Pork producers are always on the lookout for ways to improve efficiencies in their operations and to reduce their input costs.

In today’s economic climate, those practices are a higher priority than ever.

One way to evaluate production efficiency is to identify the emissions of certain gases. The three gases of primary interest in ork production are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).

These are often referred to as greenhouse gases because they are believed to contribute to trapping excess heat within the earth's atmosphere, contributing to a “greenhouse effect.” Emissions of these gases are associated with energy use and waste related to a production process, an activity or a lifestyle.

To create a common frame of reference, these gases are expressed in terms of a global warming potential based on an equivalent level of carbon dioxide. They are measured in metric tons, which is the internationally accepted standard. As a point of reference, 1 metric ton of methane emissions and 1 metric ton of nitrous oxide emissions are equivalent to 21 and 310 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, respectively. This type of evaluation is commonly referred to as identifying the carbon footprint. The method used to identify the carbon footprint is a life-cycle assessment that examines the carbon footprint of a product from cradle to grave or, in pork’s case, from feed to fork.

In June 2008, the 15-member National Pork Board determined that the carbon footprint of U.S. pork production is a significant emerging issue. The board directed NPB staff to evaluate the issue to define opportunities and challenges, from which solutions that are ethically grounded, scientifically verifiable and economically viable can be implemented. This work is to be completed by the end of this year.

Determining the carbon footprint of a production process involves completing a detailed, in-depth assessment of that process or activity. Because of the close relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, this analysis can help outline the contributions from various parts of the production process to total energy use. This, in turn, can suggest strategies for reducing emissions and their associated energy consumption. The end result can be a reduction in input costs and improvements to an operation’s overall economic performance.

In addition to the potential efficiencies and cost savings from reducing an operation’s carbon footprint, the emission reductions can benefit air quality and serve as one more example of pork producers’ stewardship commitment to the environment, their neighbors and community.

Understanding pork’s carbon footprint also will help align the pork industry with emerging and growing marketplace expectations. Consumers interested in environmental issues are asking for and expecting retailers to provide them with products that are produced in sustainable ways and that present the least environmental burden. This increased interest and expectation is leading governments around the globe to consider and implement measures that drive industry and agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By taking steps now to understand the industry’s carbon footprint, pork producers will be better positioned to respond to marketplace expectations and potential future regulatory directions.

The National Pork Board’s carbon footprint project consists of three phases.

  • The first will be to complete a review of available literature and information related to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from pork production. This will help identify sources of available data and information that will be useful in completing the life-cycle assessment phases and highlight areas where additional data and information will need to be developed.
  • The second phase will be to complete a summary or “scan level” life-cycle assessment of energy use and emissions across the entire pork chain, including feed-crop production, feed formulation, swine production, transportation, meat processing and retail components. This analysis will help place the on-farm production component of the pork chain into perspective relative to its contribution to the pork industry’s total carbon footprint.
  • The third phase will be to complete a detailed, in-depth life-cycle assessment of the on-farm animal production component. This will cover all aspects of raising the animals, including manure-management practices. This is the component that pork producers have the most direct control over and the area that can yield the greatest benefits to pork producers in terms of efficiencies and cost savings.

The Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas is providing technical assistance for this project, which includes stakeholders from across the pork chain. A working group comprising pork producers and representatives of the feed-crop production, feed formulation, meat packing and processing, and retail marketing components of the pork chain is providing assistance, advice and counsel to NPB.

One end product of this project will be a description of the baseline carbon footprint for the pork industry with focus on the on-farm production component. This baseline can be used to understand efficiencies that have been realized over the years through changes in production practices. The baseline also will help identify opportunities for achieving greater efficiencies. It will likewise be used to measure and evaluate future changes in onfarm animal production practices.

A second and perhaps more important end product will be the development of a straightforward, scientifically valid, userfriendly tool that pork producers can use to evaluate their own individual production operations and to identify areas where greater efficiencies and cost savings might be possible. The goal is to end up with a tool that pork producers can use to improve their competitiveness in an increasingly challenging economy.