China consumes half the pork in the world and the Chinese government has been taking measures to ensure no shortage can occur. Earlier this year, Chinese company Shuanghui International Holdings bought the world’s largest pork producer, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, for $7.1 billion; the Chinese government maintains a strategic reserve of pork. Half of the world’s pigs now reside in China and that number seems likely to increase. This past week, the Chinese government finalized an agreement to import $73.5 million of pig semen from the U.K.
British pigs will not themselves be heading to China. Starting in 2014, fresh and frozen “porcine semen” from four artificial insemination centers in England and Northern Ireland will be exported. But as Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, writes in the Guardian, in what sort of conditions will the resulting pigs be raised?
Why Pigs Are the Big Losers in This Deal
Prime Minister David Cameron, who just completed a three-day tour of China, has been touting the pig semen deal as one way “to ensure that businesses up and down the country reap the rewards from our relationship with China,” according to a statement from his office. Thanks to the new deal, “Britain’s best pigs will help sustain the largest pig population in the world.”
This big deal doesn’t stop there. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister enthuses that “we’re talking to the Chinese about serving up pigs trotters on Beijing’s finest dining tables. That would be a real win-win – a multimillion pound boost for Britain and a gastronomic treat for Chinese diners.”
While there are more pigs in China than anywhere else in the world (and the country imports the massive amounts of soybeans and grains to feed them), China’s animals have not been bred “for efficiency,” says the Los Angeles Times. As a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report points out, while China produces five times as much pork as the U.S. does, it requires seven times as many pigs to do so. Even though the amount of pigs in China has been increasing at a steady rate, its pork output has “slowed even more over the two decades [1990s - 2000s], from 5.9% to 2.2% per year.”
As Lymbery explains, British pigs “grow faster, have a lower fat-to-meat ratio and higher reproduction rates than their Chinese counterparts.” While a U.K.-bred sow can produce as many as 30 piglets a year, those in China have fewer than 16. It then takes almost a year “for native Chinese pigs to reach slaughter-weight”; those in the U.K. do so in five months. British pigs also do all that while consuming less food, according to Chris Jackson, export manager of the British Pig Association.
It remains to be seen in what sort of conditions Chinese-born pigs who have been produced from imported semen will be raised. Sows in China are very likely to be raised in stalls or crates, Lymbery writes — that is, in circumstances that would be illegal in the U.K. Even more, potentially millions of pigs will be born from modern breeds that have been connected to a number of animal welfare concerns including “rapid growth rates putting pressure on the heart and lungs to keep up, more competition at the udder in increased litter sizes and leaner animals having a predisposition to tail biting.”
Importing Pig Semen is Not a Sustainable Plan to Feed a Population
China’s plan to import British porcine semen to feed its huge population does not offer “long-term solution to feeding the world.” How much waste will be generated from all of these pigs? “Continually intensify[ing] animal agriculture, confining livestock to factory farms” is not the answer to addressing world hunger, says Lymbery, and only makes problems such as food waste worse.
Lymbery’s organization, Compassion in World Farming, has just launched its Good Pig award program in China, to encourage Chinese farmers to improve their animal welfare standards. This is certainly a very good step but, even as the animal welfare movement grows in China, it unlikely to make a huge impact. The British government has spoken of its million-pound porcine semen deal with China only in terms of the economic benefits for British farmers and the gastronomic ones for Chinese citizens. As happens time and again, the welfare of the very creatures at the heart of the matter, the pigs, has been pushed aside, in the interest of getting as much meat on the table (and profits in some people’s pockets) as possible.
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