Thousands of tonnes of slurry for pork for China?

CLAIM: Thousands of tonnes of slurry are being spread on farmland, all due to exporting pork to China, according to Channel 4 News.

CONCLUSION: UNSUBSTANTIATED. The export of 1,450 pigs would represent 1,000 tonnes of slurry (based on an estimate of 957,495 tonnes p.a.). Tonnage figures for pork exports from Northern Ireland are unavailable. A secondary claim that “there’ll soon be as many pigs as people in Northern Ireland” is inaccurate; there were 633,600 pigs in 2018 and the mid-year 2018 population of Northern Ireland was 1,881,600.

On 5 August 2019, Channel 4 News reported in a video clip on Facebook: “Thousands of tonnes of slurry … are being spread on farmland, all in the name of exporting pork to China.”

The video clip is part of a full, eight-minute video published by Channel 4, in which correspondent Alex Thomson states that while the British government encourages the UK public to consume less meat and dairy for health reasons, at the same time it actively promotes those products in China, leading to an increase in slurry production and related emissions.

How much slurry do pigs produce?

Slurry is a mixture of faeces, urine and water — a byproduct of pig farming used by farmers as a fertiliser. In addition to the elements of nitrogen and phosphorous , untreated pig slurry contains high levels of ammonia, which can be dangerous to humans, plants, animals, and nature.

In regards to the amount of pig slurry produced in Northern Ireland, Friends of the Earth said that around 1.3 million tonnes of slurry is expected to be produced every year for the whole of Northern Ireland; another Friends of the Earth graphic is captioned, “Pigs will create 1.1m tonnes of slurry”:

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) advised us, by correspondence, that quantifying the production of slurry in Northern Ireland is “quite difficult”. There are assumptions to be made in its estimation:

  • Number of sows in the Northern Ireland herd
  • Level of sow production (size of litters)
  • Replacement rate of breeding stock
  • Mortality rates in the states of growth of pigs
  • Length of time pigs are in each stage of production
  • Age at slaughter
  • Type of feeding system (i.e. dry or wet)

Using data based on Farm Census values for breeding sows, slaughter pig numbers, and standard slurry production figures as outlined in the The Nitrates Action Programme Regulations, DAERA provided us an estimate of an annual production of 850,000 tonnes of slurry. We calculated an estimation of 957,495 tonnes of slurry (see Notes below), which is within 13% of the lower estimation of 1,100,000 tonnes, calculated by Friends of the Earth. However, if DAERA’s estimation of 850,000 tonnes is more accurate, then the variance with Friends of the Earth’s headline figure of 1,300,000 tonnes represents a large variance of 35%.

Nevertheless, the claim that “Thousands of tonnes of slurry … are being spread on farmland, all in the name of exporting pork to China” is accurate if the pigmeat from 1,450 pigs (regardless of current or future sow population) are exported to China. This is calculated by dividing the estimated amount of annual pig slurry produced (957,495 tonnes) by the number of sows (47,905) and multiplying by an average litter of 29 pigs/sow/year.

Exporting pork to China

Alex Thomson, the Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent, claimed (1:23) that a major trade deal with China has seen pork exports from the UK increase by nearly 50% in the last six months, with “much of that coming from Northern Ireland”.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) data regarding UK volume pork exports to several destinations from 2014 to 2018. Focusing on exports to China, there has been a slight increase (364 tons; 1%) in pork exports since 2017 (see table):

In 2017, by tonnage, China represented 18.7% of pork exports from the UK; but 0% came from Northern Ireland.

Pork exports from Northern Ireland to China have been facilitated after an agreement on 11 August 2017, which was finally approved on 24 November 2017. DAERA explained to us that up to that point there were no exports of pork from Northern Ireland to China, because the slaughter plants and associated cold stores in Northern Ireland did not have the approval of the Chinese authorities. Once all conditions in the supply chain were deemed satisfactory, exports to China commenced in January 2018.

DAERA informed us that tonnage figures for pork exports from Northern Ireland are not available.

Thus, whether measured in terms of total exports of pork from the UK to China (an increase of 1% from 2017 to 2018; latest figures available) or in terms of total exports of pork from Northern Ireland (unavailable, but greater than 0% in 2017), the claim that much of the UK’s increase in pork exports, “by nearly 50% in the last six months”, is inaccurate.

However, we can calculate the value of Northern Ireland exports. The DAERA publication, “Size and Performance of the Northern Ireland Food and Drinks Processing Sector”, shows destinations and values of various subsectors, including pork:

Source: Size and Performance of the Northern Ireland Food and Drinks Processing Sector, Subsector Statistics 2017 (DAERA)

The total sales of pigmeat from Northern Ireland in 2017 had a value of £343.2 million; the value of pig exports from Northern Ireland to the EU (excluding Ireland) and the rest of the world was £17.7 million (5% of all Northern Ireland exports). As per the above cited export agreement, there were no pigs exported from Northern Ireland to China in 2017.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) shows data regarding UK total value for pig meat exports from 2014 to 2018. Figures from 2017 show a total value of £470.4 million; the value from Northern Ireland is £90.3 million (including Ireland), or 19.2% of all UK exports (excluding Ireland, the figures are £17.7 million and 3.8%):

Source: UK Pig Facts and Figures: 2019 (AHDB)

In sum, the “Size and Performance” table on food and drink destinations and values shows that 82.3% of the £343.2 million value of pigmeat in Northern Ireland is delivered to Northern Ireland, Great Britain, and Ireland. Updated figures for 2018 would include pork exports from Northern Ireland to China, but as above, in the “Size and Performance” table, the information may be suppressed to avoid disclosure. The figure representing exports to China would be a portion of the value exported to the rest of Europe (excluding Ireland) and the rest of the world.

More pigs than people?

Census figures from The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) show that the pig breeding herd increased by 4 per cent in June 2018, while total pig numbers decreased by 2 per cent to 633,600. The pig population in the 1990s was around 650,000, then declined to about 400,000 before steadily increasing back to around 650,000 in 2017. According to AHDB, the decrease may be due to a fire in Northern Ireland’s largest processing plant and an oversupply in the market at the time. The Agri-Food Strategy Board’s Going For Growth programme invested around £1.3 billion into growth projects, mainly to improve production. Furthermore, an AHDB overview report suggested that the total number of pigs increase was partly due to a change in methodology and an increase in pig farms.

But the secondary claim by Channel 4 News that “there’ll soon be as many pigs as people in Northern Ireland” is inaccurate. The mid-year 2018 population estimate for Northern Ireland is 1,881,600 persons; the mid-year 2018 pig population was 633,600. The fifty-year peak was 1,248,020 pigs in Northern Ireland in 1965 (still under the 1.46 million human population at that time).

Source: Historical Livestock Data (DAERA).

The underlying source of this claim may be from Friends of the Earth, when Gwyneth McQuiston said that there are proposals to increase pig numbers in the Limavady area to 81,000, where there are 30,000 residents in the town.

It should be noted that a census is a count of a population at a specific point in time, which is different from a count of those born during a period of time. In other words, while there were 633,600 pigs recorded in June 2018, there were many more pigs that were born and died in the intervening period given that most farmed pigs are slaughtered well before their first birthday..

Summary

A Channel 4 News video made a primary claim that “thousands of tonnes of slurry … are being spread on farmland, all in the name of exporting pork to China”. DAERA provided FactCheckNI an estimate of 850,000 tonnes of pig slurry produced per year in Northern Ireland; using our own (more generous) calculation of 957,495 tonnes, this equates to 20 tons/sow/year. An export of 1,450 pigs would represent 1,000 tonnes of pig slurry. Thus the claim could be accurate, but remains unsubstantiated, because the tonnage or value of pork exports from Northern Ireland to China are unknown.

Channel 4 News made a secondary claim that “there’ll soon be as many pigs as people in Northern Ireland”. Historical farm census data show that there was a population of 633,600 pigs in 2018, in comparison to a mid-year 2018 population of 1,881,600 persons. The claim is inaccurate.

Image: Photo by Simone Van Den Berg used by license Dreamstime.com

NOTES:

To calculate our figure of 957,495 tonnes of pig slurry production, we used the following values from the Farm Census (pig numbers) and Nitrates Action Programme Regulations (kg/N/Head/Year): (Sows (47,905 X 1.6) + Pigs (29/Sow/Year) (1,389,245 X 2.38) + Maidens (5,812 X 11)) = 3,446,983 kg / (3.6 kg/N at 4% dry matter) = 957,495 tonnes.