Pork industry sustainab­ility will require a multifaceted approach from farmers and ag industry leaders as consumers request additional information on everything from animal and worker welfare to food safety and environmental stewardship.

And so far, experts say the industry is rising to the challenge.

Sustainability was a key topic at the World Pork Expo 2022 last week in Des Moines, where experts discussed the need for continued care in the industry.

“Agriculture and farmers are the first true environmentalists,” said Ruth Kimmelshue, corporate senior vice president, animal nutrition and health at Cargill. “Without sustaining our land, our resources, we can’t continue to operate in agriculture. Farmers have for a very, very long time worked hard to produce more with less — produce more food to feed a growing population around the world with fewer inputs. That, I think, is at the heart of sustainability.”

Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist at the University of California-Davis CLEAR Center, said look no further than the pork industry’s We Care initiative foc­using on food safety, animal well-being, public health, the environment, people and the community.

The commitment of America’s pig farmers to stewardship has been evident for more than 30 years, pursuing technological advances and efforts to improve quality and safety while reducing any environmental impacts.

“It’s what the people in this country and throughout the world want to know,” said Mitloehner. “The We Care initiative … that’s precisely what the public at large wants to know, that you care about the animals you raise and you care about consumers. You care about product quality, that you care about people who work for you. That is precisely what sustainability is.”

On correct path
Mitloehner said sustainability is a journey that encompasses the environment, workers, animal health, food safety and financial viability.

Strides are being made on many fronts. Take, for example, greenhouse gas initiatives, where the industry has begun conversations about capturing methane gas, much like the dairy industry, to reduce emissions into the atmosphere.

Covered lagoons that trap bio-gas for use as transportation fuels have garnered interest, especially in California, but also in the dairy industry in Iowa and the Midwest.

Should those tests on lagoons prove successful, the livestock industry’s effect on global warming can be minimized.  Research already shows that methane may be emitted but also is destroyed over time in the atmosphere, said Mitloehner.

“After a decade, most of the methane is gone,” he said.

Reducing methane emissions is environmentally friendly and gaining traction. “When we reduce methane, we reduce (global) warming, which can make the livestock industry a real player in potential climate solutions,” he said. “That is a short-term solution we have at our disposal that others (such as the fossil fuel industry) don’t.”

Mitloehner said the pork in­dustry has been able to triple its production since the 1980s to help feed a world population that has also tripled in that same timeframe. The industry has adapted to provide more food while not exhausting resources.

“The combination of these factors has allowed us to shrink the number of animals needed to produce the amount of food the consumers desire,” he said.  

“The U.S. pig industry is the envy of the world. We are doing more with similar inputs. We have to think about how we feed those people without depleting our natural resources.”

Be heard
Going forward, American farmers should be vocal about their efforts in sustainability. They are changing the narrative, and the industry is on the correct path, said Mitloehner.

Kimmelshue was reminded of the importance of sustainability while hiking recently with her family in Arizona and coming upon an ancient Native American proverb.

“We do inherit the land from our ancestors; we protect it for our children,” she said. “That really articulates for me what sustainability is.”