Opinion: Certain aspects of the draft code of welfare for pigs need more scrutiny, writes Dr Kirsty Chidgey, Research Officer, Massey University School of Agriculture and Environment, and Animal Welfare Science Advisor to NZPork.
There has been plenty of discussion following the release of the draft code of welfare for pigs in April.
By far the most controversial change appears to be a ban, or significant limit, of the traditional use of farrowing crates in New Zealand.
There is no question that science and its practical application is now at the stage where the way farrowing crates are currently used is a thing of the past.
Regardless of the final version of the code, there will be a change in farrowing practices for indoor pig farmers, who produce more than half of the pigs farmed in New Zealand.
However, many New Zealanders will not realise that there are additional proposed changes that will have a more significant impact on almost every pig farmer and affect the future viability of the pork sector in New Zealand.
The New Zealand pork industry has not stood still when it comes to animal welfare and it is committed to keep moving.
Over ten years ago, PigCare, an annual on-farm audit programme, was introduced.
Though it is a voluntary programme, around 90 per cent of commercially farmed pigs are PigCare certified.
New Zealand pig farmers were early adopters of group housing for pregnant sows, banning gestation stalls in 2015, despite New Zealand importing pork from countries that were still using them then, and still are today.
NZPork acknowledges that some areas in the code should change and is committed to improving welfare outcomes across the board.
During the code review process, as NZPork's animal welfare advisor, I have been focused on improving our understanding of contemporary animal welfare science and pig welfare research.
I've met with international experts on free farrowing, farrowing pen design, housing systems and pig welfare.
The industry agrees with the science that supports adopting alternatives to the current use of farrowing crates and providing sows with nest-building material before they give birth.
There is justification for an increase in the minimum space allowance for growing pigs.
There is also support for all pigs having access to enrichment material and no more housing of sows in mating stalls.
The result of these combined changes would place New Zealand even further beyond the standards required in the UK, EU, USA, Canada, Australia, and China at present.
So far, this might not sound too different to the same areas that the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) is proposing to change.
However, by far the most significant proposal in NAWAC's draft code is the sheer magnitude of the increase in the minimum space allowance for growing pigs – by either 56 per cent or 140 per cent.
Both options will have a significant impact on almost every commercial farmer, both indoor and outdoor breeding (free farmed) operations.
Pigs on commercial farms are not kept at the minimum space allowance constantly.
When first moved into their housing, they are provided with a significant amount of space well beyond the minimum.
They grow into that space over time and typically only get close to the minimum space allowance for a matter of days before the group size is reduced or they are moved to larger housing.
In theory, farmers have a range of options to meet the proposals for space.
They either at least double the number or size of buildings they currently have, to produce the same number of pigs - or reduce their breeding herd to reduce the number of growing pigs produced - or they move and mix unfamiliar pigs much more frequently to regularly re-adjust group sizes.
Moving and mixing pigs more often would create negative welfare outcomes, as mixing unfamiliar pigs of different ages and sizes would impose unnecessary stress and reduce pig welfare.
NAWAC has acknowledged that this would be an adverse outcome and recognised that the mixing of pigs is a stressor.
The sheer cost of NAWAC's two options for more space is prohibitive. Farmers will also struggle to gain building and resource consents and access bank loans to make the changes.
Though there are very real financial and other barriers, fundamentally it is most important to ensure we keep striving to deliver proven and well-researched positive animal welfare outcomes for all pigs.
However, most of the pork consumed in New Zealand doesn't meet our current welfare standards, with the majority coming from countries that farm pigs using practices that New Zealand has already banned.
The volume of pork imports has increased annually, and currently makes up 64 per cent of pork consumption here.
We are not an exporter of pork, apart from a small amount to the Pacific Islands, so New Zealand farmers are competing directly with these imports, which dictate the price farmers are paid.
We don't have the low cost of production, subsidies, or government funding that they do.
What we do have is higher welfare standards and a commitment to keep improving.
Public consultation on the Code of Welfare for pigs closes on July 8th.