Why did a quarter of the world’s pigs die in one year?
On a recent visit to my hometown by the Yangtze River in eastern China, relatives welcomed me, as ever, with a feast: steamed perch and hairy crab, deep-fried river shrimp — and braised pork. My 84-year-old father made sure to serve pork, even though it was now twice as expensive as the year before. This time, he didn’t get the meat from my brother, who until this fall had been the village’s largest pork producer: All 150 pigs on my brother’s farm had either died or been culled because of African swine fever.
African swine fever has been no less devastating ‘than a war’ — in terms of ‘its effects on the national interest and people’s livelihoods and its political, economic and social impact
Qiu Huaji, a leading Chinese expert on porcine infectious diseases
By late September, the disease had cost economic losses of one trillion yuan (about US$141 billion), according to Li Defa, dean of the College of Animal Science and Technology at China Agricultural University in Beijing. Qiu Huaji, a leading Chinese expert on porcine infectious diseases, has said that African swine fever has been no less devastating “than a war” — in terms of “its effects on the national interest and people’s livelihoods and its political, economic and social impact.”
“We lost hundreds of thousands of yuan,” my sister-in-law bemoaned, several tens of thousands of dollars. “Haven’t you been compensated by the government for the dead pigs?” I asked. “Only 100 yuan per head,” less than $15, she said, “That didn’t help.”
She wasn’t being entirely forthright. The government said that it would hand out 1,200 yuan (about $170) per animal culled, but her calculation was based on the total number of pigs she and my brother lost to swine fever. For a time, the two of them tried to furtively bury the dead pigs, hoping they might be able to quickly sell off the ones that were still alive, sick or not.
My brother’s and his wife’s losses, as well as their attempts to prevent them, are emblematic of what the epidemic has brought out across China. A crisis that might have been manageable quickly became a small catastrophe because of how the Chinese state operates.
Much like severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, exposed the shortcomings of China’s public health system when it became an epidemic in 2002–3, swine fever today exposes the weaknesses of the country’s animal-disease prevention and control. But it also reveals something much more fundamental: notably, the perverse effects that even sound regulations can have when they are deployed within a system of governance as unsound as China’s.
According to Yu Kangzhen, a deputy minister of agriculture, the localities that struggled to control the spread of African swine fever were also those that lacked staff, funding or other resources in animal-epidemic prevention. Yet that alone cannot explain the breadth of the epidemic or the speed with which it swept across China.
Back in 2007, Russia was also hit by an outbreak of swine fever, first in the southern Caucasus region. And yet though it, too — like China today — had in place only a flawed system for monitoring and reporting animal diseases, African swine fever took about a decade to reach eastern Siberia, some 3,500 miles away from the outbreak’s source. In China, the disease spread throughout most of the country in just over six months.
As bizarre as this may sound, one major reason the disease disseminated as rapidly as it did is because of the Chinese government’s measures to combat pollution.
In 2015, in order to prevent water from being contaminated by animal feces and other waste, the authorities began to heavily regulate — and in some places, ban — livestock breeding in certain water-rich areas in the south. Yet instead of giving industrial pig farmers enough time to upgrade their facilities in compliance with new waste-disposal standards, local governments quickly dismantled pig farms, leading to a major cutback in production in the south.
But pork is China’s favourite meat, and so, fearful of a shortage, in April 2016 the central government mapped out a strategy called “nanzhu beiyang”: “raising pigs in the North for consumption in the South.” Much of the production became concentrated in northern China, and the livestock was then transported long-distance to the south.
Of the 689 million pigs that China produced for slaughter in 2017, 102 million were taken across provinces, according to the agriculture ministry — a practice that posed a major biosecurity risk as soon as the first outbreak of swine fever was identified in Liaoning, in the northeast. (The disease is extremely contagious, and though it doesn’t harm humans, they can spread it.) In fact, some 45 per cent of the 87 outbreaks reported by mid-December 2018 involved long-distance transport. Call this problem No. 1.
At that point, the spread of the disease could still have been prevented with accurate and timely reporting. This, presumably, is the reason that China’s Law on Animal Epidemic Prevention prohibits “cover-up, misreporting, late reporting and underreporting” of any animal diseases. Other government regulations stipulate that once an infected pig is identified on a farm, the farm’s entire stock must be culled.
Enter problem No. 2: The central fiscal authorities were called on to cover only part of the compensation to farmers, leaving local governments to shoulder the rest. But by the end of June 2019, China’s local authorities had amassed a total debt of at least 21 trillion yuan (more than $3 trillion), according to the Ministry of Finance — about 23 per cent of China’s gross domestic product in 2018. And so even as the authorities in Beijing instructed local governments “to resolutely defend and prevent further spread and dissemination of the disease,” those local governments — given the financial burden they would have to bear to cover any culling of stock — had an incentive to not report the disease.
In Shandong Province, even though there were suspected outbreaks immediately after August 2018 and pig inventories soon dropped significantly, only one outbreak at one farm (involving 17 sick animals) had been reported by February 2019. While some farmers were saying that swine fever was spreading like fire in Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province, the local authorities did not officially disclose the problem. And when they did respond to farmers’ requests for compensation, the authorities provided amounts that were often much lower than what the central government had stipulated.
As a result, pig farmers themselves had strong disincentives to report suspected cases on their farms. They might quietly dump or randomly bury dead pigs, bypassing official safety measures. There was also panic selling of pigs, with farmers desperately trying to offload their hogs, sick or healthy, at fire-sale prices.
Pig speculators (“chao zhu tuan”) — yes, there is a specific term for them — traveled to various households and villages to collect these pigs and ship them to other localities, enabling the disease to cross administrative borders and disseminate. In northern and central China, some speculators even deliberately tried to spread the diseaseby using drones to drop contaminated pork products into farms. After causing an outbreak, or at least sparking fears about one, speculators could buy pigs for cheap — then stockpile the animals for a time to create shortages locally and sell them only after the prices had gone back up.
Under such circumstances — problem No. 3 — even the rules and regulations designed to ensure safety only fuelled the spread of swine fever. For example, the requirement that slaughtering occur only at appointed abattoirs, a measure that was supposed to prevent sick pigs from being slaughtered illicitly (and, possibly, unsafely) turned those slaughterhouses into transmission hubs: Contaminated hogs came into contact with more animals and more people as they were brought to the facilities.
The government claims that the situation is now “under effective control.” And in light of a serious shortage of pork, it has begun to lure some farmers back into production. Outside my brother’s village, a large pig farm that was slated for demolition has been resurrected after the government showered it with vast amounts of subsidies and low-interest loans.
People who run small farms, like my brother, have not been so lucky. He converted his pig farm to house chicken coops, all at his own expense, and now raises about 400 chickens. It is a far less lucrative business than hog raising, yet no less risky. “What are you going to do if there’s a bird-flu outbreak next year?” I asked him. He didn’t answer and cracked a helpless, fatalistic smile.