A recent survey suggests the Manitoba pork sector is making incremental but important gains in repairing its relationship with the general public.
A survey of 1,000 households conducted by Probe Research recently found 56 per cent favoured loosening the restrictions the Manitoba government has placed on new barn construction. Thirty-two per cent favoured leaving those restrictions in place.
Nearly six in 10 Manitobans agreed with the statement that the province’s pork producers are using sound environmental practices. Rural residents were more likely to support the expansion of hog barns than urbanites. Individuals who had attended college or university were more likely to support a continued moratorium.
As this is the first time these opinions have been sought in a formal survey, the results themselves don’t benchmark improvement. The milestone here is that the questions are being asked.
This is not to suggest that we favour making policy via public opinion poll, as it is usually a recipe for bad public policy. But knowing and caring what the public thinks is an important gauge for an industry that depends on government policy for its survival and growth.
The hog sector‘s economic contribution to the provincial economy depends largely on exports, but it is local voters who determine its operating environment. It was unpopular public opinion that led to the moratorium on new barn expansion in the first place. What people think matters.
This is what makes another finding in the survey less encouraging for the industry. Only one-third of those surveyed (34 per cent) could remember hearing about the pork industry recently. The majority, (64 per cent) of Manitoba adults was unable to recall seeing, reading or hearing anything specific about the industry.
Only five per cent of those surveyed indicated awareness that the industry is in a state of decline.
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Being off the public’s radar isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if everything is going well. But this sector is in trouble, and if it is going to recover, it will need public support — both in policy and in spirit.
According to a 2014 pork industry profile prepared by Janet Honey for department of agribusiness and agricultural economics at the University of Manitoba, the number of Manitoba sites producing pigs has decreased by a third in just eight years, a drop that is more about operators packing it in than a healthy consolidation.
Recovery in Manitoba’s hog sector is crippled, not only by regressive government policy on expansion, but by a multi-faceted financial squeeze that makes it a poor business risk. Even if the hog barn moratorium were lifted tomorrow, volatile markets and depreciated assets make providing the kind of equity lenders want next to impossible. Labour shortages are chronic. And domestic consumption of pork has dropped 36 per cent since 1980, according to Statistics Canada.
With 29.3 per cent of the country’s production, Manitoba continues to the country’s largest hog producer. But the vast majority of the pigs marketed from this province is exported as weanlings, another factor that cuts into the viability of domestic processors and exacerbates the effect of U.S. country-of-origin labelling laws.
A sadly overlooked fact in this situation is that a vibrant livestock sector is important to the sustainability of agriculture generally in this province, both economically and environmentally.
For starters, the pig industry buys a lot of feed. According to Honey’s report, the pig industry uses nearly two million tonnes of feed annually, 80 to 90 per cent of which is sourced locally depending on availability and pricing. “If all the pigs produced in Manitoba were fed to slaughter weight instead of being exported as weanlings/feeder pigs, then the feed consumed annually would rise by 40 per cent.”
That would improve the viability of local processing too. But with the Canadian dollar wallowing around the 75 cents U.S. mark, and the likely removal of COOL, who wants to invest in finishing capacity?
Livestock is also an important nutrient recycler. Mismanagement of phosphorus in the past has led to environmental degradation in some areas, and given the industry a bad reputation. But in the bigger picture, phosphorus is a non-renewable resource that we cannot continue to send one way out of the province, either in the form of exported grains or by flushing it out to sea.
Ongoing research is offering some plausible prospects for resolving that issue, which sets the stage for repositioning manure as an environmental resource rather than contaminant.
The sector is also presenting governments with clear options for recovery and a return to healthy growth — all the more reason to continue tracking public opinion.