op ed articles

Hogs victims of surge in production

Province urged to ban 'sow stalls' that have become commonplace practice

John Youngman
Winnipeg Free Press
March 13th, 2003

AFTER years of promoting intensive hog production as a cornerstone of its economic agenda, the government of Manitoba now bears some responsibility for the appalling state of animal welfare in Manitoba hog barns.

Pigs are now the most valuable agricultural commodity in Manitoba. In 2001, Manitoba produced 6.4 million pigs worth $860 million. Manitoba's hog industry is also the fastest growing in Canada, increasing by an average of 16 per cent annually between 1998 and 2001.

Such rapid growth has been achieved through intensification and automation – keeping large numbers of animals in extreme confinement with food and water dispensed automatically. The result has been an animal-welfare horror story of monumental proportions.

Female pigs used for breeding purposes (sows) pay the highest price. Sows are the "baby machines" of the hog industry, giving birth to the piglets who eventually wind up as pork. In the old days, farmers used to raise sows in barns where the animals could live and interact in social groups, build nests in straw and give birth naturally. All that has changed.

The way sows are forced to live today would shock the sensibilities of the average Manitoban. Sows are kept perpetually pregnant and locked inside tiny metal cages measuring just two feet across, known as "sow stalls." These stalls are so small the mother pig cannot turn around. The floors are slatted concrete. Since there is nowhere to move, the normally fastidious sow must urinate and defecate where she lies, and breathe in fumes laden with ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from the open sewage pits beneath her. Here the poor creature remains virtually motionless – pregnancy after pregnancy – for most of her adult life. When her productivity wanes, she is shipped to slaughter. This is no life for any animal, much less a pregnant one. Yet it has become the industry standard in Manitoba.

The scale of animal suffering is staggering. Half of Manitoba's 1,668 hog operations breed sows. Some are animal warehouses with over 2,000 sows each. In 2001, a total of 288,400 sows were in production in Manitoba, with the vast majority confined in stalls. And the problem is getting worse as Manitoba's hog industry continues on its course of rapid expansion.

Why sow stalls are used is simple: economics. Stalls are a way of cramming large numbers of animals into a small space, thereby reducing building costs. Because sows are individually caged, and food and water are dispensed automatically, caring for the animals requires little in the way of skill from hog barn workers. And less food is required to maintain an animal who barely moves.

It does not have to be this way. Compassionate places all over the world are banning sows stalls on animal-welfare grounds. Europe has banned them effective 2013, and they have already been banned in some European countries, including Great Britain, Sweden and Denmark. Closer to home, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in November banning sow stalls throughout the state. There are efforts currently under way to ban stalls in Maryland and Iowa.

Where sow stalls have been banned, pig farmers are going back to the "old way" of raising sows in groups, known as group housing. Some innovative hog farmers in Manitoba have been successfully group-housing sows for years. However, the vast majority of new sow barns in Manitoba continue to be built with sow stalls, and with the full blessing of government.

In Manitoba and the rest of Canada, sow stalls are perfectly legal. This needs to change. Manitoba urgently needs legislation banning sow stalls, for the sake of both the animals and the viability of Manitoba's $860-million hog industry.

In 2001, 60 per cent of Manitoba's pork worth $519 million was shipped to 36 countries around the world, including the U.S., Japan, Korea and China. What happens when, as a result of growing public awareness, consumers around the world lose their taste for factory-raised pork? What happens when public opinion eventually renders millions of dollar's worth of Manitoba sow stalls obsolete – potentially overnight? After spurring on intensive hog production for years, will the Manitoba government be there to bail out hog farmers? Such are the costs of doing nothing.

Manitoba would do well to adopt Europe's phase-out date of 2013. This would give Manitoba farmers plenty of time to adjust and would also sit well with our global trading partners.

Without legislation banning sow stalls, millions of animals will continue to suffer needlessly and Manitoba pork will one day be as unmarketable as old-growth lumber or sweatshop sneakers.

John Youngman serves on the board of directors of the Winnipeg Humane Society and chairs its farm animal welfare committee.