Friday, January 22

Could a deadly swine virus transform Germany’s fixation on “cheap meat”? | African swine fever


meIt was the stench of the boar’s corpse that first caught the walker’s attention. Chunks of skin and some bones were all that remained of the animal, found in September at the edge of a cornfield in the northeastern state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin.

Tests quickly showed that he had died of African swine fever or ASF. It was found 20 km from the last known outbreak in neighboring Poland.

“It was not a surprise,” says Petra Senger, an official veterinarian for the Oder-Spree administrative region, who ordered the tests. “We had been waiting for it for a long time.”

Since the discovery of the first ASF case in Germany, state authorities have erected miles of metal fences, informed farmers, enrolled sniffer dogs, equipped hunters with night vision equipment, paid them for each shot of corpse and have asked walkers to be alert.

The effects for many farmers are devastating. When an infected carcass is found, no gathering or hunting is allowed within a radius of at least 15 km. No pig or pig can leave the area. Large areas of crops have had to be destroyed to prevent them from entering the food chain if they become infected.

The number of officially registered cases of African swine fever in Germany has reached more than 300. So far, the disease, not harmful to other animals but devastating to pigs, has only been found in wild animals. So far, farm pigs have not been affected. But agricultural experts worry that it is only a matter of time.

Map of the area affected by ASF and radius of measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
The area affected by African swine fever and the radius of measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Photograph: Clemens Bilan / EPA

African swine fever is believed to have reached Europe in 2007, when it was found in meat from a garbage dump in Georgia, which had arrived from Africa by boat. Since then, the disease has spread, from Georgia to Russia, from Russia to Ukraine, then to Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Korea, China, and Papua New Guinea.

Germany’s health authorities and veterinary controllers were surprised that Europe’s largest economy, which together with the United States and Spain as one of the world’s largest pork exporters, would have remained unscathed for so long.

Pig farmers are now feeling the pressure for a blanket ban from China and other Asian countries on importing German pork. More than a quarter of pork exports in the first six months of 2020, valued at 2.4 billion euros (2.1 billion pounds), went to China, according to the German statistical office, double the amount. of all last year.

The reason for the massive increase was China’s own battle with ASF. The world’s largest producer and consumer of pork had to slaughter around 200 million pigs last year as the disease spread across the country.

Has the pig industry in Germany grown too big?

The irony is that the biggest crisis that Germany’s pig industry has faced has come when Germans are reducing their own pork consumption year after year, raising the question of why Germany needs to produce so much pork.

Industry watchers say that, unlike other German exports, such as manufactured goods, a quick look at the pork industry shows that it is not something to be particularly proud of.

Large-scale pig farming, which among other things can contaminate large amounts of groundwater and promote the use of antibiotics, can be detrimental to the environment and public health. The animals are fed protein-rich soybeans, which is why, say detractors, large areas of forest are cut down in Brazil.

The industry is not a large employer either, as much of it is completely automated and profits are concentrated in a few hands.

The rise of African swine fever coupled with the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a heated debate over what many see as a wicked system in which unbridled capitalism benefits from the problems of mass production and consumption.

Slaughtered pigs hang in a slaughterhouse in Saxony
Critics say Germany’s large-scale pig farming is detrimental to the environment and public health. Photographer: Jan Woitas / dpa-Zentralbild / dpa

After the first case of ASF was confirmed in Germany, the industry’s pork prices inevitably fell, while prices from China rose. The German government is currently in intense talks with its Chinese counterparts about easing the ban. He would like China to be more selective in banning imports only from the specific region where ASF has been found, rather than the entire country.

The meat industry in general had already been in the limelight after several plants across the country temporarily closed last year after hundreds of workers tested positive for Covid-19. The German government said the high number of infections shows that the industry “urgently needs” better health and safety.

Senger, the vet who dealt with the first ASF carcass in Brandenburg, has said that she hopes both crises will offer an opportunity to revamp a system that “only works because of what are to me corrupt economic mechanisms” to become more local. and less global.

The end of cheap meat?

Matthias Wolfschmidt of the Foodwatch consumer organization, also a veterinarian, believes that the fixation on exports is the main problem.

“We fatten the pigs with feed that we do not have to produce meat that we do not need.” He added: “The winners are those who produce the cheapest meat, both for the European single market and for the world market.”

Pig farmer lobbyists say it is not just the export market that is to blame for the low prices they receive for their animals, making it increasingly difficult to breed and raise animals with welfare in mind. They say supermarkets are a big part of the problem.

Persistent attempts to keep prices low and slaughterhouse fees high are seen as the main reasons for the growth of massive pig farms as small farmers are excluded. According to the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), in 1950 there were around 2.4 million pig farmers in Germany, each with an average of five pigs, or a total of around 12 million animals. There are currently only 20,400 pig farms that together have 25.5 million pigs, an average of just under 1,250 per farm.

In a recent attempt to quell farmers’ ire and cushion the conflict over prices, the Schwarz Group, which operates the supermarket chains Lidl and Kaufland, said it would pay 50 million euros (45 million pounds) into a fund of government sponsored “animal welfare” to help farmers affected by ASF and coronavirus.

Pigs are kept in air-conditioned open-air stables with straw beds on a pig fattening farm in Brueggen, Germany.
Farmers say supermarkets are partly to blame for the low prices of pork. Photographer: Sascha Steinbach / EPA

The environmental campaign group Greenpeace welcomed the announcement. But he insisted that what was really needed was a system change. “The competition for the cheapest food must finally come to an end,” he argued.

Meanwhile, as efforts to stop the spread of African swine fever continue, hunters have been hearing calls for months to kill as many wild boars as possible, in order to reduce the risk of the disease spreading.

But they have been hampered by coronavirus restrictions, which since November have prevented larger hunts from taking place, typically involving shooters, beaters, and dogs, meaning hunting quotas are in danger of not being met.

Torsten Reinwald from the German Hunters Association told German media that if hunting is not allowed, the wild boar population, which has been increasing for years in Germany, will explode, increasing the danger of the spread of swine fever. African. “Wild boar has a reproduction rate of almost 300%. Where there are 100 live wild boars left, you can expect 400 next year. For the spread of African swine fever, this is fatal, ”he said.

A wild boar runs through a forest in the Taunus region near Frankfurt, Germany, where the first case of African swine fever was discovered in September.
A wild boar runs through a forest in the Taunus region near Frankfurt, Germany, where the first case of African swine fever was discovered in September. Photograph: Michael Probst / AP

In some parts of Germany, authorities recognizing the need for action are subsidizing sales of night vision equipment to encourage hunters to go out at night when boars are most active. Hunters receive € 30 (£ 27) for each female corpse.

Defenders of wild boar meat are trying to persuade German consumers to switch to what they say is the healthiest and most environmentally friendly form of protein available. Meanwhile, animal rights advocates have upped their game to save the wild boar, which they refer to as the innocent victim in the whole low-cost meat and ASF drama.

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