In 2014, Canada’s pork industry vowed to end their use of gestation crates—individual pens in which pregnant pigs are confined—by 2024. Now, industry stakeholders are proposing a five-year extension that will push the phaseout to 2029. According to animal welfare experts, the new timeline would mean massive suffering for millions of pigs.
A gestation crate is a metal enclosure that measures 2 feet wide by nearly 7 feet long. That’s “a little bit longer than the length of a pig and a little bit wider than the width of a pig, so the pig in the crate can’t turn around,” says Ian Duncan, an emeritus professor of animal welfare science at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
Sows are often locked in these crates for the entire four months of their pregnancy. But because it’s common practice to repeatedly impregnate sows until they are slaughtered around age four, many wind up in gestation crates for the majority of their lives. The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) estimates that 70% of the breeding sows in Canada—which amounts to nearly 900,000 animals per year as of 2019—continue to spend most of their lives confined in gestation crates.
Convenience Versus Welfare
The agriculture industry offers several justifications for their use of gestation crates. They give farmers precise control over how much food each pig eats while preventing fights from breaking out. The narrow stalls maximize the number of animals that farms can squeeze in per square foot of land, which translates to cost savings. And workers can easily monitor pigs in crates by walking along rows of pens and glancing in.
But those conveniences come at a heavy cost to the pigs, according to Candace Croney, the director of the Center of Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University in Indiana. “The restrictive nature of [gestation crates], particularly if you have a larger sow, means all she can do is stand up, lie down, eat, urinate, and defecate. There’s really not much else she can do with the space that’s allocated.”
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Modern farmed pigs are descended from European wild boars that live in dense forests, marshes, and meadows. “These are social animals that have a rich repertoire of behavior,” says Duncan. Most of their days are spent in the company of other wild boars, scouring the forest floor for fallen acorns and beechnuts and rooting in the soil for tubers.
It’s a striking contrast to the lives of sows in gestation crates, who are fed a concentrated diet that takes them around 20 minutes to consume, leaving them with nothing to do for the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day. “They get extremely bored in crates because they have all these other activities that they want to be performing,” says Duncan.
Sows in crates often behave in unusual ways; they will bite the metal bars, salivate excessively, and chew even when they’re not eating anything. These are all examples of stereotyped actions, which Croney says “occur the same way every single time, have no known functional purpose, and you really don’t see them in wild animals.” They indicate that there’s “a fundamental mismatch between the animal’s behavioral needs and the environment in which she’s being kept,” she says.
Serious physical ailments also afflict crated pigs. They can develop pressure sores from pushing up against the metal bars and weakened bones and muscles from being sedentary for months at a time. “If they let the sows move around, they wouldn’t have those issues,” says Kate Parkes, a welfare specialist at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the United Kingdom (UK).
Better Conditions for Pregnant Pigs
Globally, welfare concerns have led to severe restrictions on how long pregnant pigs can spend in gestation crates in the European Union (EU) and New Zealand. They are completely banned in the UK, Sweden, and nine US states.
Throughout the EU, consideration for the welfare of pigs goes beyond simply keeping them free from the confinement of gestation crates during pregnancy. Parkes says there is also a growing focus on giving farmed animals positive experiences in their daily lives. “Welfare isn’t just the absence of negative experiences,” she says.
To that end, farmers in the EU are legally required to provide their pigs with enrichment items, like straw or hay that they can chew and root around in, to keep them mentally stimulated.
Why the Industry Announced a Phaseout
The initial decision of the industry-led NFACC to phase out gestation crates was largely based on scientific evidence. Their 2014 executive summary of the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs cited “scientifically supported negative welfare aspects” of gestation crates, namely that they constrain the sow’s ability to move around and behave naturally and cause “restlessness, stress, lack of comfort, general frustration,” and physical harm.
That same Pig Code outlined the Canadian pork industry’s commitment to end the use of gestation crates by 2024.
Along with scientific arguments against their use, public pressure helped to fuel the decision to abolish gestation crates. A 2013 survey put out by Humane Society International–Canada revealed that 84% of polled Canadians supported a complete gestation crate ban.
When Will Canada’s Gestation Crates be History?
But in their latest review of the Pig Code published last year, industry stakeholders offer a laundry list of reasons why pork farmers can no longer meet their 2024 deadline. They write, “the physical complexities of adapting various barn designs was severely underestimated. Moreover, the importance of the quality of the space offered to animals might have been underestimated and the quantity of space overestimated.”
The report goes on to note the high cost of swapping gestation crates for group housing, a lack of experienced construction staff, and the fact that there are still “a lot of unknowns about the optimum way to convert to group housing.”
Pending their review of public comments on the updated Pig Code, the NFACC plans to give itself an additional five years to phase out gestation crates. But even if the new deadline is set, whether all pregnant pigs in Canada will be housed socially by 2029 remains uncertain, says Camille Labchuk, a lawyer and executive director of the Canadian animal law advocacy organization Animal Justice.
Labchuk notes that the NFACC’s Pig Code is not legally binding. “It was never enforceable in any way. It was merely a promise—a non-binding commitment—to phase out gestation crates. And I think that’s why we’re now seeing the pig industry break that promise and move that phaseout deadline to 2029, because they know there are no consequences for this action.”
The NFACC will release its final Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs in early 2021. Based on the proposed amendments, the new version will most likely put the brakes on the improved welfare for pregnant pigs that the initial Code promised back in 2014.
Representatives for the NFACC and the Canadian Pork Council were not available for comment.