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Happier pigs ‘increase the strain on the environment’

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

Sandøe: 'Conversely, the kinder one is with the animals, the greater the climate impact per kilo of meat.' Image, Getty, Image Source
Sandøe: 'Conversely, the kinder one is with the animals, the greater the climate impact per kilo of meat.' Image, Getty, Image Source

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Improving the quality of life of pigs could come at the cost of a greater impact to the environment, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen.

Professor Peter Sandøe from the Department of Food and Resource Economics’ comments followed new research into pork production, which found consumers were more concerned with animal welfare than the environmental impact of their products.

Researchers pointed out that there was a practical contradiction between producing more climate friendly pork and improved animal welfare – a more climate friendly pig is a more ‘efficient’ pig.

“It's a real dilemma that maximizing climate friendliness may require pushing animals on a number of other fronts,”​ said Sandøe. “For example, the breeding of sows that give birth to more and more piglets per litter or to keep animals indoors so as to sequester more direct emissions than if they were to roam outdoors.

“Or to feed pigs finely ground feed, so that nothing goes to waste, but which gives them stomach ulcers. Conversely, the kinder one is with the animals, the greater the climate impact per kilo of meat.”

Welfare over climate

Despite the potential impact a ‘happier’ pig would have on the environment, 60% of British respondents to the University’s survey said they would be willing to pay more for pork that was ‘improved’ in terms of better animal welfare, lower climate impact, decreased use of antibiotics used, guaranteed freedom from harmful bacteria and not fed soy.

The clear priority for most respondents was for improved animal welfare.

"The answers clearly demonstrate that focusing solely on climate improvements in pork production is not what consumers care most about when buying pork,”​ Sandøe continued.

“They see it as important that pigs have had a good life, and that this is more important than climate-friendly production. This applies to many consumers in Denmark, Germany and the UK.”

Among German consumers, climate considerations scored lowest out of the five different types of improvements prioritized by the respondents. Danish, British and Chinese respondents placed climate impact at second lowest.

Report co-author Thomas Bøker Lund added: “In light of how much climate has occupied public debate in recent years, we were surprised that bringing down the climate footprint was given such a relatively low priority among consumers.”

Making a difference

“If one is out there as a consumer and buying a piece of meat for dinner, you feel that you have the ability to do something for the individual pig and its welfare.

“But when it comes to the piece of meat’s climate impact, the connection is less clear. Many consumers do not think that they can make a real difference for the climate through their pork purchase behaviour, and many prefer to do something for the climate in other ways.”

Sandøe believed the findings of the report painted a clear picture for both politicians and pork producers moving forward – the climate change problem won’t be solved by labelling climate-friendly pork.

“This is not what consumers are asking for,”​ he concluded. “There is a very real dilemma here, because focusing entirely on climate-friendly pork production will mean compromising on animal welfare, for example, in relation to sows birthing more pigs and the animals being tightly packed into their living spaces.

"Furthermore, relatively speaking, the vast majority of CO2 emissions from animal production stems from beef – which is why cattle must first and foremost bear the brunt when it comes to the climate problem. So, it's a good idea to swap the beef in your Bolognese sauce out for pork or chicken. But at the same time, we need to eat less meat in general and more plant-based foods."

Meanwhile, planned strike action by Irish vets and meat inspectors threatens animal welfare, unsold livestock and mass disruption to the food supply chain,​ according to the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA).

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