In June of last year, a pioneer African swine fever (ASF) vaccine called NAVET-ASFVAC was commercially released in Vietnam, bringing immediate hope to the country’s distressed pig farmers, who were enduring the economic devastation from the culling of 20% of the national pig stock.
With Vietnam being the second largest pork producer in Asia, its minister of agriculture Phùng Đức Tiến, understandably boasted to the media that the vaccine was the result of rigorous scientific research funded by the government with support from the US. “The production and quality of the vaccine are ensured to fully meet regulations and requirements”, he said.
Yet, in the months that followed, state veterinarians rushed to the central province of Phu Yen, responding to reports of farmers that their pigs were dying after being given the new vaccine. Optimism came crashing down. The increased mortality following vaccination was confirmed. A few hundred pig deaths later, the government decided to suspend the vaccine.
Regarded as the most severe livestock disease outbreak in recent history, as of July 2022, ASF has been reported in 74 countries around the world. In Asia, prior to August 2018, there were no reports of ASF. The outbreak of this disease has now expanded to 16 Asian countries despite the culling of millions of pigs by national authorities.
China’s ASF policy led to pig farm concentration
The outbreak of ASF in Asia can be traced back to August 2018 when China reported its first case. To contain the spread of the disease, China issued guidelines on ASF prevention and control, declaring that it would “promote large-scale pig farming and reduce the number of small pig farms as ways to prevent and control ASF outbreaks”. The government then put out a statement emphasising that it would provide production subsidies to large-scale pig farms in areas heavily affected by the disease.
As promised, a long list of subsidies and loans to restore pork supplies have been given exclusively to scaled-up farms. Under the constant threat of ASF, the government launched a certification system based on “ASF-free zones” to keep trade channels open for corporate pig farms.
Evidence gathered over the last four years, however, shows that the construction of bigger and more centralised pig farms has not stopped the virus. On the contrary, this approach might be facilitating the spread of ASF and seriously hurting rural livelihoods in China.
Statistics show that China had 21 million pig farms in 2020, a massive decline from the 105 million pig farms that existed in the country two decades ago. The decline was kicked-off by environmental measures that eliminated millions of small pig farms that were unable to comply. Now, as a result of government ASF policies, the pig industry has become further centralised and industrialised.
Pig farmers can apply for compliance with a set of biosecurity standards issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Due to high-evaluation criteria, however, the selected farms only belong to big companies. This mechanism is even used as an institutional tool to crack down on small pig farmers. Since its release in February 2021, 166 ASF-free zone labels have been granted to big corporations.
The set-up of ASF-free zones has become part of the government’s political performance incentive programme, a way for local governments to boast fulfilment of their duties and service. Under this scheme, provincial and other local level officials are encouraged to offer a series of advantages to corporate farms that pass the ASF-free zone test, such as subsidised financing, favourable land leases and discounts on virus surveillance fees. Corporations with ASF-free zone certification can also bypass the heavy restrictions on the movement of pigs across domestic and foreign zones.
One such company benefiting from ASF policies is Muyuan Food, one of China’s mega pig producers. Muyuan Food’s profits grew by 1,413% in the first nine months of 2020 to USD 3.21 billion. These profits boosted the company’s capacity to expand its pig farms and further its biosecurity measures and level of automation. Muyuan’s business expansion relies heavily on digitalisation, AI systems and farm infrastructures. These have won the company a high level of recognition from the Chinese government which granted it 23 ASF-free zones in 2022 -over 45% of all the new ASF-free zones given.
Corporate pig farms in China operate under two key business models: the capital-intensive integrated model like Muyuan Food and the corporate-farmer contract model. The pandemic has created even more favourable conditions for the capital-intensive integrated model.
When Chinese authorities came up with measures to halt the spread of ASF, they ignored the fact that nearly all of the major outbreaks had started in big industrial farms, despite their modern installations supposedly having the best levels of disease prevention. One of these farms, located in the north-east province of Heilongjiang, owned 73,000 pigs and is jointly owned by the Heilongjiang Asia-Europe Animal Husbandry Company and the Danish investment fund IFU.
Ironically, as a response to the continued spread of ASF, factory pig farming in China is “upgrading”. In August 2022, a new 26-storey pig farm entered production. The giant operation is located in Ezhou, a city in central China’s Hubei province, with a capacity to slaughter 1.2 million pigs annually. The company behind it, Hubei Zhongxin Kaiwei Modern Farming, started as a cement investment group, but switched to pig farming when the construction sector contracted due to Covid. A total of 4bn yuan (USD580 million) has been invested into the mega farm. In addition to this, from January to March 2022, Zhongxin Kaiwei submitted 10 patent applications relating to livestock wastewater treatment, feed transportation, and ventilation technology systems.
According to the Big Herdsman Co., a Tsingdao-based livestock facilities construction contractor, the number of multi-storey pig farms has increased at an annual rate of 30% since 2020. The company itself has participated in over 200 multi-storey sow building projects since 2019. This boom is said to be the result of the recent policies on ASF and a 2019 agriculture land use management policy that officially authorised livestock production in multi-storey buildings.
A Vietnam-US collaboration rush to commercialise the ASF vaccine
Given that ASF has a lethal rate close to 100%, finding a vaccine seemed like an obvious key strategy to control the outbreak. In June 2022, Vietnam -which had culled more than 6 million pigs and had over USD1.29 billion in losses due to the swine virus- launched the world’s first ASF vaccine. In development since November 2019, the vaccine, known as NAVET-ASFVAC, is being handled by the Vietnamese Navetco Company, owned by the Vietnam agriculture ministry, in partnership with the United States Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Its safety and efficacy were confirmed by the ARS under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, only three months after its launch the vaccine was withdrawn. Seven hundred and fifty pigs were found dead on several farms in the central province of Phu Yen after having been injected with the vaccine. Although the ARS spokesperson argued that the pig deaths were caused by vaccination processes that did not comply with the ministry guidelines, the vaccine trial was suspended. However, a total of 23,344 vaccines were already distributed from July to Aug 2022. Some vaccines are suspected of having been sold illegally to China.
This was a major setback for Vietnam, which wants to leverage its position on the world’s map of vaccines. The government is keen to export ASF vaccines to other Asian countries such as the Philippines and China, where hog production and consumption rank among the highest in the world. “Many Chinese companies are interested in landing vaccine orders”, said Tiến, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Apart from Navetco, at least two other companies in Vietnam are rushing to spearhead the export of ASF vaccines. Agricultural firm Dabaco Group JSC and livestock vaccine producer AVAC Vietnam Co., both started their vaccine test and evaluation in March 2022. Once they get through the legal steps of registration, the vaccines could be licensed in Vietnam soon this year.
In December 2022, AVAC Vietnam signed a partnership agreement with the Filipino company KPP Powers Commodities on ASF vaccine distribution. Under the agreement, KPP Powers is assigned as the exclusive distributor of AVAC’s ASF Live Vaccine in the Philippines, which is the only product of its kind, with government authorisation for export and a duly approved certificate of product registration from Vietnam.
The widespread use of these products seems far more complicated, though. Even if one ASF vaccine candidate is proven to be effective, there would still be a long way to go before applying it widely in affected countries. One major barrier is that countries like Vietnam are highly interested in expanding pork exports. They will not want to jeopardise their ability to export pork given the difficulty differentiating vaccinated versus infected pigs.
Vietnam’s dual sweeteners to big companies: vaccination and compartmentalisation
In order to unlock pork export opportunities, Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in December 2021. The IFC, the private sector branch of the World Bank, was offering technical support for the control of ASF in Asia under its Advisory Project.
The MoU asks Vietnam to carry out a compartmentalisation programme to support market access for its live pigs and pork exports. The programme instructs private sector firms to implement a standardised approach to biosecurity risk management. Similar to the ASF-free zone policy in China, compartmentalisation will only benefit industrial pig corporations by increasing privileged trade channels for their pork exports.
In Vietnam, three companies are to participate in this first prototype. De Heus, Hoa Phat and Masan Meatlife will put forth the development and operationalisation of best practice production and processing standards based on the international standards of the World Organisation of Animal Health. The corporations will then claim compliance and benefit from bio-secured supply chains for the export of live pigs or pork.
The answer lies in supporting small scale farming, not in the pig industry
The centralisation of the pig farming sector in China is not slowing down and other large pork producing countries in Asia are following suit, such as Thailand and Vietnam. This proliferation of intensive pig farms is already generating an array of harmful effects on rural communities in Asia. In Dong Nai province, southern Vietnam, the local community is suffering from the pollution of industrial pig farms’ open-air sewage pits present in their village. Some farmers have even had to give up raising silkworms because of fodder crop failure due to the intensive chemicals coming from the pig farms.
An expansion of massive, industrial, high tech pig farms will only further decimate small pig farmers in a region that has a long history of decentralised smallholder producers - all the while ignoring the proven link between this model and ASF outbreaks. If international and national authorities do not quickly steer away from this direction, they will exacerbate the risks of ASF and other livestock pandemics and severely undermine the food systems and livelihoods of rural communities.
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