Will the new pig code bring peace for our time?

Will the new (draft) pig code bring peace for our time, or is it just an act of appeasement that momentarily buys a pause in the campaigns against modern hog farming that have relentlessly hammered farmers in recent years?


That’s the question lying underneath so much recent discussion within the hog farming community, and it determines the response of farmers when they are asked whether or not it is worth getting rid of gestation stalls, requiring mandatory pain control for castration and tail docking, modifying a host of practices to meet activists’ demands.

As I wrote in a recent article in the paper, the optimists think modifying practices to conform with what the best farmers are doing anyway, and ending the practices that drive some people crazy and look bad to the public, will eliminate most of the reasons people are campaigning against the hog industry (on animal welfare grounds) and allow farmers to focus more on raising pigs and running their barns.

The pessimists think that the activists can’t be pacified or satisfied, that they’re all vegetarians operating their campaigns on a secret vegan agenda to end all animal agriculture, and any compromise on anything will just embolden them.

I’ve heard this sort of debate many times, and will no doubt hear lots more when I get to Des Moines Tuesday for the World Pork Expo.

But the new pig code certainly seems to have pleased what I would describe as both strands of the wire that is now strangling hog farmers with controversy. Both practical animal welfare organizations – represented by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies – and harder-core animal rights activists – such as the Humane Society International – have been overwhelmingly positive about the new code.

“It’s certainly a big step forward for pig welfare in Canada,” Barbara Cartwright, the CFHS CEO, told me yesterday after the proposed code was unveiled.

“We see it as a significant evolution in the right direction.”

Sayara Thurston of the Canadian branch of Humane Society International (which does not operate animal shelters or do the sort of hands-on, practical work that most Canadians think of when they hear “humane society” and is not connected to CFHS) also greeted the new code for its many proposed changes, including banning gestation stalls.

“We see the code of practice as a huge step forward,” Thurston said to me shortly after the code was made public Saturday. HSI’s parent organization, the Humane Society of the U.S., has been the most visible campaigner against gestation stalls in the U.S. and often in Canada.

Cartwright wasn’t surprised by the details of the changes, including banning gestation stalls and requiring pain control of procedures like castration and tail docking, which is scarcely surprising because her organization was at the table formulating the new code. The National Farm Animal Care Council is comprised of representatives of farmer, consumer, retailer and animal welfare organizations, and the CFHS is part of the group and had a veterinarian on the code committee.

While Cartwright is delighted with the new code’s gestation stall  ban and phaseout (farmers have until 2024 to get rid of existing stall systems), with its requirement for speedy treatment of sick or injured pigs, with “enrichment” being added to pens, and with the pain control requirement, her organization would still like to see further restrictions placed on hog farming, such as an ending or further minimizing of stalls for sows after insemination.

And Thurston said her organization thinks the phaseout period for stalls is too long, the post-insemination stall period too long, and some of the other requirements too weak.

So that once more raises that tricky question for farmers: after an initial period of calm once the new code comes in (if it is approved), will the animal welfare and animal rights people just move the goalposts down the field and start attacking the industry again on other grounds, like the ones they’ve already mentioned? Are the cynics right that the activists are only happy when they’re at war with someone or something, and they’re never going to let farmers rest, no matter how humane and good their practices are?

I’m going to give a guess here, because it’s fun to make predictions when you don’t mind being proven wrong, as I mentioned yesterday. I view myself as a jaded optimist and this is what I predict:

I think this code will take the wind out of the sails of the campaigns against hog farming and much of their energy will dissipate. And people committed to endless campaigning will move on to different forms of alleged cruelty to animals.

The CFHS isn’t an activist organization and its members aren’t focused on campaigning anyway, so if their main concerns are met, why wouldn’t they give farmers some peace? And more purely activist organizations, such as the HSI, have lots of things they can focus their concerns on, so why would they focus on pigs if the main things that upset them about traditional pig farming are eliminated or minimized? If the issues that seem to gain most traction with the general public – and that’s the group that matters most to hog farmers – are de-activated, why wouldn’t hog farming fade into the background?

As I interview people in coming days and weeks, I’ll no doubt get lots of takes on this question, and I’ll report all of those. And like always my own thinking will probably flip and flop between positions as people make compelling arguments one way or the other.

But I must say it did seem a positive thing for farmers that both strands of the community that campaigns against certain livestock practices were overwhelmingly pleased with the new code and giving it a good spin.

(I wonder what kind of reaction I’ll hear from the U.S. hog industry leaders I meet Tuesday? Stay tuned.)


Stories from our other publications