african swine fever china hiding outbreak information

The ASF killed about 200 million pigs in China since 2019. The shortage of 50 million tones of pork altered not only the Chinese meat market but the also the global meat trade. China eats a lot of pork, and the shortage has caused pork meat price to increase by 3 times in 2019. Now, at the end of 2020, the pork price in China costs double what it cost back in 2018, before the ASF first outbreak.

The case of pig farmer Sun Dawu

Sun Dawu, a Chinese millionaire who owns an agricultural conglomerate called Dawu Group in northern China, had to killed over 5.000 pigs at his farms. The pigs were killed to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.

It’s called African Swine Fever or ASF. It has no cure and can only be contained by killing infected and exposed pigs.

ASF has been around for a hundred years,but only became a global threat after it reached China last year, where about half of the world’s pigs live.

Since then, it has destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers,spread to neighboring countries,- …South Korea’s first confirmed case of African Swine Fever…and could up and meat industries in dozens of others.

Experts are now calling it the largest animal disease outbreak in modern history.

And it’s exposing the problems of China’s underdeveloped agriculture sector,which is now deeply integrated into the global trade system.

We’re traveling around the world understand how China is changing… basically everything.

ASF was first discovered in Africa in the 1920s, but was relatively well-contained until 2007, when it reached Georgia and slowly spread through Eastern Europe in the next decade. Now, in September 2020, ASF has even reached Germany, with confirmed cases of wild boars.

The viral disease kills nearly all pigs it infects.But it doesn’t affect humans and wasn’t considered a high priority.

Then, it reached China.- The speed of the spread in China was unexpectedly rapid. This is Fred Gale, a senior economist at the US Department of Agriculture, who specializes in China. It did reach every province, including Tibet and Hainan, which are separated from the rest of China by mountains and water.

Within a year, Chinese officials say the pig herd has shrunk by 32%. That’s hundreds of millions of pigs dead or killed. It’s astronomical, but experts both inside and outside of China told me the actual number is far larger than the official report.

ASF in China and the problem of backyard pig farms

So, what happened? To understand this, you have to understand how China’s farming system works.- Whereas in most other places, you have a vertically-integrated system…That’s John Yasuda, a political scientist who studies regulatory governance in China. He says China’s agriculture sector is one of the most fragmented in the world.- China’s is sort of a mishmash of patchwork of various local to regional distribution networks. It’s very easy for a contaminated food product to move from one jurisdiction to the next.On top of this, the pork industry has seen a rapid expansion in the last two decades.

But biosecurity hasn’t kept up.This means there are a lot of weak links: backyard farms, slaughterhouses, trucks, even quarantine stations can become hubs for spreading the virus.

Finally, China just has a lot of pigs, nearly half a billion before the virus hit. That’s almost twice as many as the entire pig populations in the EU and the US combined. The high density means ASF, a virus that spreads through contact, becomes extremely hard to contain.

Is China hiding ASF information?

Put those things together, and this is a problem for any country. But China has an added layer.

Information gets distorted at every level of its massive bureaucratic system.And that may be what ultimately allowed the epidemic to become the global threat it is today.

A few days after the country celebrated the Year of the Pig, several farmers at Dawu Group held two huge banners right here. This is a picture from that day.”More than 15,000 of our pigs have died. We think it’s caused by ASF, and ask the government to please confirm it. Where do we go from here? Officials please let us know.”

Sun posted this photo on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Public online protests like this are rare and usually quickly censored, but Sun’s post went viral.

Sun basically forced the government’s hand into reporting the case. And that’s because local governments are the only ones in China that have the authority to declare an outbreak. But there is a problem with this.See, once the government official declares an outbreak, it triggers a ban on the transport of pork in and out of the region, and puts in place subsidies to support the farmers.

The ban on transport hurts the local economy. The subsidies hurt the local governments’ bottom lines.Plus, it puts officials at risk of punishment for failing to detect the virus earlier.- So, that the incentive is for them to not report bad news?- Yes, so you have these two countervailing dynamics that are working against each other. So many cases went unreported. The information vacuum resulted in a nightmarish scenario that unfolded across China.

Many farmers dumped sick and dead pigs on the streets. Or worse, on the market at reduced prices. Others acted on rumors of ASF, and sold off healthy herds at low prices.

Pork flipping gangs in China

These behaviors created huge disparities in different regions. This makes trucking pigs illegally across provincial borders a lucrative business.

So much so that criminal gangs got into rumor mongering and pig trucking.The Ministry of Agriculture had to issue a nation-wide warningabout what came to be known as “Pork Flipping Gangs.”

Sun wanted to do things by the books and paid a steep price for it. Shortly after his Weibo post went viral, local officials confirmed it was indeed an ASF outbreak, and reported it to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Dawu did get subsidies, but Sun said it was nowhere close to covering their financial cost. The hardest part, Sun says, was seeing all of his remaining pigs culled and buried overnight to prevent further contamination.

As of now, Dawu is still the only outbreak officially documented in Hebei. There are only about 150 official cases of ASF throughout China. China doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to reporting public health and safety crises.

They were criticized in the 2000s for failing to detect and then downplaying the SARS endemic,and again in 2008 during its massive tainted milk powder scandal.

– We’re seeing it break down on all sorts of levels of regulation into the early to mid 2000s, where monitoring lapses seem to be happening, where local incentives and central government incentives can’t seem to align, where problems can’t be identified at the early stage to prevent these major catastrophes from developing.

With ASF, the consequences are being felt far beyond China’s borders.- Vietnam is struggling to contain an outbreak of the African Swine Fever.- Taiwan has tightened inspections on flights from the Philippines.- African Swine Fever is becoming a cause for concern in Germany.

Pig producing countries around the world are ramping up biosecurity measures as the risk of the virus spreading increases.

If ASF gets the United States, it’s estimated to cost up to $8 billion in losses in the first year. Also, pork prices are predicted to rise around the world as China goes on a global buying frenzy to feed its 1.3 billion pork-loving citizens.

This will drive up the prices of other meats as well.- A very, very large magnitude, very large disruption in the industry.

When Sun first began raising pigs in the 80s, the majority of China’s population was still on farms producing food for themselves. As China’s economy grew and opened itself to the outside world, the agricultural sector was largely left behind.

ASF is now putting China’s biosecurity and regulatory problems on full display in front of the world. And at its root, this is the result of a country that is still trying to figure out how to merge a state-run system with a free-market economy.

– How do you get a working rural market to fit together well? And this is why we’re entering this new era, right? We’re entering this new era of, ‘How is China going to be able to govern its complex market economy?

‘Without an answer to this, small problems in China could continue to snowball into global catastrophes.

The problem of lack of information transparency on ASF in China

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