Pork industry is the canary in agriculture's coal mine

Pork industry is the canary in agriculture's coal mine

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The pig industry has a track record of dealing with some of ag's biggest challenges, and emerging more resilient and productive

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It's an issues line-up that would frighten any farmer: biosecurity threats, vegan activists, rapidly changing consumer tastes, rising energy costs, fluctuating commodity prices, threats from cheap imports, and demands for traceability.

To address any combination of these issues would challenge the most determined primary producers, but for farmers with pigs, that's exactly what they've faced for the past 14 years.

But not content to simply survive, the industry has dealt with the issues and come out more resilient and productive than ever.

Reflecting on how pig farmers and their industry have tackled some of agriculture's biggest challenges it is hard to determine the most defining issue for pork in the past decade.

While vegan activists who wish to end animal farming altogether can never be appeased, the pork industry understands it must meet and exceed community expectations - Sndrew Spencer, Australian Pork Limited

Animal activists have made recent news storming farms of all livestock sector across the country in a wave of anti-agriculture protests.

For some farmers it has been confronting, but the pork industry has faced this for more than five years.

While vegan activists who wish to end animal farming altogether can never be appeased, the industry understands it must meet and exceed community expectations.

The Australian pork industry is something of a canary in agriculture's coal mine.

It hasn't been easy, but pork producers have listened and responded to consumer sentiment.

The industry has forged a way for farmers to lead the world on animal welfare, initiating industry best-practice accreditation programs such as APIQ and by working to voluntarily phase out sow stalls.

This has given producers more control over this costly process and built important credibility for the long run.

In a further quest to jump ahead of community expectations, the pork industry created Aussie Pig Farmers, an honest inside view of the industry from pen to plate.

Nothing to hide

Driven by the accusations that the industry had something to hide, the website offered full disclosure on the industry, its very existence providing many with the comfort they needed.

In the past decade, research and development has focussed on every aspect of pork production from alternative energy systems to the technology behind producing better pork crackling.

Andrew Spencer

Andrew Spencer

The pork industry is leading the field in its adoption of traceability technology.

Physi-Trace technology allows any piece of fresh pork to be traced back to the farm on which it was produced, giving confidence to all who buy the product, and an ability to react quickly when food safety issues arise.

Biosecurity takes the utmost vigilance, with no room for error.

Any sign of a foreign disease on Australia's shores would be crippling for pork producers who currently supply 100 per cent of the domestic fresh pork market.

It's estimated imported pork would supply up to 40pc of the market should it be given access through a breakdown in our disease status.

Meanwhile, strategic marketing campaigns have made pork a dinner table favourite.

Pork on your fork

Get some pork on your fork has become part of the language for most Australians, and as for the campaign's success, you only have to turn to the numbers.

Australia's consumption of fresh pork has risen steadily in the past decade.

In 2010, each Australian was eating 8.6 kilograms of fresh pork a year.

In 2015, total pork consumption overtook beef.

Today Australians are eating 11.6kg of fresh pork per capita annually.

Maintaining profitability is a continuous and persistent challenge for producers.

The adage "get big or get special", drives the industry with productive efficiency, or shaping the high-end market. - Andrew Spencer

In 2017, pork prices fell dramatically, following a severe but familiar seven to 10-year pig price cycle.

As always, it tested the resilience of all in the sector, and has inevitably led to some industry consolidation.

Producers who remain do so by the adage "get big or get special", driving the industry with productive efficiency, or shaping the high-end market.

Both approaches showcase the best that pork can be.

The future?

As for the future of the pork industry, real value creation is going to have to happen at the consumer end, not just on the farm.

Many farmers are compelled by the quest to improve productivity by incremental margins, but it's becoming harder and harder to do.

So instead of working for productivity improvements, the pork industry will need to create different business models for consumers that are linked with their values and desires.

Some consumers have shown a willingness to pay for ethical production systems, for trust in the product, for branding and provenance, for high-end cuts of meat, for value-added ready-to-go meals.

It's here that the pork farmers will secure their future, working together to make the most of the opportunities ahead.

  • Andrew Spencer, the chief executive officer of Australian Pork Limited for 14 years is due to depart APL by the end of June.

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