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Small farmers around the world are suffering the consequences of the African swine fever (ASF) outbreak that killed a quarter of the world's pig population, argues a new report.
Nowhere is this more apparent than China, where swine fever has hit the country's nearly 40 million small pig farmers the hardest, says the report by the nonprofit organization Grain.
The long Chinese tradition of small-scale pig farming appears to be coming to an end due to a lack of government support to compensate for slaughtered or sick pigs, to pay for veterinary costs or chemicals to limit the spread of African swine fever. and other biosecurity measures in existing facilities, according to Grain.
"Unfortunately, smallholders receive almost no support, as far as we can see," said Devlin Kuyek, lead author of the report.
After the first notification of the ASF outbreak in China in August 2018, the disease spread rapidly throughout the industry, leading to the slaughter of millions of pigs in a matter of months.
Yet just a year later, the surprising rise in pork prices meant that despite their losses, many of the largest industrial pig producers were making record profits.
Grain has not been able to determine exactly how many ASF outbreaks originated on large industrial farms or within contract agricultural production chains that feed the larger facilities, due to a lack of information or official figures from authorities.
In the MARA survey of 1,500 Chinese pig farms in mid-2019, 55% said they had abandoned plans to raise pigs after slaughter due to future risk of disease, while 22% were waiting to see if the situation had cleared up. Only 18% had definite plans to continue pig farming.
In the 1990s, small backyard farms supplied about 80% of China's pork needs. But this has changed rapidly in the last two decades, as the government has constantly industrialized the sector. By 2018, the proportion of pig farms with more than 500 pigs was around 80%, state media reported in November. The government targets at least 65% of pork from industrial farming operations by 2025.
As the government's focus has shifted to supporting large-scale production, smaller operations continue to be compressed into contract farming operations for larger companies.
"It is the combination of these two changes that has created the conditions for the emergence of new epidemics (such as ASF and others) in the Asian pig sector," Kuyek said in a note with The Guardian. Despite the fact that it is supposed to be safer, the large scale of the industrial pig farming industry has fueled the crisis on a global scale, the Grain report argues. “In our opinion, this is what explains the scale of the recent outbreak. It would not have reached such massive proportions if it had not penetrated the global industrial pig system ”.
China is not the only country where small farmers have been particularly hard hit. In mountainous north Vietnam, the virus has had a disastrous impact on indigenous women who use the leftover puree from rice wine processing to feed the pigs they raise to pay bills and school fees.
Aaron Kingsbury, assistant professor of Arts and Sciences at the Maine Maritime Academy, who was conducting research in the region at the time of the outbreak in Vietnam, witnessed the devastating effects on these small farmers.
“Usually what you get here is an ethnic minority woman raising a pig or two for family consumption or possibly in the wet markets,” Kingsbury said. "Something that provides the family with direct income that they would not otherwise have."
"When an operation contracts swine fever and slaughter begins, industrial producers are much better able to take advantage of government subsidies for loss of pigs than these small, sometimes illiterate, non-Vietnamese-speaking producers are isolated in small communities," He said. "When these small producers lose a pig, they really lose a lot."
The report argues that global meat producers are "using the pandemic they helped spread as a political weapon to consolidate their dominance."
But Brett Stuart, co-founder of Global AgriTrends, a US-based agricultural consulting firm, disagrees. "I'm not sure that ASF can show itself as a tool for large companies," he said. "The incredible profits are now feeding the margins of the small producers and the large ones."
Stuart said: “The problem is that complicated diseases like ASF ultimately benefit those with enough scale to pay veterinarians on the farm and implement feed milling procedures, which help protect herds. So while small producers face a much more uncertain future, that is not enough evidence in my opinion to blame large breeders. "
AndriyRozstalnyy, an ASF expert and an animal health expert at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said the organization was collecting information to allow a full understanding of ASF transmission.
"We cannot speculate on the role of each production sector in the spread or endemicity of ASF, because production systems and value chains are very long and complicated in Southeast Asia and in particular in China," Rozstalnyy said.
“The fragmented and incomplete data do not fully explain the true epidemiological situation in Southeast Asia. FAO is working to collect and analyze data to better understand ASF transmission, including the role of feed, fomites, pork products in production systems with different biosecurity practices. This understanding is used to assist countries in developing technically sound and feasible control strategies ”.
Rozstalnyyd said that early detection and containment of ASF outbreaks challenges both small and large-scale operators, and both sectors should be on the lookout for any risky practices and be mindful of establishing safer biosecurity practices.
“It doesn't matter if you are a small-scale backyard breeder or workers on a large-scale commercial farm, food supplier, butcher, hunter, or international traveler. Everyone must strictly follow the rules and regulations defined by governments to address the risks related to ASF ”.