The Real News Network: Largest Animal Epidemic in History Is Due to Industrial Farming

June 14, 2019

The African Swine Fever outbreak, which has now spread to China, could result in the slaughter of 200 million hogs this year, in an effort to get the disease under control. Rob Wallace of the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps outlines the causes and possible solutions

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

What some are calling the largest animal disease outbreak in history is currently ravaging pig farms in China and in other Asian countries. The disease is known as African Swine Fever and has a similar effect on pigs as Ebola has on humans, causing massive internal hemorrhaging and very high death rate. So far, over one million pigs in China have been culled–slaughtered, that is–to stop the spread of the disease. However, China has over 440 million pigs, half of the world’s total pig population, and experts estimate that up to 200 million pigs will have to be killed this year alone to slow down the spread of the disease.

African Swine Fever does not affect humans, but it is bound to have a devastating effect on food security in Asia, which depends on pork for much of its meat consumption. In Vietnam, for example, 75 percent of meat consumption is pork. Already, pork prices have risen by as much as forty percent globally. The disease has been spreading slowly since the 1970s; first in Africa, then in Europe, and most recently in Asia, where it has turned into an epidemic.

Joining me now to discuss the causes, consequences, and solutions to African Swine Fever is Rob Wallace. Rob is a public health phylogeographer at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps in Minnesota. He’s the author of Big Farms Make Big Flu. Thanks for joining us today, Rob.

ROB WALLACE: Hello. I would say it was a pleasure to be here, but I think when Real News’ audience sees me, they know that some terrible disease has happened out there somewhere.

GREG WILPERT: Right. So one of the big problems in containing the African Swine Fever is that it is dormant for up to two weeks and that a tiny amount of the virus can cause infection. In other words, it is extremely contagious. As I mentioned, it does not infect humans, but what are the dangers for humans of this outbreak?

ROB WALLACE: Well, you did touch on the economic issue, but I would actually roll that back in terms of what the dangers might be for humans. Currently there isn’t any evidence that humans are adversely infected or become sick, but I assure you that thousands of farmers and meat processors and cleanup crews are being exposed to the virus, and some of them are probably undergoing active infection although they’re not getting sick. The danger, of course, is–without being an alarmist about it–despite the fact that presently humans aren’t being affected, there’s always the possibility that pathogens can evolve and an active infection can go virulent. And we then have the possibility that a strain might evolve the capacity to go human to human. So on a biological level, on a virology level, on an epidemiological level, presently humans are not at danger, but I would not take that as a given.

As far as the economics go, of course, the numbers you quoted in terms of how many hogs are being killed has a tremendous impact on the farmers in terms of the production. And of course, one of the dangers of all this is that industrial producers like to point their fingers on smallholders and backyard producers as being the cause because they are not engaging the biosecurity necessary to keep the African Swine Fever virus from spreading. The problem, of course, is that at that present, it’s the industrial production, in my view, that’s really just driving the spread of the virus. I mean, as you mentioned, its capacity to hide out and its infectiousness makes it an issue when you pack in hundreds of hog in a barn. In fact, some of the strains actually hang out and in cured meat for 300 days and in frozen carcasses for as long as 15 years. So this isn’t something that we’re going to be able to just waive out.

GREG WILPERT: So you’d started talking about what some of the causes are. I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more about that. I mean, you mentioned the industrial farming. What’s the connection between industrial farming and an outbreak like this?

ROB WALLACE: Well, we should take a step back, because most pathogens don’t emerge immediately in industrial production. They have humble beginnings, as it were. African Swine Fever began in sub-Saharan Africa as a wild pathogen that transmitted between warthog and local soft ticks. And then, as far as scientific literature shows, by the 1920s it began to spill over into domestic hog production. In the 1950s, it got its way up into the Iberian Peninsula, in Portugal and Spain, where it circulated for about 30 years before it was quashed. I was in 2007, however, that the virus emerged in a way that exploded across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. And then, by 2018, it popped over into China. But the important thing to understand is that pathogens go through these changes in terms of their success in relationship to the opportunities that they’re provided.

So when you have industrial production of hog that are pretty much genetically the same, genetic monocultures, you mash them all in together in the thousands– not only in particular barns, but across all regions–that permits the pathogens that are virulent, that are very deadly and would normally just burn out because they kill their host too fast and they can’t get into the next host. Well, if they get into a barn that has hundreds of hog that way, they can burn right through and continue to reproduce and transmit from barn to barn. So industrial production has been shown to be very good in terms of hosting virulent strains of pathogens, not only African Swine Fever, but swine influenza and other viruses and bacteria.

GREG WILPERT: Now, as you mentioned, previous outbreaks of African Swine Fever–particularly in Spain and Portugal, which began in the 1950s and 60s–took over 30 years to get under control. And some experts that I’ve read said that it was handled by increasing biosecurity through the creation of large hog farms and using antibiotics and careful monitoring. Now, some are saying that this is the strategy that China ought to deploy. Now, clearly that would contradict or that would not be exactly the recommendation I would see from what you’ve been saying so far. So what would you say would be the solution for how one ought to deal with this problem?

ROB WALLACE: Well, the problem is that in agriculture, it’s so focused on the social reproduction of capital rather than the production of food. That’s kind of the offshoot of all this. And so, it’s a lot of focus on protecting the economic model at any cost, including blaming parties that have nothing to do with–or very little to do with–the actual emergencies and global spread of this pathogen. I mean, smallholder farmers don’t have the capacity to export their haul from country to country. And since the 1960s, you’ve had an explosion in terms of the exports of hog from country to country and the number of hogs that are produced.

And so, this goes arm in arm–or hoof in hoof–with the emergence of multiple new strains of deadly diseases. So if you’re actually interested in controlling this, you basically have to change your model of food production in such a way that you don’t offer the opportunity for these pathogens to be selected for and to spread. So I would basically say you have to end agribusiness as we know it. At this point, any disease or outbreak that happens, they just externalize the costs to everybody else. So governments, consumers, smallholders, the livestock themselves, local environments always end up paying the cost in terms of these outbreaks in such a way that allows the actual source of the deadly diseases to continue on as a mode of production.

So in essence, it’s not producing so many hog, devolve back into smallholders who produce most of the world’s food as it is, genetically diversifying your hog breeds in such a way that when you do have an outbreak it can’t spread so easily from place to place. And also, you should allow your hog to reproduce on site so that if there are hogs that do survive, they can pass on their immunity to the next generation. And that’s completely contrary to the present industrial model, in which if a hog does survive, it can’t produce. All breeding is done offshore at the grandparent level for morphological characteristics, not so much for disease control. And so, if you want to select a mode of production that produces the worst disease possible, that would be the present industrial model.

GREG WILPERT: OK. We’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Rob Wallace of the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps. Thanks again, Rob, for having joined us today.

ROB WALLACE: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.