British pig farmers are warning of a crisis that threatens a mass exodus from an industry facing a skills shortage as well as huge increases in costs of feed and energy.
In October 2021, the pig industry was rocked by mass culling of healthy pigs due to a shortage of skilled butchery workers. Many workers left the UK after changes to their visa status due to Brexit.
The governments drive for British skilled workers for British skilled jobs forgot many of the backbone of our society who make this country function, including thousands of people in the food industry. With not enough home-grown talent to carry out highly skilled butchery work, this gaping hole in the meat supply chain meant farmers were unable to take their mature pigs to slaughter. Mass culling began on these highly geared farms as the supply chain disintegrated with unprecedented backlogs in abattoirs, leaving many farmers with few options.
Pigs are bred on a weekly cycle meaning the supply of live animals ready for slaughter builds up quickly. Any delay to the supply chain means an increase in cost due to feeding pigs for longer, and most intensive farms have very little extra space to keep extra pigs.
Pig farmers had been warning of the building crisis for several months prior to the cull, calling on the government to more to support the industry. Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly dismissed concerns, joking that “our food processing industry does involve killing a lot of animals” which caused outrage from the farming community and led NFU President Minette Batters to take to the panel on Question Time, exposing a clear lack of action and accountability from government.
At the same time, when many British pig farmers were having to make the difficult decision to cull their livestock, supermarkets continued to import pork, and offshore Trade deals were sought in an attempt to pass the problem of food production to other countries - potentially leaving the British consumer exposed to cheaper imported meat produced to standards that are illegal in the UK.
It is estimated that there are still 100,000 pigs stuck on farms that should have gone to slaughter, with farmers losing in excess of £50 per pig due to the enormous gap between the cost of production and the price that retailers are willing to pay.
British pig farmers continue to face more challenges. Energy and feed prices have continued to rise and pig prices have failed to keep pace with the situation, leading to even greater loses.
In some cases, it isn’t just the cost of feed, it is also the availability. Many farmers are struggling to source the required food for their pigs. The global supply of animal feed has been greatly impacted by the war in Ukraine, known as the ‘bread basket’ of Europe, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has squeezed out a major chunk of supplies from the Black Sea region. That supply has now become even more catastrophic due to the Indian governments decision to restrict wheat exports, due to significant crop failures that caused a hike in their domestic price of grains. Drought in Canada has also meant that it is producing wheat at a 14-year low. Parched soils and record-hot temperatures in Canada's western crop belt sharply reduced farm yields of one of the world's biggest wheat-exporting countries. Droughts and disruption have driven the demand of the limited supply of wheat to a record high.
Unsustainable costs are driving many British farmers out of business, an industry poll from The National Pig Association showed that four out of five producers would go out of business within a year unless their financial situation improved.
80% of pig farmers surveyed indicated that they would not survive the next 12 months if things did not improve, and estimated that by 2023 British pork will be in such short supply that most retailers will no longer be able to source it.
If supermarkets continue to import ‘cheap’ lower welfare pork, many farmers warn that it will be the end of the British industry.
All of this catastrophic disruption is impacting the type of pork available to buy, many smaller scale pig producers are unable to ride out the storm, leaving just the highly geared intensive pig producers remaining on our shores. The industry is being dramatically reshaped before our eyes.
Strain on the system in highly geared pig units is also meaning corners are being cut, which poses serious welfare concerns.
It is imperative that we support the best of British farming, or, we are very much in danger of losing it.
Thanks to your support for our Properly Free Range, Native Breed Pork, this year we have added another two brilliant new nature friendly pig farmers, rearing stunning native breed pork, to our tapestry of over 40 family farms.
All our pigs live outside, in family groups, roaming freely and display all of their natural instincts, digging for roots and wallowing in mud - Mother Nature's brilliant sunblock.
Pigs are monogastric animals, which means their digestive system is adapted to extract nutritional value from a wide range of sources. In traditional farming systems pigs have been very efficient processors of waste and by-products. Our native breed pigs are not genetically engineered to respond to highly processed industrial diets. Instead, they thrive on a wide range of simple ingredients ranging from cereal grains to forage to nuts or apples, and very importantly soil biota to nourish their own gut biomes. All our pigs are raised outside on pasture, enjoying forage crops such as kale, turnips and fodder beet, this allows us to give them a varied and nutritious diet, but also means we can feed them significantly less grain than intensive pigs will eat.
Sustainable food systems are about much more than simply avoiding chemicals and antibiotics, they are about building organic matter in the soil through crop rotation and mixed farming practices. High levels of organic matter are the basis for soil fertility, releasing nutrients for healthy plant growth and ultimately food. In other words, the amount of organic matter present in the soil is essential, both for combating climate change, ultimately improving our health and removing our reliance on fossil fuels and artificial inputs. Managed effectively pigs provide one of the most sustainable ways of improving soil health, ploughing and fertilising the ground in the most natural way, minimising the use of machinery and inorganic fertilizers.
Once our pigs are mature we take them to small scale, low throughput abattoirs, who we have a long standing, direct relationship with for many years. They are slaughtered with the highest standards of welfare - this has always been of paramount importance to us. We then collect our carcasses from the abattoir and bring them home to our butchery where they are hung until ready, then skilfully and meticulously butchered by our wonderful team of highly skilled artisan butchers.
There is a future for British pig farming, but we have to stand together and reject damaging systems of production. It is vital that we continue to value high welfare, sustainable farming through challenging times. Now more so than ever before, farmers need our support.
We know it is a difficult time for many people and we thank you for choosing Pipers Farm. Your support allows us to do things the right way: growing your food with the smallest environmental impact and the best flavour, while guaranteeing a fair deal for all.