Sofia Wilhelmmson recently completed her PhD from in 2022 from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in the department of Animal Environment and Health. She researches a particular and especially stressful time for farmed pigs: the loading and transport of pigs on their way to slaughter. She not only considers the welfare of the animals, but also the well-being of the pig transport drivers. In our conversation we chat about the relationships that humans have with animals - both wild and domesticated; what food systems actors have the most power in the pig production system; and whether we can add incentives for animal welfare and human well-being in our food systems.
For more info and transcript, please visit our website: https://www.tabledebates.org/podcast/episode35
Welcome to Feed a food systems podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Samara Brock.
And I’m Matthew Kessler, and today we’re speaking with a colleague of mine, Sofia Wilhelmsson, who recently completed her PhD at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
So my name is Sofia Wilhemsson, and I'm calling from Mullhyttan, which is about half an hour outside of Örebro.
Sofia’s dissertation was called “There’s no time to rush! Pigs’ and transport drivers’ welfare and interactions during slaughter transport”. So why are we chatting about pig transport drivers in our season exploring power in the food system?
For starters, we’re talking about farm and food labor, which tends to get overlooked in conversations about the food system. In this case we’re looking at pig transport drivers, who aren’t usually thought of as having much agency of their own.
In this episode we chat about the relationships that humans have with animals - both wild and domesticated; what food systems actors have the most power in the pig production system; and whether we can add incentives for animal welfare and human well-being.
We first asked Sofia how did she get into her PhD research.
So I worked at the Veterinary Clinic, basically, was just cats and dogs there. And I started to reflect on how we we spend a lot of money and effort to keep some of the animals that we surround ourselves with alive and well. And then in the lunch break, we sat eating cheap meat from pigs, or cows or chickens without really reflecting on that. So when once I realized that we put our money where our heart is, so to say, which is it's, it's natural, I think. But once I realized the big gap between how we relate to pets, and production animals, and how most people don't really have a relation to production animals at all, more than in the meal, I kind of wanted to work more with that. And I looked started to look into different indications where I could learn how to prevent poor welfare in production animals. Started to go reading to be an agronomist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. And, I took some classes in anthrozoology, which is about human-animal relations, and then applied for this PhD position, which I got. So that's where I am now.
So why do you think there is this gap between how we treat domestic and farmed animals?
I will to keep this short because it's really complex. But in the end, I think it all comes down to societal norms and belief systems, which influence how we think about the different obligations that we have towards other animals. And this also explains how we can perceive as specific species both as food and companion, and depending on the context. And I think pigs are a good example of that, actually. But we have a tendency to categorize different things in our surrounding, and this often makes our lives a bit easier, I think. And also, this, of course, have historical, cultural and biological reasons. So for instance, if we think about the biology of a pig, they are omnivores, meaning that they eat a variety of foods as we do. And they live in groups, and they breed in captivity. And the same goes for poultry. So they have the right prerequisites to be domesticated by humans from the beginning. And then, although they might differ a lot from their ancestors, they still have the same behavioral needs. Often it's just the behavior that has been altered by the domestication process. And then it's, I mean, the cultural context. We tend to, as I said, sort different species into different categories. And this is also reflected in our legislations, because we have ethical implications, for example, are recognized in the animal welfare legislation. And this can be seen as society's moral guidelines for how we interact with animals. But often we allow what is considered tradition, and hence are, to some extent-purpose navigated. So how we traditionally kept the animals when the legislation was initially implemented, for example, companion or a production reasons influence its content, as it is today. So since the purpose with farmed species mainly is to make money, they often have less strict protection than species kept for companionship or sport. So and this is, although there's no research showing that, for example, there's a difference in how piglets and puppies are affected by early weaning. Just to give an example of that. So it's complex, and multifaceted.
That's a great overview, I wanted to ask you about, what is your relationship with pigs? Being on farms, seeing them every day. What is it that most people do not know about pigs because they don't interact with them as regularly?
Yeah, I love this question. I think, to begin with, they're so much fun. I don't think people in general know that. And it's, it's fun to be around them. And if they have a positive experience of humans, they also find us very fun to be round. So even though they know that there's no food coming up, they clearly want to interact and be around us. And we have excellent abilities to learn and due to like their mere size. Here at the farm, we have large pigs, and, and they are very strong, I often feel myself like, we are more on the same wavelength, than what I experience with cats or dogs, or sheeps.
How big are the pigs on the farm?
So they are approximately between 100 and 250 kilos maybe. And so they have their own agenda. I think that's really clear. When you meet a pig and interact with them. You can't really fooled them, because they know what you think before you do it, kind of. Yeah, I tried to clicker train one of the pigs here. And it didn't work, or it worked to begin with, but then she was too fast for me. So she figured me out faster than I figured it out. And it was just no point to continue.
So we're going to move on to looking at where pigs and pig production fit in the supply chain and the broader food system. And we're going to be mostly talking about the Swedish context. So I'm wondering if you could paint the picture of what pig production looks like in Sweden? And also how that compares to other parts of the world?
So Sweden is a fairly small country, if you could say that compared to, for example, Germany, or Denmark, when it comes to producing pork. And we have approximately 2.5 million pigs that are reared for, for fattening or for pork production each year and the sounds a lot. But yes, it's really a very small fraction of the total number of pigs slaughtered worldwide. I think it's about a little less than 1500 million pigs slaughtered in the world. So it's very large numbers.
That's per year.
Per year. Yeah.
So your research looks specifically at the working environment and animal welfare, around issues of transportation of pigs to slaughterhouses. So can you walk us through what it's like to be a truck driver in this situation?
So being subcontracted by the abattoirs, the haulier companies where the truck drivers are employed. They are kind of in the hands of this contract. So regarding amount of work and routines, this is not entirely up to them to decide. And often they get the next week schedule from their manager, maybe a couple of days, one or two days only in advance, because their abbatoirs who buy the pigs from the farmers, they do their planning late in the week before. So that kind of sets the the frames for their practical work. And so they start the day very early. And the first loading often is around three to four in the morning. And this is in order to keep to the tight time schedule. And then it's not uncommon that they spend the night in the cabin, close to the farm or at the farm. And then approximately 45 to one hour is used for loading of about 150 pigs. So it depends a little bit. And then after about four and a half four and a half hours, they have to take a mandatory break of about 45 minutes. So they are really steered by the timeframe. And if it doesn't work well, during loading, for some reason. This could be very stressful for them as well. Or if the weather is poor, and it's difficult to drive and so on. Yeah, and how is loading? I mean, I've seen about 37 of them and all I can say that is that is it differs a lot. So handling strategies varies between people or persons. And also the outer circumstances for example, how do the pigs respond to the situation, how the staff at the farm works or the design of the loading area is is very, variating. And this of course affects pig welfare as well as their workload. And none of these variables are really in the control of the trucker. So the physical and psychosocial working environment as well as pig welfare varies considerably.
What do you mean when you say psychosocial working environment?
If I can give an example of how they are interacting with the farmer or the farm staff, the farms, we talked with them a lot about this, this varies a lot, depending on the farm. So some farms it works very well. And at some farms, the farmers sometimes even try to hide pigs in the middle of a group that are not actually fit for transportation. So pigs that are maybe have an injury of some kind, they just want them to get up on truck and then there are conflicts or could be conflicts, for example, and of course, this is affecting their working environment, mentally and it leads to increased stress as well because they are responsible once the pigs are loaded. They have the full responsibility for these pigs until unloading. So if anything happens or if a pig is injured during unloading they could be getting a fine for this or reported by the official veterinarian at the abattoir.
And what does society think of these pig transport drivers?
I think there's an ongoing debate about live animal transportation, which definitely engaged a lot of people. And in my experience, people tend to see this occupation as rather controversial. So I don't know, for example, how easy it will be for these truckers to raise potential problems in the working environment. In terms of getting support from the general public. And I guess the same goes for, for staff also working inside of the abattoirs.
I think one interesting aspect of this is that the gap between production animals and the consumers, I mean, how many have actually been into the pig farms and seen them or met the pigs and so on. But the one time you actually get in some kind of contact with them is if you see them on the road. So I think that's another reason why animal transportation evokes a lot of emotions, because it's right there in your face, you can’t like just blindfold yourself and pretend that it doesn't happen, which I think is a common strategy amongst some consumers.
To do this research, Sofia spoke with 11 of the pig transport drivers, and had 20 of them answer a questionnaire, which is a decent sample size considering there are around 100 drivers in Sweden. And what did she learn from speaking with them.
So I love to talk to them, and to meet them. And I think it surprised me that they were so engaged and wanted to learn a lot about pigs. They spontaneously requested learning more about pig behavior without me like saying that I think it's important. And then it was so nice to like coming from academia with a lot of theoretical knowledge and meeting them who works with I mean, they are the ones who meet most pigs, I would say, than anyone else, and have a lot of practical experience. So different pigs from different farms, and just how we were connected and could like, help each other out and create new knowledge in that process. I think that was so much fun. Yeah, I think the creation of new knowledge together with these stakeholders, because I couldn't have done that myself. We created these guidelines for professional handling of pigs, together with them. So they are really applicable. And I think that kind of collaboration is the future in applied research. You need to really be aware of the practical knowledge.
So I might link us to our next set of questions, which are sort of around power and power structures in the food system. So we're wondering what the structural factors are that create the pig transport system today, who gains and loses from these and how?
There are many different actors. Looking at the farmers, for example, they choose their abattoir to where they want to sell their pigs, and this is not necessarily the one closest to the farm, but the one who pays the best. So, the distances, the driving distances, for instance, for the trucking, the truckers is secondarily affected by this of course, and, and then the abattoirs delivers the products to retailers and consumers and farmers, the Haulier companies and the abattoirs, they need to comply with the legislations made by policymakers, who in turn, of course, are chosen on a democratic or in a democratic process. So, and I think this is complex, and in many ways, the number of different actors involved might make the system a bit difficult, actually, to change. And each part is, of course, interested in making an economic gain, just like any other profit driven businesses. And changes often comes with a cost.
So I think that's an interesting observation that there are so many actors involved, that it creates this complexity and maybe it's difficult to change because of that. But I guess one of the things we're thinking about in this series is who has more power to change that system and who has less power? So I wonder if there are particular actors among the supply chain, where it's more obvious that they really don't have much of a say. And there are other ones that say they are accountable to others, but they still maybe wield a bit more power in this situation.
Yeah, definitely. So in that sense, I think the abattoirs set the terms for many of the other private actors. And they could, for example, and I think sometimes they do, put pressure on farmers to, for instance, improve loading areas, which is a major contributing factor to poor welfare, in pigs during loading. I mean, they also have the agency to provide adequate contracts with the haulier companies, which then could contract conflicts between safety and practices, for example, feeling like you don't have the time to take the mandatory drive - drivers’ rest for instance. So and then the haulier companies, they compete with the other haulier companies, and have in that term less agency. So it's kind of built into the structure that we have at the moment. I mean, I wouldn't say they have no agency, I do think they have all actors have their own agency in some way. But in this specific setting, I think the abattoirs have like, the power, more or less.
Do you think if we asked people from the abattoirs, do you think they would also agree with that? Or might they answer differently? And of course, I'm asking you to speculate.
I'm not sure. I think you will get different answers from different people, depending on who you ask. But I mean, the abattoirs need to compete with the low price imported meat. And then we are back to consumer demands again. So in the end, the policymakers of course, it's the frames for all involved. And there are difficulties to ensure that legislations are actually followed. So you can talk about we need to have stricter legislation about this and that. But you know, it's difficult as it is also to, to reassure compliance with the legislations we have at the moment. And for the transport drivers, they have several complex legislations, and they - it's not even compatible, all of them at times. I mean, it's really complex. But I think abattoir managers, of course, are aware that they kind of set the stage for the rest of the actors in many ways, yeah.
What in your view are the key levers that one can, or the instruments one can use to change such a system? And then there's another question that has an assumption in it that the system needs to be changed?
Yeah. So could you explain what you mean? Like in what terms? What changes? Are you thinking about that's needed?
Whether there are aspects of the system that you think could be improved, either, you know, by minor reforms, or by maybe a much bigger change?
Yeah, so, the million dollar question. I mean, and depending totally, from what perspective, you look, if you want the change to decrease environmental impact, or if you want to improve the working environment or animal welfare. I mean, the answer differs, I think, but in general, for the food production chain, to accomplish improvements, like broadly speaking, I think it's a problem. And this is my, of course, my personal opinion, but this is a problem that we have such a low price on meat. So a higher pricing would I think, improve opportunities to make changes that will improve a lot of these different aspects, as long as the money actually reaches staff working in farms and abattoirs and haulier companies so and I've also been thinking about, like more practical aspects like if the truckers were directly employed by the abattoirs instead, this could likely improve their working conditions in the long term. And so it's I think it's necessary to make sure that actors in the chain can ensure a good working environment because this is closely linked to animal welfare. You can't really separate the two. I mean, there's probably some examples of when they go against each other, but in the large, it's really intertwined.
Sofia talks about one other part of her research which is about increasing knowledge for the transport drivers on how to work safely and handle pigs in the right way.
Because this is a large part of my research, we have, through training, we have seen that we can actually improve how the truckers handled the pigs. And in the process, we found that they want to learn more about pigs. And they can improve, and they do improve their handling. And in the end, pig welfare is improved when they get the right sort of training. Knowledge and education, I mean, it's truly, really important in order to make decisions and to be aware of what you do and why. And this goes, I mean, down to that. I think we really need to provide appropriate education on small children in animal welfare and food production. Because it's so much more difficult to change habits once they have been established, even though you get the knowledge later on. So it's an important aspect.
Yeah. So we started with quite a vague question, but you gave two very specific examples, one being looking at raising the price of meat, and then increasing and building awareness and education among the various stakeholders.
So something I'm curious about, as I'm listening to your answers is that some people would look at issues with animal welfare and decide that we shouldn't eat meat. And what you're advocating for is better standards around animal welfare. Can you sort of describe why you've chosen that route over another? And why someone else might choose a different answer to that question?
Well, it's not really reflecting my personal opinion, it's more reflecting my work as a researcher. And I mean, we have the food production system as we have today. As I said, it's based on our democratic process. And I like the way you're thinking about things. I'm not sure if you are - if you know about the Serenity Prayer. But I think it's really nice and applicable in a lot of different contexts. So I need to try and change whatever I can. And I need to accept what I can’t change. I mean, I can't change the system, even though I might want to, but I can do whatever I have in my power to increase knowledge and to make the small adjustments that makes it a little bit better. And then, I'm not sure if that's a good answer to your question, but that's just where I'm coming from as a person I think.
Yeah, no, that's really interesting. So you saw these contradictions in how different types of animals were treated, and you decided to go back and study about it. And so we were wondering what you see as the role of research in increasing society's understanding of animal welfare, and animal behavior?
That's a big question. So, of course, science based knowledge is highly important for policymakers to make appropriate decisions. And so that's the short answer that society kind of leans against the system that we have at hand. And I'm, as a researcher you need to provide good knowledge and research based knowledge that we can kind of use when we when we set the different policies. But I think there's a big challenge in communicating the science in a good way. And I have a feeling that research on farm animal welfare, and behavior doesn't reach the public, through, for example, media, in the same way as pets or animals that I started to talk about - the ones that we have close to home. And this is also - I mean, I understand this. You are interested in what you know, and what you can relate to. But I think this gap between farm animals and how they are reared, and the general public or consumers’ awareness about this, actually kind of increase the general engagement in these questions. And it makes it a bit difficult to communicate the knowledge as well.
I mean, it's even more important for researchers who work with farm animals to be good at communicating their research to society. And I think one very good example of how this could be done is Per Jensen at Linköpings Universitet. He has written a lot of - or several good and easily accessible books about, for instance, farm animals’ emotions, and cognition, and so on. But yeah, the role is highly important, I think.
I suppose podcasts are another vehicle for wider knowledge dissemination. What do you think it is that impacts how farmers think of pig production and the food system the most? Is it the research that goes into it? Is it economy? Is it legislation or something else?
So of course, it's a combination of these three, but I think currently economy and then legislation is mainly may be impacting production methods the most. As I said before, the legislation is, in ways purpose navigated. So if we can't make an economic gain from the production, I mean, that's just the ground or the prerequisites, so to say. But this is also frustrating, I think, in a way, because we have a large body of research now. Maybe in the last decades, on the farm species. So for instance, how pigs are affected by rough handling, and long term stress and how this affects production in the end. And together, a more narrow example, mixing of groups of pigs, right before transportation, it increases their stress. You know that they start to fight with pigs that they don't know how to set the hierarchy and we have known this for years, and it's really bad for their welfare, and also for the production later on. But it's still practiced today, generally, that you mix pig. And often the argument is that it would be too expensive to change. It's too difficult. It's too expensive. But the knowledge and information is right there. And I think there's a lot of other similar examples like this.
So you've already gotten into this a little bit in terms of what it would take to develop a more humane system for animals, for labor, for farmers. We're just wondering if there's anything else you would like to talk about in terms of what you think could help to develop a more humane system?
What I really want to emphasize is it’s a shame that there's a gap, that there's a large gap between consumers and the production animals, for several reasons. And what's more important than what we eat? I mean, what you put into your body, and how this affects the people who works with the production or the planet or the animals. And we spend very little amount of money on food today, compared to how it was 20-30 years ago. Another reason why I think it's sad that we have this gap is, there's a lot of positive aspects of interacting with these species that I think most people don't know, and will never experience. So like, if you would know how it feels to be close to a sheep who just can't get enough of your scratches, or how it is to know like a pig in person. And I mean it really makes it difficult, I think, to neglect, like the large scale production that we have today, the consequences of this production. Because they are there. And although we in Sweden tend to talk about that we are so good in many things and I think we are. I mean, I really agree with that, compared to other countries, we have come a long way, especially with pig production, I think. But still, we don't really consider like that pigs really want to put their snout into the ground. And I don't mean straw, I mean, like the dirt, and to use their senses. And they are really complex beings. And we don't really acknowledge that. And I think it's difficult to understand that while this gap exists.
We just have a few other kinds of questions that are more like big picture about power and food. And yeah, so this is another big, big, big question, which is, what is your ideal future for the food system that you study?
So I guess you want my personal opinion here, of course. I think a food system that actually enables respect for each individual, no matter species, and here, I mean, the chicken production, the broiler chickens are a good example. It's, it's so many individuals, but we can’t - we don't count them. We don't count the numbers, it's more kilos or tonnes per square meter.
I mean, my ideal future would be where we actually eat less meat, but better. So to say, I don't think there's necessarily that that means that we can't eat other species. But I think that the respect really needs to be there, and that we lost it somewhere along the way. Also, I think, in some terms, the respect for the people working in these productions in the large scale productions. That's a short answer to that question, but I think you get where I’m going.
I have one more question about power shifts in meat production, which is - in the past have there been shifts in meat production that have happened and how have those come about? Like something we could sort of look to as something that we could replicate in this moment to shift meat production again.
Going back to the broiler production, which I think is interesting, because it's a bit ongoing now, in media, I don't know if you've seen it. But so a couple of years ago, we actually banned using Belgium Blues type of cows due to ethical reasons. Because they have this. I think it's a genetic mutation. I'm on thin ice here. They grow really fast. And they also have a lot of difficulties, health problems and can’t, often give birth. So looking at fast growing broilers, which the debate is about today, there are similarities. And it seems far-fetched at the moment to actually ban these type of birds. Because they have a lot of health problems. Due to the really fastgrowth rate, and they can't, if they live past the 35 days that they live now. They have a lot of health problems and can't walk after a few days.
There's a similar ethical problem here. And we know that in the past, we actually have been able to, in Sweden, make changes, and stick to them. And so that's just one really narrow example. But, of course, we can change. And I think it's just, it's just one generation away As I talked about, like the habits, people. I talked a lot about this with the truckers during our training, like, you need to be aware of your habits, that's step one. And then it's really difficult to change them, it requires that you reflect on them regularly. And while you work, you need to be really like there and see what you're doing. And that's not possible maybe if you're really stressed, Then you get the more narrow views, so to say. But it's just like one generation away in the sense that if you don't get the habits to begin with, it's not it's not an issue. Yeah, so it's, sometimes it feels so difficult to change things. But I think it's, it's also really easily done. And it doesn't need to take a lot of a long period of time.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
Thank you. Nice, this was fun.
That wraps another episode of the Feed podcast. A big thank you to Sofia Wilhelmson joining us and to you for listening. We’ll link to her dissertation and other resources on the episode webpage, which you can find in the shownotes or through our website: tabledebates.org
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TABLE is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University.
This episode was edited by Ingrid Reiser of Azote and Matthew Kessler. Music in this episode by Blue dot Sessions. Stay tuned for a new episode on power in a couple weeks.