The year 2020 might just go down as the “year of disasters” – a global pandemic, the collapse of health care systems, the plight of India’s migrant labourers, failing economies, bankrupt businesses. It doesn’t end here. Eastern India and Bangladesh were recently battered by a super-cyclone, the first in two decades, while locust swarms spread through Rajasthan and into Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, reportedly a first since 1992.
But even this may not be the end. An unprecedented epidemic disease affecting pigs has been quietly flowing down the Brahmaputra and its tributaries to flood-prone areas in Assam.
Since February this year, African swine fever (ASF) has killed over 17,000 pigs in Assam and an unknown number in Arunachal Pradesh. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (a.k.a. OIE), ASF is a severe viral disease affecting wild and domestic pigs. As an extremely contagious transboundary disease, it swiftly crosses national borders, spreading through live or dead bodies, even through packaged pork products. Transmission can also happen through shoes, clothes, knives, etc. that use products from pigs.
There is no medicine for or vaccine against ASF, so it can rapidly decimate pig populations in an area, although it doesn’t infect humans. This is the first time India has reported the disease, and since ASF hasn’t ‘been’ to India before, officials took some time to confirm its presence. Now, Assam’s livestock sector is in disarray. Several farmers have lost their jobs and there is no real relief for them in the government’s recently announced economic stimulus.
India has had a culture of backyard pig-rearing, mainly in Goa, Kerala and in the Northeast. Pigs are also reared under scavenging and semi-scavenging systems in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and in most other states. For many people, pigs are an important source of food; pig fat is also used as medicine.
Pig-farmers, especially those rearing backyard pigs, have been reducing their holdings and even closing their units of late. In our interactions with farmers in Northeast India, the common refrain is that the work “is unhygienic”. In Mawlynnong, a village in Meghalaya reputed to be Asia’s cleanest, free-range pigs are not permitted for this reason. Instead, there is a modern abattoir and meat-processing unit outside Shillong that bears testimony to the aspiration to modernise.
Over the years, the government’s animal husbandry extension systems have managed to convince pig farmers from Goa to Meghalaya that their way of rearing pigs is not healthy and that it’s better to set up modern piggeries. However, such industrial pig-farms, housing many animals together in close quarters, easily become the epicentres of infectious disease outbreaks.
Indeed, since 2018, China and several East Asian countries have been struggling with an ASF epidemic of gigantic proportions. China has culled over a million pigs – almost a quarter of the world’s pork supply. South Korea, which was also affected, deployed snipers and drones to kill infected pigs crossing over from North Korea. Vietnam has had to kill up to 6 million pigs. Unfortunately, the people who were worst affected were small farmers who didn’t have the wherewithal to withstand an epidemic. In Europe too, the disease is said to be crossing borders as several populations of wild boar have been affected.
Researchers in many countries are working on a vaccine for ASF. But their work has been hindered by large gaps in knowledge about the ASF infection, immunity and natural variation among strains. In March 2020, the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute in China claimed to have successfully conducted trials of an ASF vaccine that “provides complete protection” to pigs, commercial pigs and pregnant sows. The trial results are encouraging but it will take a long time for commercial vaccine to become available. And even then an imported vaccine may still be out of reach for smallholder farmers.
In the meantime, thousands of pigs will die in India and around the world. ASF may also spread to populations of wild boar in our forests and wildlife sanctuaries. More farmers will lose their livelihoods as smallholders may have no option but to cull infected pigs.
There is nothing hygienic or heroic about culling farm animals. It is tragic and leaves those who must perform this task distraught. We know this from the experience of veterinarians after the 2001 epidemic of foot and mouth disease in Europe and the UK, and from the experience of farmers, extension workers and veterinarians after the 2006 bird flu pandemic in India when millions of birds had to be culled and buried. Unfortunately, extension staff and veterinarians seldom write or talk about such issues.
The other disastrous outcome of the industrial system is that farmers lose control of farming to corporate entities that are unconnected with the land and whose main motive is profit. This is true of the industries that produce mono-cultured or genetically-engineered animals, as also feed and food-processing industries and the pharmaceutical, vaccine and antibiotic industries. By juggling costs and profits, their supply chains span continents, effectively displacing small farmers.
We don’t really know enough about the damage that industrial farming systems cause to the environment and our social wellbeing. For example, animal-farmers use hormones and antibiotics in large quantities to fatten and protect poultry, but these substances eventually end up in the soil and in our food. Antibiotic resistance has thus become a major problem.
Vaccines are not the only way to prevent animal diseases. Our experience among rural communities, particularly women animal-rearers, is that basic measures like providing clean water, fresh food and suitably clean housing have helped keep animals alive and healthy, and farmers happy. Its only pitfall may be that it doesn’t use glamorous technologies.
Although many consider pigs dirty and unhygienic, these intelligent animals also perform a crucial role in the environment. In backyard systems, they consume household waste and convert it into useful and extremely tasty meat. Pigs in India are also raised under scavenging systems where – in a ‘pre-toilet’ era – they helped to clear human waste. In much of India, pig-keeping is the work of poor and marginalised communities, who face gross discrimination and are easily forgotten in government policies, which favour industrial food production instead.
Industrial piggeries generate huge amounts of waste in the form of manure, slaughterhouse waste and feed waste. Just drive past an industrial pig farm in Europe and you’ll be assailed by the nauseating stench of hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and various allergens harmful to human health. Clearing an area of such waste needs more money, more infrastructure and other resources. This shouldn’t be the direction we take in India.
Backyard systems have paid the price for the growth of industrial piggery products. But when disease strikes, as with ASF or the COVID-19 pandemic, none of science, technology, politicians or governments have been able to support the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. It’s easy to blame disasters on disease-causing viruses instead of asking why the most-affected communities are so impoverished and vulnerable.
Along with the disease comes fear. Farmers afraid of having sick animals die on their hands dump them in the market, leading to distress-selling and more disease transmission. Carcasses have also been dumped in rivers and ponds, leading to the rapid spread of contagions downstream.
The Brahmaputra bears mute testimony to the pig carcasses floating in it today. Governments are not fond of international regulations and restrictions imposed on them, so they seldom take the initiative to report outbreaks — and often do so only when it has become too late. Consumers then panic and stop eating meat, pushing prices down.
In the short term, vaccines and drugs provide technical fixes to epidemics. In the long term, we must be more supportive of our small farmers and producers who put the food on our tables. It requires us – including veterinarians, researchers and everyone concerned with animal and human health – to work along with small pig farmers to study ASF and help make them more resilient.
Of course, these actions require the government to act in tandem. Animal husbandry is the responsibility of the states in India. However, under the National Livestock Mission, a sub-mission supports all-round pig development in the eight states of India’s Northeast. Under this programme, the Centre supports state piggery farms and also runs a classical swine fever control programme.
We can build on this. First, we must recognise the social role of pigs and pig-rearers throughout India. Second, we must assess the socio-economic value of small-holder piggeries for food and livelihood security. Third, we must develop strategies to sustain small-holder pig farms, including with schemes that improve water supply, sanitation and pig-housing, and also to improve the production and supply of local pig products. Finally, we must support community health workers, extension staff and veterinarians in normal times; they are today at the forefront of the struggle to contain the ASF epidemic.
Is someone in the government listening?
Nitya S. Ghotge, Sumi Krishna, Mamta Dhawan and Chandana C. Baruah are all associated with Anthra, which is a not-for-profit livestock development and ethno-veterinary group that works with marginalised farming, shepherding and pastoralist communities on sustainable livelihoods and production systems.