Manitoba’s pork industry found itself treading on hostile ground at the University of Winnipeg on Sept. 21.
Manitoba Pork Council chairman George Matheson stood up at a Hog Watch Manitoba event last week to refute some of the claims made by the activist group, including assertions that hog production is inhumane and poorly regulated.
“Gestation stalls, let’s talk about that,” he told the 100 or so people gathered at the university’s Eckhardt Grammatte Hall. “There’s a regulation, come 2024, that gestation stalls will not be allowed to be used in Canada in the future. I realize that is seven years away — the change will take half a billion dollars to do, so these things will not happen overnight.”
The chairman added he favours the eradication of gestation stalls and noted some very large hog producers have already successfully moved to loose sow housing, before emphasizing the stringent regulations Manitoba pork producers must adhere to.
“Regulations that aren’t followed very often,” according to Janine Gibson, a Hog Watch board member and chair of the Organic Food Council of Manitoba, who challenged Matheson on the issue as he spoke.
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“There are always going to be regulations set and people who unfortunately do not follow them,” Matheson responded. “But I’ll tell you this… the group of hog producers that we have in Manitoba that are on the board of directors, we want animal care, we want food safety, we want environmental protection, we want workplace health and safety and if a producer is not doing that, he will hear from us.”
‘Day of action’
The exchange followed a day of action by Hog Watch, which first formed in 1999 with the aim of monitoring the expansion of Manitoba’s hog industry. After a moratorium on new hog barns was introduced by the previous NDP government the group disbanded.
Now, proposed amendments to the Environment Act under Bill 24 — otherwise known as the Red Tape Reduction and Government Efficiency Act — have breathed fresh life into Hog Watch, which is concerned about a possible weakening of environmental protections. The group is also concerned about rural depopulation, food security, intensive livestock production, export-based economies and other government policies as they relate to the pork industry, with members repeatedly expressing the fear that pending legislative changes will allow for the winter spreading of manure in Manitoba.
“It’s not an accusation at this point that farmers are spreading in the winter, but we have a great deal of concern about why it would be removed from the Environment Act, even though it’s in regulations somewhere else, because it’s much easier to change regulations without a lot of public scrutiny,” said Vicky Burns, founder of the Save Lake Winnipeg Project and Hog Watch member.
That fear is unfounded, said a spokesperson for Manitoba Sustainable Development.
“Winter application of manure will continue to be prohibited for all livestock operations in Manitoba under the Livestock Manure and Mortalities Management Regulation. The act and the regulation currently duplicate this requirement,” they said. “The Livestock Manure and Mortalities Management Regulation will continue to require all operators to have manure storage facility permits, prohibit winter spreading of manure, and require annual submission and approval of manure management plans.”
But even without winter manure spreading, Hog Watch believes expanding pork production is a threat to the province’s rural communities and waterways.
“In Manitoba we have a number of sources for nitrogen and phosphorus,” said Eva Pip, a retired biology professor who spoke at Hog Watch’s “Pork and Pollution from Land to Lake” event in Winnipeg. “In rural Manitoba factory farms have become a ubiquitous sight… and many of them are at unbelievable density, for example in Hanover municipality, which is completely supersaturated now with hog barns,” she said.
Pip added that while all types of intensive livestock production contribute to nutrient run-off, hog operations create a disproportionate impact on the environment. “When you have thousands of animals in a very small area, they generate a lot of waste and pigs are especially prolific in terms of the amount of waste that they produce,” she said.
How much of a role intensive livestock operations and hog farms in particular have played in dictating water quality in Manitoba has been hotly debated over the last decade.
“The challenge with Lake Winnipeg phosphorus loading is that it is coming from a lot of small contributors distributed across the whole watershed and not just from one major source,” said Don Flaten, a University of Manitoba professor who has studied the issue. “There’s not one major scapegoat that could be blamed for the lake’s problems.”
He acknowledged that nutrient management can be a bigger challenge with larger livestock operations, but added they can also create opportunities for producers to install more sophisticated manure management systems due to the economies of scale. Larger operations also tend to attract more attention and oversight from regulators, Flaten said.
If passed, Bill 24 will effectively end the so-called moratorium on new hog barn construction in Manitoba by eliminating requirements that new barns process manure using an anaerobic digester, although some in the industry have indicated most hog producers aren’t in economic circumstances allowing them to embark on expansion projects.
“Our government has chosen to stop singling out hog farmers from other livestock producers and saddling them with unfair barriers that limit growth and development,” said Rochelle Squires, provincial minister of sustainable development. “We have proposed changes that will end Manitoba’s hog barn moratorium and reduce unnecessary red tape while maintaining strong environmental protection and enforcement.”
But the minister emphasized that hog farmers will still have to submit manure management plans, provide soil samples and obtain building code approvals.
“I would also note that a report produced by University of Manitoba experts in 2014, which was commissioned by the previous government, had found the anaerobic digestion system to be unnecessary, elaborate, and costly,” she said.
Matheson believes that much of the disagreement over hog production in the province stems from diametrically opposed world views.
“To tell you the truth, I think a lot of them come from a vegetarian background, I think a lot of them are animal rights activists and they realize that they can’t get a lot of traction out of society in regards to those two issues,” he said. “I think they feel that if they can try and pin some environment irregularities on us then they can get society backing them as far as making production in our industry difficult.”
Matheson took the opportunity to ask Pip, who noted she doesn’t eat pork or beef, what would have to change to make hog production acceptable to her.
“The intensive confinement operations, those are an issue, it is not the smaller producers, the farmers who have their hogs on pasture… the hoop barn type of production, those are much more sustainable, they are much more environmentally friendly, it is the confined animal feeding operations that are the problem because they generate enormous amounts of waste on a very small amount of land,” she said. “I’m not against hog production, per se, if the animals are produced humanely and sustainably.”