Do Growth Enhancers Affect the Carbon Footprint of Pork Production?

green stylized pig logoIn swine production, maximizing growth rate while minimizing inputs (efficiency) is a top aim of most farmers. This helps an operation become more profitable, but it also has positive environmental benefits in that the amount of water, feed, or energy needed to produce each pound of pork is reduced. This results in fewer greenhouse gases emitted per pound of pork. (For more information on the relationship between efficiency and carbon footprint in animal agriculture see this Animal Frontiers article).

One particular growth enhancer used by pig farms is ractopamine. This is not an antibiotic, but it alters animal metabolism so that pigs produce more lean tissue (muscle) and less fat. For more on this feed additive, see this Texas A&M fact sheet).

A Comparison of Environmental Footprint With and Without Ractopamine

The image below shows a comparison of the same farm system with and without ractopamine. The results are estimated carbon, water, and land footprints as well as economic costs. The numbers were generated by the Pig Production Environmental Footprint Calculator.

The slide shows a smaller carbon footprint; -37,076 lbs of carbon dioxide equivalents per year when using ractopamine. This farm used 953,754 less gallons of water/year with the growth enhancer and required 14 less acres of land to support the farm. The economic implications (using prices from 2015) were a $11,477 advantage with ractopamine.

slide showing a comparison in carbon, water, land, and economic footprint for a farm with and without ractopamine as a growth enhancer

Slide credit: Dr. Rick Ulrich, University of Arkansas.

Are There Other Ways To Improve Growth Besides Ractopamine?

While growth enhances are a proven way to improve efficiency, there are other research-proven recommendations when making management choices to improve growth rate:

  • Phase feeding – diets change due to changing energy, protein, and other nutritional requirements are different as the animal grows
  • Balancing for specific amino acids (and not just crude protein) for each phase
  • Maintaining a clean environment
  • If in a building, keeping temperature in the optimum range

Management choices also impact health status and biosecurity protocols are used to prevent the presence of specific diseases.  In the past, antibiotics could be added to feed or water at low levels to enhance growth rate, but the concern over the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria resulted in the new policies to only utilize antibiotics to treat (rather than prevent) disease in food animals. The inclusion of antibiotics deemed medically important is being eliminated (federal rules took effect October, 2015 and the policy is in full effect at the end of 2016) for growth-promoting purposes. (For more, see this newsletter from the National Pork Producers explaining the rules to their members).

For More Information


Author: Amy Carroll, University of Arkansas

This information is part of the program “Integrated Resource Management Tool to Mitigate the Carbon Footprint of Swine Produced In the U.S.,” and is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68002-30208 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project website.