Last week’s Mercy for Animals Canada (MFAC) video that was featured on CTV’s W5 inspired me to start blogging again and this post marks the halfway point of my response. I want to thank MFAC for lighting this fire underneath me, no longer are farmers going to stand by silently while activist groups like MFAC try to destroy our family farms and rural communities while making the world’s most vulnerable people less food secure. I hope that silence is something I am never a part of again, going forward I’m going to let consumers know that I grow food for them with pride.
Today I’m talking castration (most males will be covering their crotch in reaction to this term). It is not a pretty topic but like my previous two posts, I am going to attempt to tell why we do it while highlighting alternatives that are being developed.
A long time ago humans discovered that domesticating animals was far easier then always chasing after them with sharp sticks. Shortly after we made another monumental discovery, male animals just don’t taste as good and can also become aggressive when they reach sexual maturity. Male pigs (Boars) are one of the worst offenders on both accounts. Boars can have a build-up of androstenone (the hormone that helped Mark McGuire hit his homeruns) and skatole in their fat. When the pork from these males is cooked the aptly named ‘boar taint’ releases a gross smell while also making the meat taste pretty disgusting. Out of all of this, castration became common practice for anyone rearing pigs.
MFAC’s video correctly mentioned that the process of castration is done without anesthetic or pain killers in Canada. I can totally understand why this seems a little barbaric on the surface and I cannot deny that there is acute pain at the time of castration. We need to dig a little deeper however. For anyone that has ever had a general anaesthetic you know that for the next day or two you feel pretty crappy. This is no different for pigs and in the case of young piglets; the administering of a general anaesthetic can even cause death. Local anaesthetics are also used in certain global regions where legislation pertaining to castration exists (The EU has banned castration without the use of an anaesthetic or analgesic, complete ban is coming in 2018) but again there are issues, a survey of Norwegian pig farmers and vets found that only 19% of producers and 54% of vets felt that the local anaesthetic had a positive impact. On a less scientific note, my brother told me of a conversation he had with a person who worked in the Danish pig industry. This person was very familiar with common on-farm practices and said that many Danish producers did not administer the required analgesic on the pigs because there was no evidence that it actually improved the pigs’ welfare.
I can tell you what my preferred solution is…when travelling throughout the UK in 2008 I visited farms and it was the first time I had ever seen intact males other than breeding boars. My jaw dropped when I found out that they didn’t need to castrate because they shipped the pigs before they reached sexual maturity. I would bet that most pig farmers would love this plan. Not only would we get to quit castrating (the least favourite job of almost every pig farmer) but we could also ship a smaller market hog. You see, for every additional pound the pig gets just a little more stubborn. The problem with this plan is it would make pork more expensive for consumers because it decreases the efficiency of our processors by lowering the amount of pork they can process over their fixed assets.
Another promising area to be explored is to genetically engineer a boar taint free pig. Researchers at the University of Guelph have already marked the genes that cause boar taint and it would be very feasible/not complicated to create a GMO pig that wouldn’t need to be castrated and could still be shipped at the weights demanded by the North American processing industry. The problem with this solution is there widespread consumer mistrust of genetically modified animals. We have already seen the decline of the University of Guelph EnviroPig (a pig that reduced the amount of phosphorus in its manure, thus lowering its environmental impact) because consumers reject GMO animals and the project could not be commercialized.
Since painkillers aren’t that effective (and at times are actually detrimental) and consumers don’t want to eat GMO pigs, what the heck are we supposed to do? The last area I am going to share is probably the best course of action if we are going to actually stop castrating pigs. There is a product produced by Pfizer that has been used globally for over a decade however it was only approved in 2011 here in Canada. The product, registered as Improvest here in Canada, uses the pigs’ immune response to inhibit the production of the hormones that bring on sexual maturity. Since I’m not a scientist, I’m not going to try and explain how it works but below you will find a link that can give you more information if you are interested.
Personally, I am glad that we are developing alternatives to castration. Remember, farmers are the original animal welfare advocates, long before groups like MFAC started to spread misinformation we were there in the barn figuring out how we can actually make an animal’s life better while still working to ensure that people had enough food to eat.
#FarmProud my friends…