With the impact of Tropical Storm Florence on the Atlantic Coast last week, the U.S.’s pork production took a few hits. In addition to millions of broiler chickens and turkeys, thousands of swine are estimated to have been lost to floodwaters and damaged facilities. North Carolina is the second-largest pork producing state in the country, and home to mega-producers like Smithfield Foods, whose hog lagoons (the open-air pools designed to process animal feces on pork farms) flooded into nearby waterways and sewers, creating an environmental disaster and a PR nightmare.
As meteorologists and climate change experts have observed over the past several hurricane seasons in the northern hemisphere, ever-rising global temperatures are contributing to increasingly devastating rainfall amounts and storm power. And flooding poop lagoons are not the only threat that climate change poses to pork production in the U.S. and the role it plays in the delicate balance of the global food system.
According to a new report from Scientific American, warmer global temperatures will mean smaller—and fewer—pigs in the future. Since as far back as 2013, the report notes, the National Pork Board has been keeping tabs on the issue, as it could have broad-sweeping effects on the country’s $20 billion pork industry. The first issue that scientists from the University of Iowa (the state with the most pig production) identified was that, when overheated, pigs’ bodies direct the majority of the nutrients and proteins that would usually go toward building muscles to maintaining their immune system instead. Second, heat-stressed pigs, the studies found, just tend to eat less. And even if they eat less food that's packed with the same amount of calories, fewer calories end up going toward building muscles and farmers nonetheless end up with leaner pigs.
Farmers prefer pigs to reach 270 pounds on average before they're sold to processing facilities, but heat-stressed pigs haven’t been reaching that ideal weight in time for the end of summer slaughter. So farmers lose money either by selling off underweight pigs, or by sending hogs to slaughter less frequently so they have time to reach weight. And it's not just the pigs' size being affected. Another effect of rising temperatures on pigs—whose bodies do an overall terrible job of cooling themselves in comparison to other livestock—is increased fertility, but fertility that produces fewer offspring, and offspring who are also more likely to stay small.
So with hotter temperatures comes less pork overall in the global market, where the demand for pork is only increasing. In order for American farmers to stay competitive with growers in, say, China, where pork production has grown a steady two percent year over year, maintaining enough production for a healthy export business is crucial, especially considering the tit-for-tat trade war currently raging between the two countries—which is already heavily targeting U.S. pork exports.
The U.S., according to experts, is better positioned to be able to combat rising temperatures with infrastructure that can help keep livestock at more comfortable temperatures. But in developing countries with less means to outfit feeding facilities with air conditioning and ventilation, pork production will likely begin to suffer faster and global prices could rise.
There’s no easy solution to the climate change question, but some researchers see hope in stalling this decrease in livestock production associated with this increase in temps by carefully breeding for animals best adapted to the heat, as well as diversifying livestock and crop production on individual farms. But as the warm weather gets warmer and sticks around longer, don’t be surprised if you notice a similar upward trend in the price of bacon and sausage.