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Study shows US pig farmers making major sustainability progress

A recent study from the University of Arkansas indicates that today’s pork is more earth-friendly than ever thanks to progress in multiple key sustainability metrics over more than five decades.

19 April 2019, at 9:00am
Today's pig farmers embrace environmental sustainability like never before. Learn how much we have reduced energy, water and land usage in #RealPigFarming through A Retrospective Assessment of US Pork Production: 1960 to 2015 © Pork Checkoff

America’s pig farmers continue to practice many of the principles of Earth Day, which is 22 April, every day on their farms, and in many cases, have done so for generations.

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 have become more environmentally friendly over time. Specifically, 75.9 percent less land is needed, 25.1 percent less water and 7 percent less energy. This also has resulted in a 7.7 percent smaller carbon footprint (see infographic).

To save as much water as today’s pig farms do over their predecessors of 50-plus years ago, the average American would have to take 90 fewer showers per year. Likewise, to understand the energy savings accomplished by pig farmers during the study period, a typical household would need to eliminate the use of a refrigerator altogether.

“The study confirms that US pig farmers like me have been making progress in our ongoing commitment to do what’s best for people, pigs and the planet, which is at the heart of the industry’s We CareSM initiative,” said Steve Rommereim, National Pork Board president and a pig farmer from Alcester, South Dakota.

“It’s encouraging to see this level of progress in environmental stewardship over the years. It also is helpful to have a benchmark to measure additional improvements.”

Unlike some earlier studies, the new Pork Checkoff-funded study used a comprehensive life-cycle assessment approach and 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.

“As it has for decades, the US pork industry will continue to make strides in overall efficiency, which is the major driver behind improving sustainability across all metrics,” Rommereim said.

This may come in terms of nutrition, genetics, health management, crop management and overall technology adoption. The ongoing trend is clearly seen in the Arkansas 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 percent improvement even while market hog weights went from 200 pounds to 281 pounds.

“Celebrating Earth Month in April provides an opportunity to not only recognise the environmental sustainability advancements of pig farming in the last five decades, but also to explore new ways to build on this progress going forward,” Rommereim said.

“We look forward to the challenge of improving our current metrics of sustainability because it’s right for consumers, farmers, animals and the planet.”