The founding objectives of the IPVS were to provide a forum for exchanging ideas and information concerning pig health and disease, to encourage the formation of pig veterinary societies in all countries and to foster cooperation among them. In 1969, Dr. Tom Alexander chaired the Organizing Committee of the inaugural IPVS congress in Cambridge, UK. Tom embodied and shaped the soul of the IPVS by melding an eminent scientific career with ownership of a pig farm. As a consultant, for decades he steered the application of science to pig production globally. I am honored to be given the responsibility to address this 20th IPVS congress, and to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Alexander as we collectively follow his path to pursue those goals. The biggest hurdle in tackling this task is to select a topic. Previous speakers discussed the principles of pig health assurance (Dr. Hank Harris, 2010); exploiting technology to achieve happy pigs and healthy people (Dr. Dan Tucker, 2012); accountabilities in the age of transboundary diseases (Dr. John Harding, 2014); pigs in society (Dr. Jill Thomson, 2016); and the drivers of emerging diseases (Dr. Trevor Drew, 2018).
It is not surprising that two of the last three Alexander Lectures focused on emerging diseases. The disruption of global pork markets caused by the Eurasian (and particularly Asian) epidemic of African Swine Fever (ASF) is still unfolding, and is compounded by whatever the COVID-19 (SARS-2) coronavirus may inflict upon the Chinese and global economies. The animal health, economic and trade impacts of ASF will continue to evolve, and perhaps dramatically, between the time of writing this paper and the delivery of the address in June 2020. The epidemic is already unprecedented in the scale of its impact on the global pork supply, and may be the biggest disturbance to the global protein supply of my lifetime. This gargantuan issue will dominate the IPVS Congress and its theme of “Knowing the Challenges to Increase Profitability”. However, over the coming decades the global swine industry will confront diverse challenges beyond ASF and other emerging infectious diseases. Many of them will be even less under our control and driven by technological advances and societal change. The following thoughts are offered to prompt discussion about which challenges are most likely to influence the prosperity of pork production into the future. As a technical profession, it is a given that pig veterinarians will be mostly engaged with challenges on the production side, supporting our clients or employers in “makin’ bacon”. However, profitability is a fickle mistress to pursue, and the true measure of success for the pork industry will be the extent to which it maintains or expands its share of the global protein market into the future. In this context, challenges to maintaining demand may belittle the challenges we face in achieving a more efficient and reliable supply of pork.
On the bright side, overall food demand is estimated to grow around 14% per decade. Global meat trade increased from $40.2 billion in 2000 to $113 billion in 2017 according to the IHS Markit Global Trade Atlas. Less encouraging is that growth in per capita meat consumption has been in steady decline for several decades, and some developed countries may have already passed ‘peak meat’. In 2018, poultry overtook pork as the world’s most consumed meat. The FAO projects per capita pork consumption will grow at 0.8% per annum from 2015 to 2030, versus 2.4% annual growth for poultry and growth in seafood consumption may be greater still. However, these estimates are largely projections based on prior trends, and are vulnerable to unanticipated events, disrupting technologies and societal flux. The next 30 years promise to deliver rates of change in how we live, and what we eat, at scales beyond what we have previously experienced or perhaps can even imagine.
What does challenge profitability?
An old joke attributed to Thomas Carlyle says that if you can teach a parrot to say ‘Supply and Demand’ you will have an economist. At an enterprise level, the link between health challenges and profitability is both self-evident and all too familiar. However, at the level of a national industry, and even more so in global markets, relationships are more complicated (Buhr et al., 1993). Aggregate supply or demand can change abruptly due to multiple factors, not least politics, and distort markets in the short to mid-term. In 2009, the Canadian government instituted a $75 million buyout plan for its pig industry - not due to poor production, but to a market crisis arising from currency exchange rates and USA meat labelling laws among other factors. Other examples from the USA include the negative effect on farm profitability resulting from the introduction of highly effective PCV2 vaccines around 2008. Improved pig survivability rapidly expanded supply leading to a prolonged period of depressed prices and producer losses. Conversely, shrinking of the pig supply due to the PED epidemic in 2014 created conditions of high profitability for many producers. Furthermore, the economic consequences for affected herds that lost large numbers of pigs was highly variable and influenced by timing of outbreaks in relation to the aggregate supply. Producers affected early in the epidemic lost large numbers of pigs when industry profitability was marginal or negative, but had returned to full production by the peak of the epidemic when aggregate supply was depressed and profitability per pig was around $70. In contrast, herds with similar production losses, but occurring at the height of the epidemic suffered major economic losses due to inability to participate in the price boom. In the absence of expanding demand, collectively good production performance across an industry (be it local, national, or global supply) is likely to be detrimental to producer profitability and primarily benefit customers and consumers.
The current massive deficit in the global pork supply caused by ASF in Asia is delivering unusually profitable conditions for pig industries in much of the world. However, the distribution of the profit windfall from this supply gap is mostly determined by conditions in local markets. An analysis by Dr. Dennis DiPietre in December 2019 compared the impacts of the ASF induced export opportunities on industry profitability in Spain and the USA (DiPietre, 2019). In the USA, packer profitability was at record levels while producers were selling pigs at a loss. In contrast, producer profitability was extremely high in Spain, but the packing sector was struggling. The simple explanation was the balance between local production in relation to packing capacity. So even with extraordinarily favorable conditions of insufficient global supply, the economic benefits reaching producers are governed by local market conditions, and are in no way guaranteed.
Those engaged day-to-day in the business of swine production strive to manage challenges to production arising on the farm (production risk), while the vagaries of markets (market risk) are ‘left to chance’ or addressed with strategies such as hedging on feed and pig prices. In recent US experience, when volatility in feed and hog prices has been relatively high, the success (or otherwise) of risk management strategies has had much more influence on farm profitability than production performance. This was rarely the situation in bygone eras, when variability among farms in performance was much greater and market conditions (particularly feed prices) were more stable. Today, good production performance is necessary, but it is not sufficient to ensure economic viability, and disease remains the biggest ‘wild card’ disrupting herd productivity.
The paradox of progress
Much human endeavor is invested in the concept of progress – that through advances in science, technology, liberty, and democracy we can deliver a better quality of life for humankind. The concept of the ‘paradox of progress’ has been traced to Adam Smith in the 18th century (Heibroner, 1973) and many publications have adopted this title to highlighted paradoxes such as:
- Higher economic growth and consumerism lead to more stress as people work more and society falls behind
- The industrial and information age has created a world that richer in opportunity but is more dangerous
- As society moves forward, more problems are created
- The better things become, the worse they are perceived
Modern food systems are a poster child for the paradox of progress. The ability for average citizens to indulge their dietary or non-dietary preferences (wisely or otherwise), is a hallmark of progressive societies. In developed countries, the transformation of food procurement from hunter-gathering and subsistence agriculture (i.e., the pinnacle of eating local) to one-stop supermarkets straddling complex global supply chains is virtually complete. The vast majority of citizens play no part in producing their food, and have little understanding of it. As with electricity or running water, the facility with which consumers (particularly those of us living at high latitudes), can select from a panoply of fresh fruit and vegetables, among other foods, all year round is taken for granted - yet would be sorely missed were availability suddenly interrupted. In my view, the evolution of the food industry over the last 100 years is a paragon of progress in terms of efficiency and convenience of access to diverse dietary options, and in freeing our time for work or leisure. However, ranging from the highly technical to the sometimes hysterical, questions and criticism abound regarding the sustainability of ‘food systems’ into the future, particularly regarding animal agriculture (Bene 2019). Agriculture already covers over 40% of the ice-free and desert-free land area on the planet and uses about two-thirds of freshwater withdrawals (Poore and Nemechek, 2018). The sheer scope of feeding 8 to 10 billion people means that profile of the food industries of the future will, in no small part, be shaped by environmental sustainability questions and their relative efficiencies and externalities (Balmford et al., 2018).
Since the previous IPVS in Brazil in 1988, the gray-haired among us have observed laudable ‘progress’ in most facets of pork production. In my field of research, it is irrefutable that the safety of pork in developed countries has improved markedly in the modern era (Davies 2011). Pork is now produced at lower cost and with less environmental impact than 50 years ago, and real prices to consumers have dropped accordingly. FAO data indicate that total direct greenhouse gas emissions from US livestock have declined 11% since 1961, while production of meat more than doubled (Mitloehner, 2018). But, paradoxically, the modern pork industry, and intensive animal production generally, is widely perceived to be ‘worse’ than its previous (mythically ideal?) incarnations. In the USA and other developed countries, meat industries are constantly implicated in diverse problems that are sociological (e.g., loss of small farms and impact on rural communities); environmental (e.g., odor, point source pollution, carbon footprint); sanitary (e.g., zoonotic and emerging diseases; antimicrobial use and resistance; food safety) and ethical (e.g., questioning the acceptability of animal housing conditions, traditional farming practices such as castration and tail docking; and carnivorism itself).
Constructive criticism is important in all industries to address real externalities and to guide industry practices in directions that conform to the interests of the overall society. But to be constructive, criticism must be founded on holistic analysis that balances the inevitable tradeoffs inherent in changes to, or constraints upon, industry operations. ‘Career’ critics of the food system in general, and intensive animal production in particular, are primed to pounce on any event that can be portrayed as industry malfeasance, and facts appear to optional (Davies, 2010.) Pressures to reform livestock production currently have considerable momentum via both legislative and commercial avenues, and in the battle to sway public opinion. Today when the vast majority of our customers have negligible experience of farming, we should expect and be sensitive to the fact that their perceptions and values regarding many aspects of animal production (e.g., housing, castration, tail docking, antibiotic use) will be different from ours. The fact that they will continue to be electronically bombarded with negative messages of our industry is also a given. So one of the biggest challenges will continue to be counteract misinformation and demonstrate that our systems and practices of pork production are consistent with contemporary values and acceptable to the bulk of normal and reasonable consumers. We also need the wisdom to realize when they may not be (Davies, 2010).
Technology– friend and foe
Progress demands change, but the familiar quote from Heraclitus (around 500 BC) that ‘change is the only constant in life’ is misleading. As explained by the futurist author Ray Kurzweil ‘analysis of the history of technology shows change is exponential, contrary to the common intuitive linear view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress’ (Kurzweil, 2001). Our greatest challenges and opportunities lie in effectively harnessing new technologies that can revolutionize the way we do business. Dan Tucker previously highlighted the potential of some emerging biotechnologies in relation to pig health and welfare (Tucker, 2012). We have since seen that gene editing has huge potential for opening new avenues for disease control (Burkard et al., 2017). However, much regulatory and consumer terrain has to be navigated before we will enjoy the promise of these approaches (Ruan et al., 2017). More broadly, the era of ‘big data’ and ‘blockchain’ is in its formative phase but promises to transform food industries (Sylvester, 2018), and we need to keep our eyes trained on what technology may do to competition in the marketplace.
There are more than a few warning signs that technology together with societal changes could fundamentally disrupt the protein market. It may not be an overstatement that we are ‘on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago” (Tubb and Seba, 2019). We all should be familiar with the current intensity of investment into innovations targeting alternatives to animal protein, be they cultured animal proteins (‘clean meat’?), plant based proteins and diets, and insect or algal proteins (Henchion et al., 2017). Some of the early initiatives have already experienced setbacks in the marketplace, but it is a long road, they do not all need to succeed, and we ignore them at our peril! Note that some of the biggest players in the animal protein industries are now also entering the alternative protein world. Given the deep cultural roots of eating habits, consumer behavior can be expected to lag behind technology in rate of change; however, generational shifts in food preferences are already well documented. Survey studies suggest Generation Z and Millennials are around 10% less likely to purchase meats than are older shoppers. Food choices are increasingly a statement of identity in wealthy societies, and the intersections of politics and culture with generational change and social media create very unpredictable terrain for ‘technology’ based and conventional proteins. Henchion et al. (2017) concisely point out that ‘novel proteins require the development of new value chains, and attention to issues such as production costs, food safety, scalability and consumer acceptance. Furthermore, positive environmental impacts cannot be assumed with novel protein sources and care must be taken to ensure that comparisons between novel and existing protein sources are valid.’
Some of the more radical projections surrounding animal production are associated with the emerging technology of precision fermentation (Tubb and Seba, 2019). Briefly, precision fermentation (PF) involves the programing of microorganisms to produce specific complex organic molecules (e.g., proteins). Theoretically, this would enable decentralized and urbanized protein production, vastly reducing land requirements and transport. In 2000, producing a kilogram of protein molecules using PF cost around $1 million, but is currently of the order of $100. More telling are projections that PF produced protein will cost less than $10 per kilogram by 2025, and may be 5 to 10 times cheaper than conventional animal proteins by 2030 to 2035 (Tubb and Seba, 2019). The authors make striking predictions about the impact on livestock industries, particularly the dairy industry, together with claims of substantial nutritional and environmental benefits to society. There are vigorous debates about the promises and limitations of food systems founded on technology versus nature. Some of the wisdom put forward includes: ‘techno-utopianism needs to come with a hefty side order of the precautionary principle’ and ‘no industrially generated food could provide the right mix of dietary constituents essential for health’. I am agnostic about whether some or all of these predictions will come to pass. However, I am convinced that technology will have an increasing and substantial role in disrupting the conventional animal industries in the long term, and certainly well before 2050. Watch this space!
Climate change – supply vs. demand!
Ignoring climate change is something of a popular pastime, and raising it may be seen as borderline offensive in some circles. Opinions on this subject among IPVS attendees will doubtless be divided and divisive. You love Greta Thunberg or you do not. My native home of Australia is now in the midst of long-predicted extremes of drought and heat, and unprecedented destruction by fire, including substantial damage in agricultural areas. Beef producers in Australia are now importing DDGS from the USA to replace cottonseed meal in cattle diets due to cotton crop failures. The oyster harvest in Louisiana in 2019 was 50% of normal, largely because of reduced coastal salinity linked to extreme flooding in the Mississippi basin, which also reduced areas planted to corn and soybeans. Agriculture is sensitive to weather. Does anybody engaged in agriculture really believe that climate change is not a ‘challenge’ to be confronted by livestock industries over the next 30 years? The point here is not to debate the science and the causation of what are irrefutable increases in atmospheric CO2 and global surface temperatures, but to consider how both the perceptions and the realities of climate change may influence pork demand and pork production over the coming decades. Bene at al. (2019) posit that extreme weather events (e.g., droughts and floods) are not drivers of food systems, although they affect them. However, they add that increases in the frequency and the intensity of extreme events at some point will become a driver ‘as people, individually or collectively, will start to adapt (changing their behavior and/or technology)’ leading to ‘durable’ changes in food systems.
An obvious issue is consumer perception of the link between animal agriculture and climate change and its potential effect on demand. Estimates of livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have varied widely. Due to methodological deficiencies, the most influential report (‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ from the FAO in 2006) is now acknowledged to overestimate the livestock contribution to GHG considerably (Mitloehner, 2018). Regardless, it has had an indelible impact on societal perceptions and continues to be quoted frequently. In the USA in 2016, the major sources of GHG emissions according to the US Environmental Protection Agency were electricity production (28%), transportation (28%) and industry (22%). All of agriculture accounted for 9%, with animal agriculture contributing 3.9% (Mitloehner, 2018). A modelling study estimated that complete removal of animals from US agriculture would reduce agricultural GHG emissions by 28%, but total GHG emissions by only 2.6% (White and Hall, 2017). But can such information have any real impact on what has become ‘conventional wisdom’ about meat being a primary driver of climate change?
Perhaps a greater climate change concern for the swine industry will be volatility in feed prices due to more extreme and less predictable weather patterns. Greater variability in nutritional value of crops is also predicted. There appears to be little disagreement that the impact of climate change will not be uniform, and that there will be winners and losers, and there is evidence that climate changes to date have been beneficial to corn growth in the USA. This is an area of great complexity and uncertainty that is beyond the scope of this paper, but is discussed in some detail elsewhere (e.g., Myers et al., 2017).
Where will all this leave us?
In much of the developed world, meat consumption has evolved from being a luxury expense for celebratory events to an almost ubiquitous staple. Consumption of pork products is deeply embedded in many cultures and will not disappear overnight. An unanswerable question is whether the collective pressures of future challenges faced by our industry will ultimately shift the pendulum back towards pork being a luxury item versus a regular staple. The wellestablished associations between increased consumption of animal protein with income growth and urbanization are still evident within and among countries. It is therefore a small stretch to suggest that the evolution of income and wealth inequality globally will have some role in the positioning and perception of pork as a luxury versus a staple. Absent some biological realignment, due to feed efficiency alone pork will not win the price battle with poultry or seafood, although it will continue to compare favorably with ruminant protein. We have come so far in productivity gains that further incremental improvements are going to be increasingly hard won. Can we really do much better than maintaining farrowing rates of 90% and average litter sizes of 14 pigs without negative consequences such as elevated sow mortality and reduced piglet survivability and performance? Effective health management will become increasingly valued as variability in the more predictable facets of production is reduced. At least in some markets, there are strong indications that societal pressures will push, and niche market opportunities will pull, pork production in the direction of higher cost of production and likely lower aggregate demand. If implemented via regulation (e.g., sow housing and welfare standards; prohibitions on antibiotic use) we can expect these changes to be translated into trade barriers. The next 30 years promises to be a much wilder ride than the last 30 years, and as always adaptability will be the key to survival.
Published in the proceedings of the International Pig Veterinary Society Congress – IPVS2020. For information on the event, past and future editions, check out https://ipvs2022.com/en.