Spain Has More Pigs Than People

CC BY 2.0. The Animal

And with that comes real fear for the environment.

The Spanish have always had a soft spot for pigs. The succulent meat features on many a dinner table and tapas spread, and the cured hams are renowned worldwide. Even as far back as Roman times, Spain's hams were spoken of highly, and when the Romans lost control of the region, the Goths who followed gave pigs special protection. During the ugly years of the Inquisition, eating pork in public was used as a test of one's religious beliefs.

Now, however, the relationship between Spaniards and their pigs is more tense than usual. The number of pigs in Spain has surpassed that of human citizens -- 50 million animals compared to 46.5 million people. A whopping 9 million have been added in just the last five years, driving an industry that, according to the Guardian, produced 4 million tonnes of pork products and generated €6 billion (US$7 billion) last year.

The pigs are problematic for a few reasons. They consume a lot of water, around 15 litres (4 gallons) per pig daily, which is challenging in a country often afflicted by drought. They produce a lot of waste, which leaches into groundwater and contaminates it with nitrates. The sheer volume of waste is why animal agriculture is the fourth leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Spain, following transportation, electricity generation, and industry. (On a global scale, livestock production is sometimes said to be the greatest source of GHG emissions.)

As ham production becomes more industrialized throughout Spain, standards have fallen, raising questions about food safety. The Guardian reported,

"This year a police investigation was triggered when a customer returned a worm-riddled ham to a branch of the French supermarket chain Carrefour. Police uncovered a network of unscrupulous suppliers and more than 50 tonnes of ham that was destined for the incinerator but instead has been relabelled with new sell-by dates."

The authenticity of production methods has been challenged as well, particularly that of the famous jamón ibérico de bellota, which retails for hundreds of Euros per kilogram and is made by letting blackfoot pigs roam in a oak forest for their final few months of life, foraging for acorns. Formal oversight is lacking, which has allowed producers to cut corners, supplementing the acorn diet with animal feed and shortening the mandatory three-year curing period.

cured hams on a ceiling

These unfortunate problems are indicative of a broader global crisis when it comes to meat production. The fact is that inhabitants of wealthier developed nations eat far too much meat and are not willing to pay enough money for it, both of which are contributing factors to the over-industrialization of animal agriculture. It is unsustainable to continue raising animals for human consumption at this rate and an inefficient use of limited resources. In fact, a recent study found that an additional Canada-sized chunk of fertile land would be required if, hypothetically, the entire world were to follow the meat-centric U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

Significantly reducing meat consumption levels should be a priority for policy-makers worldwide, as it would resolve a host of issues over time, from cleaner water, lower emissions, and freeing up land, to health concerns about processed meats and the ethical implications of raising animals in unnaturally tight conditions.

Spain's pig problem is one that every other nation will soon face if we keep eating meat the way we do. We'd be smart to watch and learn.