29 January 1999

What to do about pigs?

AFTER the disastrous last year in pig production – we lost nearly £100k (before livestock revaluation) – discussions are raging among producers and their representative organisations about how to cope, and what lessons can be learned to improve competitiveness and marketing, writes Jasper Renold. These have made us think hard at farm level about some of the changes we would like to see happen in the near future.

We realise that the current crisis is largely the result of over-supply in this country and abroad but the losses among producers at home need not have been so great for two main reasons. First, our marketing should have been more imaginative and aggressive, as has been shown recently by the success of the British Pig Industry Support Group (BPISG) and its campaigns on the supermarkets.

Second, the technical base of the industry in terms of research and intelligence for production, purchasing and marketing decisions should have been better focused and evaluated, with the results disseminated to producers. We still regret the closing down of the pig unit at the National Agricultural Centre at Stoneleigh which, although limited in scope, was starting to do some of these things and could have been expanded. In the fields of purchasing feed and veterinary medicines and marketing for example, there must be scope for producers to group together to strengthen their position and improve their returns.

The plethora of organisations involved in the pig industry is well known and is often cited to be a major problem at the root of the current crisis. The table gives a crude summary of the different organisations, their roles and level of operation in the national scene. They have all grown up from different starting points but they may not be the best available now, since the pig industry is more technical, in the hands of fewer people, and has to operate in a global market. There would seem to be a considerable degree of overlap in aims, with five bodies involved in marketing and promotion, and four, not necessarily the same, running regular producer meetings and this does not include those in the "Others" category.

It is all very well the British Pig Association (BPA) and the NFU getting together to "explore" the possibility for co-operation, but what is first required is a definition of the range and depth of tasks that a representative organisation should undertake. Has this yet been done?

If costs are to be kept within bounds, duplication must be avoided at all costs. For instance, it would seem pointless for the legal and employment expertise of the NFU, which is common to all farms, to be duplicated in the representative pig organisation.

A common complaint among producers is a feeling of powerlessness to influence decisions in the industry and a belief that they are not adequately informed of what is going on. We currently have three types of representation, either directly at grass roots, at county/regional level or at national level.

A national organisation such as MLC with little or no grass roots or county representation, is bound to have problems canvassing members views and communicating results. In addition, being a government quango, it does not have so much freedom to operate and has a much wider agenda than pig production alone.

It seems imperative that to win the support of pig farmers we need to proceed with a more representative system, a route along which it would seem the NFU is already moving.

The industry has a unique asset in the local forums provided by Pig Discussion Groups. While these are primarily for disseminating information between all those who have an interest in the industry, could not their role be expanded to include collecting views and thus formalise their position as the main building blocks for a representative organisation?

A representative body and "one member one vote" would only work if the members have control over all the money they provide. This money is a tax and used for the good of the whole meat industry, but in our particular case it should be for the good of pig producers.

Easton Lodges annual bill for supporting these organisations is £12,745. This is a lot of money. Are we getting good value and would we be well advised to increase the sum if we had confidence in a new organisation? For instance, the costly phase-feeding trial undertaken by MLC did not carry out a proper cost benefit analysis of the idea; this body would have benefited from closer producer control. We feel that there is a strong argument for providing more money to get better intelligence and research on all aspects of pig production. In this country we are operating at a 5-10p/kg dead weight disadvantage compared with our Continental competitors, particularly from having higher welfare codes and a high proportion of many straw-based systems.

It is not at all clear what the catalyst for change is going to be. Do we wait for the results of the MLC quinquennial review or the BPISG consultants report or the BPA/NFU exploratory talks? As Tony Houghton, Chief Executive Designate of the BPA says in the latest issue of the Pig Industry "Industry leaders should be planning for the changes that must come – now." Dont forget to consult pig producers, we would add.

Organisations in pigs

Level of Organisation Regular Technical Marketing/ Research Quality

Operation meetings support promotion ass

"Grass roots" Pig Disc Grps 3 3 – – –

BPISG 3 – 3 – –

Ladies in pigs – – 3 – —

County/ BPA 3 – 3 – 3

Regional NFU 3 – 3 – –

National MLC — 3 3 3 3

MAFF – 3 – 3 3

FABBPIGS – 3 – – 3

Others Producer grps 3 3 3 – –

Vets 3 3 – – 3

Feed companies/

Allied industries – 3 3 3 3


Colleges – 3 – 3 –

Annual subscription and

levy costs


BPA 320

NFU 270



Promotion levy 5200

General levy 1600

Carcass classification 1400

Meat inspection 3760

Total £12745