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Time to protect, reinvent agriculture, say industry leaders

Where in the world do we grow pigs?

Pork industry innovators recognized at 2008 Banff Pork Seminar

Mandatory COOL threatens Canadian and U.S. pork producers, say industry leaders

Pork producers must build on strengths in the face of crisis

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2008 Banff Pork Seminar

Inside the Banff Pork Seminar

Date posted: January 17, 2007

By Meristem editors, Jeff Melchior, Brad Brinkworth and Terry Hockaday

If you want a quick sense of the reputation of the Banff Pork Seminar, stand at the door near the registration desk where people file in for the morning's plenary sessions. The first thing that strikes you is its size. While drastic pork industry economics have attendance off a bit this year, it has consistently drawn in the neighborhood of 700 people, making it one of the largest conferences in the industry.

Second is the diversity of those people and their backgrounds. For years they have come from across North America and many countries around the world. They represent the broad spectrum of the pork business - producers, academics, government, industry and media - searching for leading edge information and the opportunities that go with it.

The third thing is the integrity of the conference. Year after year it has consistently challenged the pork industry to be a better, bigger, ever more responsible player in a sustainable world industry. Not all topics are welcomed or popular, but they are selected because they are seen as important. It's one reason that today the pork industry speaks with real confidence on many issues key to their stakeholders. That confidence is reflected in the quality of speakers this Seminar attracts and the fact that the Seminar is open to all media.

Finally, this is Banff, renowned internationally as a natural jewel. It's a stunningly beautiful backdrop to learning, and a solid reason for the ongoing Seminar popularity.

Meristem editors work with the Banff Pork Seminar to help get the message out to audiences across Canada and around the world. In the process we get our own unique window into the dynamic world of these industry leaders. Here's our editors' look "inside the Banff Pork Seminar."

Insight (or incite) from the always-provocative Dennis Avery

Date posted: January 17, 2007

The author of such books as Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming, agricultural and environmental analyst Dennis Avery has become known for views that fly in the face of prevailing scientific and economic thought.

These include his defence of high yield farming as an ecologically sustainable practice, his criticism of consumer demand for organically-produced food, and his argument that global warming is a natural, cyclical phenomenon that has occurred in the past and is occurring now. Avery spoke at the 2008 Banff Pork Seminar on these and other subjects. Here's a sample.

On pets and vegetarianism. "World demand for food, feed, and pet food will more than double by 2050. Total human numbers will likely stabilize at less than nine billion, but we'll have perhaps seven billion affluent consumers. If China reaches America's pet ownership density, that will mean 500 million additional cats and dogs, none of them vegetarian. The resulting surging demand for meat and milk - which require roughly three times the farming resources per calorie - will hugely amplify the demand for farming resources."

On biodiversity. "The best cropland never had many species. You saw it (in North America): 60 million bison, 100 million antelope, enough wolves to go around. That's three species. The biodiversity of this planet is in the poor land. (Ecologist Michael) Huston's point was and is completely valid: grow as much as you can of the best land, as long as it's sustainable, and leave the poorer land to nature. That's how you save species. That's how you contributed to saving species. That's how you ought to claim credit for saving species."

On the connection between high yield farming and human health. "Most of humanity's communicable diseases, the epidemics, evolved as microbes passed back and forth between humans and their livestock living in close conjunction . . . With confinement feeding we don't expose our consumers to those (diseases). We don't let the microbes shift freely back and forth, (exposing them to) the new mutations of the diseases. Public health is the biggest reason for confinement feeding and we don't tell the consumers. They might have some interest."

On global warming "Where's the norm? Where's that flat spot where we have 'real' temperatures? It doesn't exist. It's always either warming or cooling. And you don't get a choice. You get what Mother Nature says and just be grateful that your time on earth was one of the warmer ones."

The biogas commitment issue

Date posted: January 17, 2007

Converting hog manure and other farm organic waste into renewable energy is a tough concept to argue with.

"Biogas" is potentially greener than any other gas technology. It can help hog operations lessen their environmental footprint, with the promise of thickening their pocketbooks by using the energy on-site or selling to the power grid.

Challenge is, the economics right now just don't pan out, says Brian Koberstein, unit leader of livestock engineering with Alberta Agriculture and Food. Taking into account the investment to implement a biogas system and the revenue it could produce, most operations would still need to generate over half their biogas revenue from "green incentives" such as government programs to promote biogas.

In Alberta and most other jurisdictions, those incentives either don't exist or aren't strong enough.

"It's like being a 22 year old who's been dating the same girl for a couple years and the commitment issue comes up," quipped Koberstein, speaking in a breakout session on biogas at the Banff Pork Seminar. "Right now, the government just wants to date you but won't buy you a ring."

Still, some operations such as Peace Pork Producers, which runs a 8,000 sow farrow to finish operation in the Peace River regions of Alberta and British Columbia, are taking it upon themselves to drive innovations toward making it work.

After an initial attempt to implement a large-scale biogas system met with a range of obstacles, Peace Pork Producers have learned some valuable lessons and are gearing up for another try, says Wes Anderson of Peace Pork, who spoke on their experience.

Some of the keys are to understand the science, carefully choose your support, and understand revenue stream vs. cost, says Anderson.

To those, he added "visit Denmark."

"They're way ahead over there and in fact this round we're using consultants from Denmark. We made a trip to Denmark to see what they do. What we learned is probably the biggest factor that has given us the confidence to make another attempt."

Anderson advises to also learn from the oil patch. Peace Pork purchased a powerful Waukesha engine from the Alberta oil patch to drive its biogas system. "The oil field has had tremendous experience with equipment and systems similar to what we need. That experience is a great resource to take advantage of."

Sonny & Cher and livestock transport

Date posted: January 17, 2007

Sitting in on the Banff Pork Seminar breakout session on livestock transport, it's not hard to see who's further ahead – government vs. industry – when it comes to improving animal welfare.

As speaker Nicole Cormier, Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), illustrated with photos on her first slide, Canada's current Health of Animal Regulations, which include animal transport regulations, are more than 30 years old, dating back to the days when Sonny & Cher were in vogue and the concept of 'roller disco' was actually seen as a good idea.

Meanwhile, livestock industries, including prominently the pork industry, have been very proactive in driving improvement themselves through programs such as Transporter Quality Assurance (TQA) in the U.S. and Certified Livestock Transporter (CLT) in Canada.

These programs have been very effective and widely praised for bringing about important changes to livestock handling and transport practices that have helped producers, truckers and packers improve animal welfare while boosting efficiency and profitability as a result.

CFIA is finally updating the regulations, which may be implemented within the year. But with industry already taking charge of promoting responsible animal transport, the key concern is that the new regulations support and do not pose any practical challenges to the advances already made.

"The reason for updating the regulations is not because the industry is doing a bad job," acknowledged Cormier. "The industry is doing a good job. The reason is the regulations are simply too old."

Keeping up to date is an ongoing priority and process for the pork industry, reported Bill Mullen of the Western Hog Exchange and Jeff Hill of Smithfield Foods, who presented Canadian and U.S. industry perspectives.

The pork industry has made great strides in humane transport, through science-based approaches such as TQA and CLT, which reflect the knowledge of leading animal welfare researchers such as Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University and Dr. Harold Gonyou of the Prairie Swine Centre.

A key challenge emerging the past couple years is the increasing size of animals transported, observed Mullen. With processors such as Maple Leaf accepting larger swine, average size of market hogs has gone from about 90 kg to 100 kg. "The heavier the animal, the higher the loss ratios," says Mullen. "Better ramp systems have helped, but bigger animals pose a bigger challenge."

CFIA is reflecting industry by aiming for "outcome based" measures for evaluating animal welfare, but in both countries it's important to make sure all measures are backed by science-based tools rather than subjective measures such as human discretion, noted Hill. "You don't want to put the cart before the horse by creating a standard for an outcome based measure without having those tools in place."

Cormier admits there are some holes in the currently proposed regulations. "If someone can give us a cookbook recipe (for some of the measurements), we'll gladly take it."

Is the new pork crisis a 'normal low?'

Date posted: January 21, 2007
Clare Schlegel
Clare Schlegel

In sports terms, they call it leaving it all on the field. In his closing remarks at the 2008 Banff Pork Seminar, Canadian Pork Council (CPC) president Clare Schlegel captured the conflicting emotions of many Canadian pork producers today as they face what he calls a "crisis of hope" – the difficult choice of staying in a troubled hog industry, in the process exposing themselves to a possibly unprecedented degree of risk, or parting ways with the pork market.

This decision comes down to one key question, says Schlegel. Is the industry's current crisis the latest chapter in the hog industry's history of highs and lows, or have pork producers entered a new era of unprecedented challenges – such as a consumer demand for ethanol that is pinching the supply of essential feedgrains – that may not be corrected by the formerly dependable cycles of the free market?

In many ways, Schlegel is in a particularly strong position to comment on this. With a legacy in farming going back to the very beginnings of agriculture in Ontario, Schlegel has been a pork producer for nearly three decades, producing on the same land his forefathers settled between Kitchener and Stratford in the 1840s. In his various positions on the political side of the industry, Schlegel has been exposed to the conditions of pork producers throughout the country over a number of years, including the industry's last major crisis in 1998.

With all that experience, Schlegel has never seen a crisis that threatens to push the industry so close to the brink of extinction. "I think hog products could completely disappear from Canada, depending on how this unfolds," he said. "If we continue with the types of losses we have right now, there's not one of us, unless you're in a specialized niche market in a localized area, that's going to continue very long."

On the other hand, there is the hope that the market will correct itself. From a strictly free market perspective, it's logical to conclude that expensive feed will ultimately drive expensive hogs. But there are non-free market factors at play to consider, such as regulatory limitations on the development of new and potentially more cost-effective feedgrains – one of a number of areas Schlegel is calling on the government to take proactive measures on to reduce the burden on hog producers.

Schlegel believes market recovery will require a sincere recognition, by all players in the pork value chain, of what would seem to be an obvious fact: that the Canadian pork industry cannot exist without primary production. The role of processors, he says, is key to this. "You can't afford to pay us less than what our U.S. counterparts are receiving because we will simply disappear and ultimately that will cannibalize your supply."

But in the cold light of dawn, Schlegel believes it's crucial that producers remember that the pork industry is ultimately about people: families, friends, neighbours and fellows in pork production. "I want to recognize the hurt that's out there. Yes, this is a business function, but this is a family affair. And for God's sake, for those of us going through it, make sure to remember to love our families and take care of those other areas that are important to us as well . . . Let's remember each other because we're not all going to survive."

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