Sunday, 17 February 2008

Pig farming

It was with some dismay that I read an article in the Friday edition of the Scotsman which outlined the possible future (or lack of) for pig farming in Scotland. According to the article, there were 70,000 breeding sows in Scotland in the mid-1990s and this has now been reduced to only 45,000. It seems that the problem is the rising cost of animal feed, while the cost of the bacon on the supermarket shelves hasn't changed. The article puts this into context with the example of a 12 acre farm which has to buy about 100 tonnes of barley a month to feed just over 300 pigs. This time last year, the cost was around £80 per tonne, but that has now risen to £174 per tonne.

I have commented previously that the predicted rises in food costs due to the increased cost of feeding the animals don't seem to have happened. I am now wondering how much of this is simply because as the costs incurred by the farmers increase, the supermarkets simply squeeze them harder by refusing to pay the extra. According to the article, it has been suggested that if there isn't enough pork produced in the UK, the supermarkets will simply look elsewhere in Europe.

In one sense, maybe this is fair enough. Farming is, after all, a business and as such should be subject to the same elements of competition as other sectors. However, from the reading I've been doing it might not be that simple. I don't in any sense claim to be an expert here! I'm learning about this just as much as anyone else, but it seems that one of the reasons pork can be produced so much more cheaply elsewhere is that the required welfare standards for the animals are much lower. This would, naturally, make the process of farming them cheaper.

So, it comes down to the question of how much the consumer cares about animal welfare. An identical argument has recently been raised and publicised relating to free range chickens - which is more important, that the chicken be allowed to grow and develop in a natural environment, or that the consumer be able to buy as much cheap chicken as they want? I appreciate that it isn't always going to be that simple and I will try to find the time to explore the issue a bit further.

A quick fact about barley - According to, Britain produces around 6.5 million tonnes of Barley per year, 1.5 million of which are exported, 2 million are used in the brewing industry and the remaining 3 million tonnes are used for animal feed.

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