The politics of pigswill - or how we can help feed the world by feeding waste to pigs

Pigs at the trough

Feeding treated human food waste can free crops for humans - and reduce costs for farmers. 

Animals bred for meat now consume a third of all vegetable crops. This has increased dramatically since a ban on pigswill following the Foot and Mouth outbreak in the UK. But it is an appalling waste. Japan can show the way to feeding pigs our waste food which is safe, argues the Green MEP MOLLY SCOTT CATO

The campaign group Feedback has long been calling for policy change to see safely treated food waste integrated back into the feed industry.

There’s a reason pigs are the peasant’s favourite animal. And it isn’t only because, in Winston Churchill’s words, that they treat you as an equal. In a peasant community, pigs play a vital role in consuming food that humans cannot eat and turning it into meat that they can eat.

In 2001 the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease (FMD), brought to an end the millennia-old tradition of feeding food waste to pigs. The ban was subsequently extended by the European Commission to cover all EU countries in 2003.

FMD was another example of us Brits being bad Europeans, as the outbreak of the disease was traced back to a large pig farmer in Northumberland who fed his pigs unprocessed pig swill. Foot and Mouth spread quickly spread after he sent his pigs all the way across the country to Cheal Meats, an industrial slaughterhouse in Essex.

Politics of pigswill

The ban has made farmers increasingly dependent on feed made from crops such as maize, wheat and soy. The amount of crop-based feed being fed to pigs has sky-rocketed, and an astounding 36 percent of world crops go for animal feed.

Not only are these crops notorious for their greenhouse emissions - as they are driving deforestation - but they are more expensive too. The transition from food waste for feed to crop-based feed has led to a 56 percent to 69 percent rise in production costs across the EU.

In 2002, the European Parliament set up an inquiry committee to investigate the UK's response to FMD, and specifically its decision to slaughter around 6.5 million animals rather than implement an emergency vaccination programme.

What may have been forgotten, is that the British government quickly reversed its decision to vaccinate all animals at risk of contracting FMD in the UK, after heavy lobbying from the NFU and corporate giants in the food industry, such as Nestle.

This was due to concerns raised by industry and from farmers that a vaccination programme would hurt their meat and dairy exports. In other words, although it was poorly treated food waste that sparked the FMD outbreak, vaccination could have limited its spread.

Freshness ensured

The politics of pigswill may be about to get more interesting than you could ever have imagined. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, may be about to shift position on pigswill. It may become the next front in his war to look greener than the Commission, following up on the #EUDoesntSuck fracas over the banning of plastic straws.

The campaign group Feedback has long been calling for policy change to see safely treated food waste integrated back into the feed industry.

The campaign group Feedback has long been calling for policy change to see safely treated food waste integrated back into the feed industry. This has already been safely implemented in the United States and Japan, and costs saved on feed are often used to improve welfare conditions on many farms.

Not convinced? The case being made in the EU is compelling, too.

In Japan, any by-products and former foodstuffs containing animal origin protein must undergo heat treatment of at least 30 minutes at 70 °C or for 3 minutes or more at 80 °C.

This level of heat kills the pathogenic micro-organisms which cause disease. There are also heavy controls on the supply, storage, transportation and labelling of food waste for animal feed, insuring that the risk of cross-contamination is limited and freshness ensured.

Having your cake

The Japanese model was reviewed by a team of top veterinary epidemiologists, microbiologists, pig nutrionists and an APHA animal by-product advisor. 

This took place under REFRESH in November last year. The EU research team found that it is possible to produce safe feed for animals, even from catering waste in special treatment plants.

Reducing feed costs will help small farmers, who often employ more resource-intensive methods to rear their animals and are disproportionately feeling the strain of the rising costs.

This is one contributing factor to the rapid decline, by almost half in the past 30 years, of small family farms in the UK.

Locally produced meat is also more traceable and can help with disease mitigation. Small-scale livestock rearing linked to local small abattoirs and local supply-chains can help challenge corporate mega farms and make meat eating more sustainable.

Some peasant communities have a proverb: you cannot eat bacon and keep the pig too. An earthier version of the proverb about having your cake and eating it that is so popular with Brexiteers.

But in this case, we hope we may persuade Gove to allow British pigs to eat cake - at least leftover cake - while we continue our battle for all Europe’s pigs to be able to return to their traditional eating habits safe from the animal feed lobbyists.

This Author

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West and is a member of the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee.

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