In spite of consistent technological advances and a confident belief that pig production is well placed to meet the challenge of increasing global demands, there remain many unknowns that the pork production sector must still try to address.

This message emerged from the 22nd Annual Technical Conference arranged by JSR Farms, “The Next Agricultural Revolution” – and it left delegates with plenty of food for thought.

Known, unknown issues  

Speaking at a briefing before the event at Nottingham University’s Sutton Bonnington Campus in England, Lord Christopher Haskins, former rural adviser to Tony Blair’s government and non-executive director of JSR Farms, adapted a quote from Donald Rumsfeld, former US secretary of defense, when he said that there were the known knowns (things we know about), known unknowns (things we know we don’t know) and unknown unknowns – and predicted they would all have a bearing on agriculture and how it evolved.

Of the known issues, the pig sector understands the increasing demand for food and that new technology will continue to advance and increase efficiency to help meet these challenges.

Climate change and agricultural reform are known unknowns, commented Lord Haskins. “These are happening, but as yet we’re uncertain of the outcome.”

Of the unknown unknowns, Lord Haskins listed global conflict, natural disasters and a breakdown of animal health. There was also the question of sustainability.

Canada’s pig crisis  

Opening the conference, Lee Whittington, president and CEO of Canada’s Prairie Swine Centre in Saskatchewan, commented that outside influences were the key reasons for Canada’s pig industry crisis.

Following 25 years of significant growth, Canada’s pig sector was battered by global recession, the loss of a substantial export market and legislation governing environmental issues, green energy and country-of-origin labeling.

In 2007, the Canadian pig industry accounted for less than 2% of world pork production, but provided 20% of world pork exports at 1.03 million tonnes. Today it is a very different story.

The Canadian pig industry also lost about 20% of its sow herd since 2006 and that has quashed investment in trade and research.

“However, what we knew then and still know today is that Canada remains one of the most efficient places to produce pig meat in the world,” said Whittington. “We have the infrastructure, the technology and capacity for growth and the flexibility to adapt to change going forward. What we didn’t know was how politics and foreign exchange rates could affect our industry and they have had a very negative impact on our whole industry.”

A significant “unknown” was the effect of U.S. country-of-origin labeling, COOL, legislation on Canada’s weaner market. The industry had established a significant export trade for 7kg pigs, which fuelled massive expansion.

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“These pigs were shipped as 7kg piglets to Midwest farms, fed on American corn, reared by American producers, and processed by American packers. They were a valuable product for us and the U.S. pig sector, but once COOL came in they were devalued and this coupled with falling currency rates meant the trade just collapsed,” said Whittington.

Pig feeding strategies  

Coming in from another angle, Mick Hazzeldine, of Premier Nutrition, commented that although science has enabled nutritionists to fine-tune pig feeding strategies, they still need to be innovative with formulations and reevaluate nutritional densities.

“We know cost is our main concern, but it’s not the only consideration. These days’ formulations are more specific and defined and nutritionists need a far greater understanding of the raw materials they are using in diets,” said Hazzeldine.

“The energy value of wheat is between 55% and 60%, barley is around 20%, but what are the effects of fiber, hard and soft varieties, starch, viscosity and the rye gene? There is still a lot we don’t fully understand.”

The type of raw materials used in animal feed has also changed significantly as a result of increased competition from the human food sector and price sensitivity. Change also is being driven by the escalating cost of fats, which could mean a switch to lower nutrient density diets in the future.

Global pork production trends  

Finishing on a positive note, Dr Grant Walling, director of JSR Genetics, commented that global pork production appeares to be in a fortunate position. It would have to increase output by 110% during the next 40 years to meet increasing demand, according to the UK government’s “Foresight Report” on the future of food and farming.

Although this sounds ideal, in reality most of this pork would not come from the current high-output Western pig industries, but from the large pig populations now developing in growing agricultural economies, such as China, Brazil and some African states.

Dr Walling said that to satisfy increased demand, Western pig production would need 55.7 pigs weaned per sow a year by 2050 – clearly an impossibility.

“We cannot carry on doing what we are doing. There are too many constraints – biological, environmental and legislative. Instead, we will have to invest our technology in these new industries and share our knowledge and expertise,” said Dr Walling.

“If countries like China, Russia and Brazil could achieve UK performance they could collectively increase output by at least 60%. On a global scale that represents a 32.3% increase in world pork supplies, a significant contribution,” he added.

Biotechnology also has the ability to advance agriculture in developing nations at a far swifter pace than it has in the West, mainly because there is less resistance to novel technologies such as cloning and genetic modification.