Pigs in Agriculture: Reality Behind the Bars

May 10, 2021Lu Shegay


Pigs are farmed domesticated animals that are raised for commercial purposes, including for food consumption, leather, and other products. Due to their similarity in their skin with human skin, pigs have been used in preclinical studies, drug testing, and research.

According to Dr. Donald Broom, the professor of Cambridge University and a former scientific adviser to the Council of Europe, pigs have “the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly [more so than] three-year-olds.” Pigs have also been proven to be able to play video games, and they could also indicate temperature preference. Pigs are capable of forming strong bonds with other pigs and are very protective of their young fellows.


Animals have been proven to be recognized as sentient beings - being capable of having feelings, such as pain, suffering, fear, etc. Pigs are intelligent and cognitively complex animals, they are able to learn and memorize. They are also able to feel the pain - it is expressed in their decreased or abnormal movements, reduced feeding, abnormal postures, etc. Other studies have shown that vocalization, e.g, squealing, indicates pigs’ ability to feel pain.

Read more: Pigs Are Intelligent, Emotional, and Cognitively Complex

Pork Production

According to the survey conducted in 2019, the pig stock in China was 310.41 million, followed by Myanmar (21.6 million), Vietnam (19.61 million), the Philippines (12.71), South Korea (11.28), and Japan (9.16). In China, according to a study conducted in 2015, the average pork consumption per person was 68.7 lbs (31.2 kg) per capita. Myanmar consumed 27.11 lbs (12.3 kg) in 2018, according to the Faostat. In 2020, pork consumption in Vietnam was estimated at 66.8 lbs (30.34 kg) per person annually. In the 2018 study, pork consumption in the Philippines per capita was approximately 34.3 lbs (15.6 kg) per person. South Korea's statistics showed that in 2018, 52.9 lbs (24 kg) per person of pork was consumed. In Japan, the 2019 report indicated 28.6 lbs (13 kg) of pork consumption per capita.

Pork is considered the most consumed meat in the world. Since 1961, pork production has grown “4-5 fold to 112 million tonnes in 2014.” China remains the leading pork producer in the world (54 million tonnes in 2014), followed by the United States, Germany, Spain, and Brazil.

Read more: The Pork Industry at a Glance

"Pigs" by toodlepip is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Approximately 121 million pigs are killed on factory farms only in the United States. In factory farms, pigs spend most of their lives in gestation crates, otherwise known as sow stalls, metal enclosures where pigs are kept for breeding and during pregnancy. Gestation crates are exempt from the anti-cruelty statutes as it is considered a customary husbandry practice, which falls outside the legislation. These crates usually do not have bedding and are floored with metal to collect waste efficiently. The crates are roughly 7 ft. x 2 ft. (2 m. x 61 cm.) where pigs are not able to turn around. After sows give birth to piglets, mother pigs are moved to farrowing crates, which are considered wide enough to lie down and feed piglets but they are not big enough for an animal to turn around.

When piglets turn 10 days, they are separated from their mothers, like many other animals that are farmed and raised for commercial purposes. The mother pig gets impregnated again, and this continues for a few years until the pig is slaughtered. Intensive confinement stresses the pigs out and makes them miserable that they even chew on cage bars from desperation.

After piglets are taken away from their mothers, they are put in pens and barns for over a 6-month period until the moment they weigh 280 lbs (127 kg) and are ready for slaughter. Millions of male piglets are also castrated, generally without anesthesia, because “consumers supposedly complain of ‘boar taint’ in meat that comes from intact animals.” Some countries do not practice castration of male piglets, e.g, the UK or Ireland. Castration and tail docking also fall outside the anti-cruelty legislation, even though animals experience unnecessary pain and suffering, considering these practices are conducted without any painkillers.

Read more: Progress Report: Castration of Pigs in the EU


“A typical slaughterhouse kills about 1,000 hogs per hour. The sheer number of animals killed makes it impossible for pigs’ deaths to be humane and painless. Because of improper stunning, many hogs are alive when they reach the scalding-hot water baths, which are intended to soften their skin and remove their hair. The U.S. Department of Agriculture documented 14 humane-slaughter violations at one processing plant, where inspectors found hogs who ‘were walking and squealing after being stunned [with a stun gun] as many as four times.’ An industry report explains that ‘continuous pig squealing is a sign of … rough handling and excessive use of electric prods.’”

Read more: Pigs: Intelligent Animals Suffering on Farms and in Slaughterhouses

Health Concerns

There have been studies that showed that red meat can “increase the risk of colorectal cancer.” Other studies suggested that meat consumption can cause men’s prostate cancer, and frequent consumption of pork can increase the risk of diabetes.

“Because crowding creates an environment conducive to the spread of disease, pigs on factory farms are fed antibiotics and sprayed with huge amounts of pesticides. The antibiotics and pesticides remain in their bodies and are passed along to people who eat them, creating serious health hazards for humans. Pigs and other factory-farmed animals are fed millions of pounds of antibiotics each year, and scientists believe that meat-eaters’ unwitting consumption of these drugs gives rise to strains of bacteria that are resistant to treatment.”

"k1681-15" by USDAgov is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Over the last 30 years, pork production has rapidly changed in terms of increasing the number of kept pigs. For instance, in 2018, Thailand’s Department of Livestock Development reported that “the majority of swine household was smallholders (93.51%, while the 6.48% of large-scale farms were classified as small farms for 4.98% (50 to 500 pigs), medium farms for 1.37% (500 to 5000 pigs), and large farms for 0.13% (more than 5000 pigs).” And even though with a total increase of the pig population, the number of the smallholders decreased, while the number of pigs per household increased. During 2014-2018, intensive pig production systems have been growing at a rate of 8.90 per year, according to Thailand’s Office of Agricultural Economics.

For the last decades, the production of pork significantly increased in Asian regions, i.e, China that possesses over 50% of the world pig population. “In 2016, pork consumption in China was ~54.98 million tons, which required around 1.62 million tons of imported pork to supply the domestic demand, according to the FAO Report in 2018. However, Rabobank estimated that pork imports in China increased to 2 million tons in the first half of 2019 because the Chinese pork production had dropped up to 55% from the African Swine Fever (AFS) outbreak. Moreover, ASF outbreaks cause serious consequences for other high pork consumption countries in Asia, including Hong Kong (SAR-PRC), Japan, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, and the Republic of Korea, which require massive pork imports to supply their domestic consumption.”

Read more: Spread of ASF China and Its Impact

In Vietnam, the spreading of ASF occurred rapidly. “After a few months, the epidemic reached its peak, having spread to more than 8,200 communes in 63 provinces and cities within 9 mo. After 1 year, the loss officially reported due to the ASF epidemic was ~6 million head (accounting for 21.5% of the total herd), equivalent to the total pork weight loss of 342,091 tons (accounting for 9.0% of total pork production in the country). In Vietnam, pork production accounts for 71.5% of the livestock industry (in 2018) and is the main source of meat for local consumer diets. Therefore, the role of pork production is very important to the Vietnamese people and socio-economic activities associated with agriculture policies, food security, animal feed, veterinary, jobs, science and education, transportation, and other related activities. Comparing to the year before the ASF outbreak, the Vietnamese total pig herd and pork production volume decreased by 11.5% and 13.8%, respectively. The cumulative reduction in the total pig herd due to ASF immediately prompted the rapid growth of poultry production (16.5%), ruminant (over 5.0%), and other farm animals (over 3.0%) as well as rapidly increased pork imports in 2019 (63.0%).”

Read more: ASF Penetration into the Vietnamese Swine Herds and Its Impact


The legislation still remains non-existent in Asia with regard to pigs and some other farmed animals. Some countries in Asia already have animal welfare acts, but they usually do not apply to farmed animals. The same situation is in countries where animal law is progressive - farmed animals are not protected by law unless they are used for research or other purposes. Apart from the factors that pigs are cruelly treated on factory farms and in slaughterhouses, there are environmental and health concern aspects of the pork industry. There is always a way to stop contributing to this industry, and every small step matters.

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