Minister: Danish sow farmers an “embarrassment”

By Kristine Walkden & Marie-Josée Kelly

Danish pig farmers are criticizing tough licensing processes and lack of support from Danish decision-makers, after being called an “embarrassment” by Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Mette Gjerskov.

The Danish Situation

On an idyllic farm in the countryside of Skanderborg, Danish sow farmer Ole Larsen smiles proudly as he cradles a tiny wide-eyed piglet who was born only a day earlier. The piglet stares at Larsen dumbfounded before being placed back into its crate with 10 others. Larsen explains, “Our farm is animal-welfare friendly. We try our very best to take care and ensure a good life for them.”

Danish sow farmer Ole Larsen has been using group housing for over a decade. Photo: Marie-Josee Kelly
Danish sow farmer Ole Larsen has been using group housing for over a decade. Photo: Marie-Josee Kelly

Larsen is among over 90% of Danish sow farmers who have successfully met the EU’s standards on the directive of the housing of pregnant sows. Approximately 6 percent of sow farmers nationwide are failing to live up to regulations and have three months to do so before having to go before the EU’s court. Larsen changed his system from single-stall housing to group housing in 1999 even before the directive was officially introduced in 2001. He explains that while making the transition was easy back then, today Danish sow farmers are facing difficulties in trying to change their systems.

The biggest problem in Denmark today isn’t just the money or the economy, it’s getting the permission to build. The environmental laws today make it very hard to get a license because they consider so many things,” he said.

“The problem is it takes 3-4 years to do so. We cannot make a business when it takes such a long time to do anything. We need to get that changed if Danish farming is going to continue on.”

Larsen explained that most Danish sow farmers were unable to meet the EU’s deadline because they are still waiting on a building license from their municipal governments after applying 4 years earlier. Though Larsen only had to wait 7 months for his building license back in 1999, he knows from experience how hard it is to get a license today. Larsen said he spent half a million kroner and waited five years until he finally received a license last week to build a new slaughter house.

An embarrassment at the EU

I think frankly, it is embarrassing,” Food Minister Mette Gjerskov told the press after receiving news that Denmark had not fully complied to the sow housing directive. “The Danish farm industry has pressed very hard for me to go to Brussels and wag my finger at all sorts of other countries.”

When some farmers asked for more time to make the changes, Gjerskov showed how seriously she took the directive and animal-welfare legislation by stating on twitter, “No amnesty to farmers that don’t set sows free. They have had ten years to restructure animal welfare.” Later that week, Gjerskov supported the EU Heath and Consumer Commission’s threat to initiate a lawsuit against countries that fail to abide by the EU’s standards of animal-welfare legislation.

Dan Jorgensen, a Danish Social Democrat member of the European Parliament, commented on Denmark’s inability to comply by the January 1st deadline. “I think it is a disgrace especially because we are a country that prides itself on being better than so many other countries on protecting animal-welfare.”

According to Denmark’s Pig Research Centre, there have been a number of recent initiatives undertaken in the country, which will provide continuing momentum in increasing animal-welfare and safety standards within the country’s pig industry. They said in the next years, there will be a movement towards more risk-based control of standards on Danish farms which will provide an incentive for all producers to aim for best practice.

Pig producers turn the blame around

Henrik Mortensen is chairman of the Danish Pig Producers, an association that attempts to influence decision makers through political activities and inform authorities about developments in Danish pig production.

Mortensen said the Danish pig industry has been unfairly punished as he believes Danish farming standards are for the most part, better than other EU countries who have claimed they have fully complied to the directive.

In a public letter to Minister Mette Gjerskov, Mortensen criticized the minister for implying that Danish pig farmers had undermined the country’s position in the EU. Like Larsen, Mortensen said the reason six percent of pig farmers were unable to comply was because “Danish authorities did not prioritize the 2013 requirements relating to the processing of environmental permits.”

Mortensen wrote: “Why have we not a minister in charge of our interests rather than chastise us?…I yearn for politicians who will be based in reality and treating pig and agriculture as valuable contributors to society. Without that, we must always be exposed to arrogance and scorn.”

Mortensen said the Minister has not yet replied to his letter or several other attempts Mortensen has made raising concern about the fairness of the Danish pig market within the country and throughout the EU.

The Danish pig industry has never said it didn’t want this (directive). Where I come from, everyone was planning to be hundred percent ready and figure out how to deal with people that weren’t ready by 2013,” he said. “But the government and systems have made it hard to do so…We had all agreed that we have many years to fulfill this goal and this is the way to go.”

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