A new study from the University of Arkansas has confirmed what many have known for some time – America’s pig farmers are producing a product that has become increasingly sustainable over the past five decades.
According to the new study, A Retrospective Assessment of U.S. Pork Production: 1960 to 2015, the inputs needed to produce a pound of pork in the United States became more environmentally friendly over time. Specifically, 75.9% less land was needed, 25.1% less water and 7% less energy. This also resulted in a 7.7% smaller carbon footprint (see infographic.)
“The study confirms what we as producers have been doing to make good on our ongoing commitment of doing what’s best for people, pigs and the planet, which is at the heart of the industry’s We Care ethical principles,” says Steve Rommereim, National Pork Board president and a pig farmer from Alcester, South Dakota. “It’s a great barometer of our environmental stewardship over the years and gives us a solid benchmark for future improvements.”
The Checkoff-funded study used a comprehensive life-cycle assessment approach and used the best available methodology along with a field-to-farm gate approach. This meant including material and energy flows associated with the full supply chain, beginning with extraction of raw materials through production of live, market-weight pigs, including marketed sows. Unlike previous studies, this research accounts for global warming potential and the use of dried distillers grains in many swine rations.
“This report’s accurate methodology can clearly be seen when you see specific events, such as a sudden spike in mortality rates due to a national disease outbreak, a drought or a change in feed rations,” says Dave Pyburn, DVM, senior vice president of science and technology for the Pork Checkoff. “This level of accuracy offers a lot of transparency on a yearly basis as to what may negatively affect certain sustainability metrics and could help us find solutions to prevent or mitigate them in the future.”
As it has for decades, the U.S. pork industry will continue to make strides in overall efficiency, which is the major driver behind improving sustainability across all metrics. This may come in terms of nutrition, genetics, health management, crop management, overall technology adoption and more. This ongoing trend is clearly seen in the new study. Feed conversion (pounds of feed needed for pound of pork gained) started at 4.5 in 1960 and ended at 2.8 in 2015 – a 38% improvement even while market hog weights went from 200 pounds to 281 pounds during the same period.
“Consumers may be surprised at how much progress America’s pig farmers have made in sustainability over the years,” Rommereim says. “We not only want them to know that we’ve got a good track record, but that we’re not satisfied with the status quo. We plan to use the information to produce an even more sustainable product in the future.”
Because feedstuffs make up the biggest part of pork’s sustainability footprint, the National Pork Board recently signed a memorandum of understanding on improving sustainability with the United Soybean Board and the National Corn Growers Association. The three organizations will cooperate to conduct research directly related to the environmental sustainability indicators of carbon (greenhouse gases), water use, land use, water quality and soil health.
“It’s important for us to look for partners who will collaborate with us to find new ways to make U.S. pork even more sustainable in the years to come,” says Brett Kaysen, the Pork Checkoff’s assistant vice president of sustainability. “We plan to build on the past decade of the We Care initiative by making its ethical principles more visible to the public. Our goal is to increase the understanding of the true commitment that America’s pig farmers have to improving sustainability.”
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