On 16 June 2022, the House of Lords is due to consider the follow motion for debate by Baroness Harris of Richmond (Liberal Democrat) “that this House takes note of the state of the pig farming industry in England”.

1. Pig farming: An industry in crisis?

In recent months, the pig farming sector has been affected by labour shortages and the rising costs of inputs, such as feed, energy and fertiliser. Cranswick, one the UK’s largest pork producers, has said that the war in Ukraine has contributed to an increase in cereal prices, used in feed, of over 50%, which is placing pig farmers under “unsustainable strain”. The National Pig Association (NPA) has called on the major supermarkets to increase the price they pay for pork. The calls follow a survey by the NPA which found that pig farmers are facing “unprecedented losses” and that four in every five producers could go out of business within a year “unless their financial situation improves”. UK producers have also been affected by a reduction in the Chinese market for imported pork, due to the country’s Covid-19 lockdowns.

In the autumn of 2021, a shortage of abattoir workers and supplies of carbon dioxide used to stun pigs caused healthy pigs to be culled at farms rather than being sent for slaughter. It was reportedly the first mass cull of pigs since the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. By February 2022, the number of pigs culled had reached 40,000.

2. House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report

In April 2022, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published the findings of its inquiry into labour shortages in the food and farming sector. Its report found that the farming sector was suffering from “acute labour shortages due principally to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic”. It said that in August 2021 there were an estimated 500,000 vacancies across the sector and that the industry “faces permanent shrinkage” if such labour shortages are not addressed.

The committee argued that these labour shortages were having a “particularly devastating impact in the pig sector”. The National Pig Association told the committee that the problem was “not so much a shortage of labour on farms, but rather a lack of skilled butchers to work in meat processing, limiting capacity”. The NPA reported 10,000 job vacancies across all pig processing roles, with “vacancy rates in pork processing plants of 10–15% on average”.

The committee stated that by October 2021 pressures in the pig sector were having the following impacts:

  • 27,500 sows had gone out of production, which is around 7% of the UK female breeding herd.
  • There was a backlog of “over 150,000 animals on farms”, imposing additional costs on farmers of feeding and housing these animals after the age at which they should have gone to slaughter.
  • Pigs who were delayed going to slaughter continued to grow, gaining weight which reduced their market value (by not meeting contractual standards).
  • Overstocking also led to a “fall in pig welfare and an increase in aberrant aggressive behaviour”, such a tail biting.
  • “Around 8,000” pigs had been culled by the time of [the committee’s] hearing on 26 October 2021.

In an update in January 2022, the NPA told the committee that conditions had deteriorated further:

  • 2,500 more sows had gone out of the English herd.
  • The backlog of pigs on farms continued to stand at around 150,000.
  • At least 27,000 more animals had been culled, although the NPA said it was “widely agreed that the actual number will be much higher”.

The committee report also highlighted concerns about the contractual model used in the pig supply chain. The report described some of the issues with the system in which most pigs are grown ‘under contract’:

A farmer agrees a contract with a processor or marketing group to produce a certain number of pigs at an agreed price formula over a specific time period […] The NPA said that, in early January 2022, processors were not taking 30% of contracted pigs on average each week. [The National Farmers’ Union] said that “processors have let down the primary producers” (ie the farmers) upon whom “the whole burden has fallen”.

In January 2022, the NPA and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) called for an emergency summit with government ministers and other representatives from the sector to address what they described as the “ongoing and escalating crisis” in the pig sector. Following the meeting, which took place on 10 February 2022, environment minister, Victoria Prentis, announced a review of fairness in pig supply chain contracts. Ms Prentis stated that the review would take the form of a consultation “expected later this year”.

The committee report welcomed the review of fairness in the supply chain. However, it stated:

Given the potential market failure represented by inherent inequity in sectoral contractual arrangements we call on the secretary of state to use the powers under the Agriculture Act 2020 to intervene with measures aimed at providing support for pig farmers rather than pork processors. We also call for the government’s review of fairness in the pig supply chain to be taken forward as a matter of urgency and for the final report to be published before the end of July 2022.

At the time of writing, the government had not published a response to the committee’s report.

3. What has the Government done to support pig farming?

In October 2021, in response to labour and supply issues in the pig farming industry, the government announced a range of measures to support the sector. These included:

  • Funding for a private storage aid scheme, which enabled slaughtered pigs to be safely stored for three to six months so they could be processed at a later date.
  • A temporary suspension of the pork levy.
  • Temporary visas for up to 800 pork butchers, available until the end of 2021, to allow applicants to work in the UK for up to six months.

The government extended the private storage aid scheme until March 2022. At the time of writing, no announcement had been made on whether the pork levy suspension would be extended.

The government has not extended the temporary pork butcher visa scheme into 2022. Uptake of the visa opportunities by the end of 2021 had been limited. Home Office statistics for the year which ended in December 2021, published in March 2022, showed that there had been 170 applications for the temporary pork butcher visas, of which 115 visas has been issued. Almost 90% of the applications had come from nationals of Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Speaking to the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry in autumn 2021, stakeholders in the industry said the temporary visa schemes were “too little, too late”, and that the pork butcher visas were “scratching the surface” of the labour shortages in the pig processing sector. The committee concluded that the visa scheme was “seriously deficient”, and that it was “not attractive due to the short notice and the very limited periods of time workers were allowed to work in the UK”. The committee said that the government would be “wrong to conclude the relatively low take-up [of visas] meant that the sector’s concerns over labour shortages were exaggerated”. The committee recommended that the government “must conduct a comprehensive lessons learned exercise” on the temporary visa schemes, which should be published before the end of July 2022.

In an answer to a parliamentary question on 25 May 2022, the government provided an update on the measures it had taken to support pig farmers. The government said that it recognised that increasing costs “are creating short term pressures on [farmers’] cash flow”. The government said it would bring forward half of this year’s basic payment scheme (BPS) farm subsidy payment “as an advance injection of cash to farm businesses”. In addition to the range of measures introduced in October 2021, the government also said it had taken further action to reduce the costs of fertilisers used in the pig sector.

On the review of fairness in the pig supply chain, the government stated:

We will be engaging with industry on this with a consultation expected later this year. We want to hear from industry about improvements to fairness and transparency that could be made to ensure a profitable and productive future.

The Labour Party has criticised the government for not doing enough to support the pig sector. In a Westminster Hall debate on recruitment support for the agriculture sector on 25 May 2022, Daniel Zeichner, Labour shadow minister for environment, food and rural affairs, stated:

Partly because of the lack of pork butchers, we have ended up with 200,000 pigs backed up on farms and 35,000 healthy pigs culled. That was caused by a mix of factors, but frankly it was because the government waited too long and were too slow to act.

4. Recent developments

Following the call from pig farmers for supermarkets to increase the price they pay for pork, some retailers have responded by announcing increased investment in the sector. In May 2022, Tesco announced that it would pay an additional £6.6mn to UK pork producers by August 2022. Waitrose and the Co-op have also announced increased payments to pork producers of £16mn and £19mn, respectively. The NPA said that Waitrose’s investment would “cover the full cost of rearing and producing pigs—including labour, feed, and fuel” and the Co-op would be introducing a “new pricing model” designed to better reflect the costs of production.

5. Read more

Cover image by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash.