The latest EFSA scientific opinion on the welfare of pigs on farm was published a few weeks ago and I have to say that it makes for a fascinating and grim read at the same time.
The document is thorough in responding to the European Commission’s mandate: it incorporates a wealth of information on the natural behaviour of pigs; it presents the latest scientific evidence on pig welfare challenges as well as the reasoned opinions of field experts, and it offers insightful recommendations on how to manage what will undoubtedly become a hotly debated transition towards (slightly) better systems.
Nonetheless, reading about all the ways in which intensively reared pigs (146 million in 2020) are made to suffer by our hands throughout the EU is still not easy. There is not one category of pigs, not even young piglets suckling under their mothers, that is spared from some degree of discomfort, pain, or distress, sometimes severe.
99% of EU pigs live their lives indoors, in big sheds where they have nothing to do, are exposed to many health and welfare challenges and are never allowed to go outside. Breeding sows are still confined for weeks on end to individual stalls for gestation and farrowing. Piglets are separated from their mothers unnaturally early. The needs of breeding boars haven’t even been properly investigated. And I could continue.
The magnitude of the suffering we inflict on pigs is certainly not surprising for people who work in animal advocacy. I have seen investigation after investigation documenting appalling conditions that is hard to believe are exceptions: lack of any kind of enrichment materials; painful mutilations carried out routinely; extremely sick or injured pigs, even dead ones, left to suffer or rot among their pen mates; unsanitary conditions; sows with huge lesions; weak piglets left to suffer and die or killed with brutal methods.
How is it possible that, with the knowledge we have, we keep rearing pigs like this?
All this time we have asked ourselves and the policy makers: is there really no other way? How is it possible that even the legislation we have, which is weak enough, cannot be enforced? The answer lies, as is often the case, in the economics of pig production.
As the scientific opinion stresses time and again, the EU pig rearing machine is fine-tuned to maximise output, the tonnes of pig meat it churns. Some argue that, historically, this focus on production at the lowest possible price was justified by the need to produce as much animal protein as possible in difficult times. But ultimately, it seems that we are now stuck with a system that is intrinsically incompatible with respecting the sentient nature of pigs, which, to boot, are extremely intelligent and inquisitive animals.
The time of cages is over, and the industry must face the reality.
One of the most important conclusions of this new scientific opinion by EFSA - the one that has been most celebrated by the animal protection movement that stands behind the ECI “End the Cage Age” - is that sows and gilts should be kept permanently in groups.
Yes, there are challenges, but the EFSA concludes that these challenges can be effectively managed. The opinion goes as far as recommending to avoid potential compromises such as “temporary crating systems” that will inevitably become obsolete like the infamous “enriched cages” for laying hens.
Reading the report in full, there is a risk this recommendation gets lost among all the others that are, of course, also extremely relevant: for instance, the EFSA recommends that pigs must be given more space and appropriate enrichment materials and painful mutilations (castration, tail docking, tooth clipping) should no longer be carried out.
Sow liberation cannot happen soon enough
I want to spend a few words on sows. I am not sure we talk enough about them. Yet they are the ones, together with boars but obviously in much greater numbers, that stay in production the longest, and whose welfare is threatened the longest until they are “culled”, or sent to slaughter, often fragile or sick on that last journey.
The EFSA opinion describes their natural behaviour, which is still very much the same as their (semi) wild counterparts. One then finds out that sows like to live in matriarchal groups of mothers and daughters. Like other pigs, they spend most of their waking time exploring the environment and rooting for food with their snouts.
A couple of days before giving birth, pregnant sows will look for a secluded place, often far away from their home range, and start gathering suitable materials (branches, grasses) to build a comfortable nest. There are videos available online of sows performing this behaviour in outdoor and free-farrowing systems. For instance, this one filmed by the EURCAW-pigs. I warmly invite everyone to watch it: the skilfulness and dedication to the task are phenomenal.
If we now compare all this with standard industrial rearing conditions, reality hits hard. To optimise fertility and body condition, pregnant sows are fed a restricted diet, so that they are constantly hungry.
Like all other pigs, they have little opportunity to forage or explore as enrichment materials are not always provided. They spend several weeks confined to individual stalls, including when they give birth and during lactation. In such stalls, they cannot even turn around. But of course, when close to parturition, they are still so eager to build a nest that they go through the motions, in a frustrating attempt to make a metal cage comfortable for their young.
On many farms, piglets are abruptly taken away from the sows at 21 days (in nature, weaning is gradual and occurs between 13 and 17 weeks of age). This unnatural process causes stress to the sows and health and behavioural issues to the piglets.
This is all exclusively in the name of productivity and cost effectiveness. There’s nothing even remotely “humane”, nothing to like about it. And this is why sow liberation deserves to be celebrated and cannot happen soon enough.
However, on its own, this win won’t be sufficient to atone for what we’ve done to pigs. We need all-round fundamental changes, and the EFSA opinion clearly points in this direction when it stresses that the inability to perform exploratory or foraging behaviour is the most relevant welfare issue for all pigs, including sows during lactation and suckling piglets.
This conclusion is, in my view, what should guide the upcoming revision of pig welfare legislation in the EU because it confirms what animal advocates have been saying for decades: fully indoor confinement systems are incompatible with pig welfare unless we introduce radical improvements to the buildings, the management, and the genetic selection of these animals.
If the “price” to pay is rearing much fewer pigs, so be it. Actually, this should be the ultimate goal, aligned with the expansion of our circle of compassion and a shift towards more plant-based diets. But that’s for another story.