Life on the farm was on a smaller scale when Alberto Pascual was young: just him, his father, a worker and around 50 pigs. Today, the 44-year-old Spanish agricultural engineer owns five farms with more than 40,000 pigs between them.
For Mr. Pascual and others like him, the growth of pig farming in Spain – a country associated with pork products such as chorizo and Iberian ham – goes beyond the story of the expansion and success of his own business.
It has an answer to two big questions the country is grappling with: how to reverse the depopulation of rural areas, and where to spend some € 140 billion in coronavirus crisis funds, Spain expects to secure the EU over the next six years. That answer is pork.
“What we are doing is creating jobs, so that people have the option of staying in the village – or coming to the village – rather than going to Madrid,” said Mr Pascual, who employs a about fifty people in the province of Avila in Castile. -Leon.
He argued that investing in pig farming in depopulated areas like his is of such a benefit – for jobs, the environment and the fight against the demographic decline of the heart of Spain – that European funds should be invested in the sector. “All of these priorities fit the pork sector perfectly,” he said.
The problem of shrinking rural communities is a huge problem for Spain. The vast majority of the population lives in only 10% of the territory. On the other hand, there are on average less than 13 people per square kilometer in about half of the country’s land mass.
More than 75% of Spanish municipalities are population decline as locals head to cities to work and study, leaving the elderly behind. In the village of Muñogalindo de M. Pascual, the number of inhabitants has increased from 600 when he was a child to around 250 today.
Alberto Herranz, managing director of Interporc, a pork products industry group, said the sector has an interdependent relationship with what people call “empty Spain”. He said that more than 40 percent of pig farms are in rural municipalities with low population density and less than 5,000 residents, often being one of the few local sources of economic activity.
In total, he added, the swine industry provides work for some 21,000 people living in these depopulated areas – a third of jobs in the sector as a whole and an increase of around 11% from there is ten years old. “If growth is sustained, it will create more jobs,” he added.
But the porkification of Spain’s rural economy is deeply controversial. The industry is now a massive industry which often bears little resemblance to the traditional image of black leg pigs roaming the oak forests or high-end production of 10-year-old hams. Almost 53 million pigs were slaughtered in Spain in 2019, an increase of 43% from the total 15 years earlier.
Exports to one market in particular are booming; in the nine months ending in September, Spanish farmers have sold more than 900,000 tonnes of pork to China – more than double the amount for the same period a year ago – compensation of 2 billion euros in the process.
Critics say the industry’s expansion on such a scale is not sustainable – in terms of carbon emissions, waste and diet. “We cannot continue on this path,” said Luís Ferreirim, who heads the agricultural campaigns of Greenpeace Spain.
According to Mr Ferreirim’s calculations, two-thirds of Spain’s cultivated land is used for growing animal feed. He added that the country’s livestock industry produces more than 80 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year, with pig farms being the main contributor.
But in Avila, Mr Pascual said the larger farms – often operated on an “integrated” basis in which feed producers own the pigs – offer opportunities for career development, a less unrelenting pace of work. and greater economic opportunities.
He has set up training centers so that 16- and 17-year-olds can learn to work on the farm through two-year courses that end in employment. He’s also working on proposals – for optimizing manure as fertilizer, reducing carbon emissions and using biogas, among others – that he hopes he can get EU help.
Activists like Greenpeace are not convinced – to say the least – that the pork industry will come to the rescue of Spain’s underpopulated hinterland. Instead, they are asking for a moratorium on the growth of the sector.
“Spain is becoming depopulated, even though the meat industry has been developing for decades,” said Ferreirim. “So that’s not the answer.”
Yet Mr Pascual argues that it is the pork industry that makes villages like his sustainable – due to the influx of jobs and economic activity.
“What is not sustainable are the towns with no connection to the countryside. Livestock is the most sustainable thing there is, ”he said. “Everyone must eat.”