ASF discovery is a terrible shock, but it may be needed

Confirmation of African swine fever cases in the Dominican Republic is a good thing if it encourages governments, industries and hog farmers to finally finalize their outbreak management plans.  |  File photo

Why don’t we prepare for disasters even when we can see ourselves sailing toward the iceberg?That’s a psychological mystery we won’t resolve any time soon, but perhaps we can gain some relief from its flip-side: when we face a shock, we jump into action.

The news that African swine fever has appeared in the Western Hemisphere has shocked North and South American hog industries and is provoking many harried calls and meetings between governments, regulators, industries and farmers.

Although ASF has only been found in pigs in the Dominican Republic, which is on an island in the Caribbean, anxious American hog farmers have been quick to pull out the atlases and globes and quake at the closeness of that island with Florida. No doubt hog farmers in Mexico, Central America and northern South America are noticing the same thing about their proximity to a disease that has devastated hog industries from China to Poland.

That shock is a good thing if it encourages governments, industries and farmers to finalize outbreak management plans. It’d be better if this had all been done before, but due to the aforementioned inability of humans to adequately prepare for coming crises, this limited outbreak in the Caribbean is a golden opportunity to get ready for something that most people in North America’s hog industry appear to believe is inevitable.

Where are we at today with our preparations?

Fortunately, the hog industry appears to have taken preparations seriously, although that’s belated too.

The crisis that erupted when COVID-19 led to the temporary closure of a number of packing plants and some foreign markets has encouraged some packers to add a capacity to be able to slaughter, but not process, pigs that need to be euthanized. That way fewer pigs will be backed up on farms and any euthanizing should be more orderly than the chaos that erupted in 2020.

The industry has also developed ways for pigs to be euthanized on-farm. That will almost inevitably be necessary if ASF appears anywhere in Canada.

Work on zoning, in which an outbreak’s movement bans can be limited to a smaller geographical area than the entire country, has progressed well, but only a handful of foreign trading partners, such as the United States and the European Union, have approved Canada’s plans.

Most important in terms of farmer survival is getting an emergency aid package ready to apply if the entire industry suddenly has to shut down.

That’s nowhere near complete. The current line from government is that the existing suite of farm safety net programs should be sufficient.

That’s a fantasy and the federal government knows it, but there seems to be little desire for the government to proactively commit itself to a likely multi-billion dollar liability.

That will probably be left until there is an actual crisis right in front of us. Then it will be easier to act.

However, taking the limited crisis of the COVID-19 shutdowns as a sign of things that are likely to come and remain in any ASF outbreak, producer and industry groups should be figuring out what they’ll need and how to distribute it.

It’d be nice if we could eradicate the wild pigs that threaten to become a permanent reservoir of ASF if it ever gains a foothold in the feral population, but eradication seems a long-odds hope for a situation most think won’t go away. Managing the wild pigs effectively is likely to become a permanent task for the industry, here and across the world.

It’s bad news to have the disease here in the Western Hemisphere, but at least it’s not right here, yet, and we have time to wake up and get ready for a closer-to-home appearance.

Like it or not, ASF is no longer just a threat from overseas. It’s on our doorstep.

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