sow stalls are not humane. Their assertions are anthropomorphic (ie. they ascribe human feelings to animals), based on emotion, and put the entire welfare emphasis on the sow with no consideration at all for the piglets that die when stalls are not used. Nonetheless, they have been quite successful.

In 2010 Coles responded to this pressure by telling pork suppliers it would not accept product from piggeries that continued to use sow stalls. The pig industry, which was already in the process of reviewing its position, then agreed to phase them out by 2017. Many producers have not waited until then.

The pig industry was operating on the assumption, as many industries do, that giving a bit of ground would prevent a worse situation from developing. The same thinking has led many companies to sign up to “roundtables” in which the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) plays good cop while Greenpeace lurks in the background as bad cop. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and its certification process is another example.

Even if the activists were on the right side of a black-and-white argument, which is clearly not so, the logic of Australia making itself uncompetitive in the international pig meat market is dubious. If sow stalls are to be abolished, it probably only makes sense in the context of an international agreement in which no country gains an advantage.

But there is no international momentum for this.

British supermarkets (from which Coles has obtained its current crop of senior managers) demand their pork suppliers not use sow stalls, and Danish piggeries that supply the British market have responded, but that’s about it. There is no Europe-wide drive to stop using sow stalls and absolutely no interest in abandoning them in the US or Canada, both of which are huge pork producers and exporters.

The consequences are predictable. Pig producers in Europe and North America enjoy lower costs of production, and imported ham, bacon and other smallgoods account for around 70 per cent of the Australian market. While Australians continue to tell market researchers they prefer pork sourced from piggeries that don’t use sow stalls, their purchasing behaviour tells a different story. In the end, only price really matters.

Although Coles is buying more Australian pig products - in part because it cannot source enough non-sow-stall product from overseas - the same is not true of its competitors. By yielding to the pressure from the activists, Australian pig farmers have reduced their competitiveness.

Some will say this is all fine; at least Australia’s sows are happier, Australia is setting a good example for the rest of the world, and it’s not all about making money. Except that this route ultimately leads to poverty. It’s much the same as adopting a carbon tax when the rest of the world does not. All it achieves is to transfer jobs and profits to your international competitors.

What it also highlights is the weakness in the strategy of offering compromise. It is common for business people to believe that compromise is the best approach, because that’s usually how things are resolved when both sides are rational. But animal rights activists and other eco-fundamentalists, including WWF and Greenpeace, are different. They regard compromise as a sign of weakness and use it to present new arguments from a strengthened position. The ultimate goal of the animal rights lobby, for example, is universal veganism, not happy pigs. Making pig farmers uncompetitive is merely a step on that road.

Faced with similar types of foes, whether superficially “reasonable” or not, some organisations have abandoned the notion of compromise and simply refused to give any ground whatsoever. And on the basis that the best form of defence is attack, that has been employed too too.

A good example of this is seen in the US, where 13 states have introduced food libel laws allowing a food manufacturer or processor to sue a person or group who makes disparaging comments about their food products. In some cases these laws even place the burden of proof on the party being sued.

In 1998, television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and one of her guests were involved in a Texas lawsuit based on a food libel law known as the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act, arising from an episode of her show in which the two made disparaging comments about beef in relation to the mad cow scare. The case was ultimately unsuccessful but apparently Winfrey no longer makes public comments on the issue.

Another example is the National Rifle Association, probably America’s most successful lobby organisation. Notwithstanding massive pressure to compromise, it has steadfastly refused to give an inch. Its success, in achieving more liberal firearm laws in the face of repeated efforts to impose the opposite, suggests its strategy has worked.

The pig industry, along with most commercial operators in the agriculture sector, is continually fighting a rear-guard action against people opposed to everything it stands for.

Despite compromise being the path normal people might prefer, perhaps it is time to take a leaf out of the book of those who refuse to compromise. It might keep a few more pig farmers in business.

David Leyonhjelm

David Leyonhjelm

has worked in agribusiness for 30 years and is a Senator for NSW representing the Liberal Democrats.
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


17/03/2014 12:14:25 PM

I totally agree with you David on this issue. You cannot compromise with people that are not rational. The NFF etc need to take a leaf out of the NRA handbook too. The hypocritical RSPCA doesn't support any AU animal producers. How about the RSPCA advertising the good work AU pig producers are doing. Also the fact the Colesworth import the majority of its pig products directly from producers overseas that don't have our extremely high standards. Its also the Australian consumer that has the problem they demand one thing but their wallet says another.
17/03/2014 1:04:09 PM

CQ, you are simply wrong. There are multiple systems being used from different electronic sow feeders, cafeteria/stall feeding & floor-fed group housing that have all not seen huge losses in productivity - they've actually resulted in a higher level of management as you need to become a better stockperson. At this stage there is no move away from farrowing crates, so overlays are not part of this argument. The industry is however focusing a large amount of R&D into investigating & improving the outcomes of alternative farrowing systems to reduce the negative interactions b/w sows & piglets.
Dr Malcolm Caulfield
17/03/2014 1:41:11 PM

The problem with Mr Leyonhjelm's view of sow stalls is that it is not only unsupported by the science (see http://www.voiceless.org.au/sites /default/files/Science_and_Sense. pdf), but is not supported by the industry's own figures. The 2010 Australian Pork Annual shows that countries which have not had sow stalls for many years now (that is, Sweden and the UK) produce piglets at an equivalent or greater efficiency than Australia. So there are no grounds for believing that sow stalls are necessary to prevent loss of piglets.
Greg Ludvigsen
17/03/2014 2:33:46 PM

Great understanding of an industry I spent considerable time in and left for the reasons made clear here. Too many people with no cash on the table or knowledge of what they are discussing have too much to say and are listened to by others who while well intentioned are sadly misinformed. Impossible to run a proper quality pig business in this environment. Glad to see we have one politician who understands.
Cattle Advocate
17/03/2014 5:37:03 PM

Alice Springs SM.Certain eggs are not available 'Due to unexpected events within the industry' this could last 5-6mths, this was after BF in FR hens killed 450K hens in NSW should Aus import eggs? The UK imports 60pc of its pork and gets eggs from Ukraine,French farmers smashed 100K ethical eggs over low prices. In 1998 the EU which UK joined in 1973,with a 50pc subsidy dumped pork in Poland Hungary Czech Republic,P H&CR had their exports to Russia hit by the Ruble crisis after $5B in loans were stolen CR protested and EU dumped it in Russia as 'Aid' Is UK the same as Alice Springs on eggs?
18/03/2014 6:37:28 AM

Divide and conquer. The supermarkets don't actually care about ethical or not, this is simply a way for them to justify, buying and on selling, cheaper imported goods over more expensive Aust grown produce.
18/03/2014 8:46:11 AM

Well said cv. They make more profit from poor quality imported food and they will do anything they can to maximise their shareholder returns. The problem is they are misleading the gullible public with their underhanded tactics.
19/03/2014 3:44:45 AM

Don't be sucked in by those who tell you that you get better production in group housing. Those that do are the ones who had have let the industry down by not improving their stalls and increasing the size of the stall as the genetics and nutrition have improved; and the sows have become larger. Any comparisons should be done comparing best practice stalls to best practice group housing with the same genetics and management. The sow and piglet productivity is the best science behind what is best for them. Pigs, like us humans perform according to the environment and management they/we are in.
19/03/2014 4:10:51 AM

David, What an excellent article. In fact I think it is the only one by you, that I have agreed with 100%. It is not only in our pig industry that we are capitulating to anti farming interests and losing in this country.
jack tancock
19/03/2014 4:18:54 AM

This issue is one more reason why Australian farmers need more of their number participating in a single unified industrial organisation. It is a case where we need to stand up to the radical and economically irresponsible elements in society. It is almost impossible to do it as individuals, and needs a unified mass farmer only, organisation to take on the real meat industry haters.
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Agribuzz with David LeyonhjelmCommentary, news and analysis with agribusiness consultant David Leyonhjelm. Email David at reclaimfreedom@gmail.com


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