While commending the work done on curbing the spread of ASF to protect the commercial pork industry, who is protecting the emerging pork farmers?
Last week, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries reported seventeen (17) outbreaks of African swine fever (ASF) outside of the ASF controlled areas. The outbreak was first reported at the beginning of April 2019 in the North West, Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Free State Provinces.
The worst affected are mainly smallholder farmers, particularly the subsistence farmers in the rural and peri-urban settlements. These are farmers who’ve registered the highest mortality rate. To date, no case has been reported from the commercial sector. This brings a sigh of relief to the industry as such an outbreak could have devastating effects, locally and for exports. This will in the process affect consumers. One has to take a closer look at what is happening in China, to appreciate the devastating effects it would potentially have on the industry and consumers at large. It has been reported that China has lost somewhat 100 million pigs since last year due to the outbreak. This has resulted in pork prices skyrocketing up to 46%. According to these reports, China stands to lose half of its pig population should this outbreak continue.
Back home, the Minister of Agriculture has since met with MEC’s who have set up a task team to urgently look into ways to curb the spread of the disease to other provinces. These efforts are supported by the industry’s own processes of intervention. The main focus now is to ensure that the disease doesn’t spread to commercial farms.
While it’s necessary that these processes are done, one can’t help but wonder if something couldn’t have been done earlier. When I heard that the industry was on a culling spree in affected areas to prevent further spread, together with two colleagues, I drove to Kagiso, a township just outside Krugersdorp where the culling was in process. Arriving there, I could not believe what I saw. I couldn’t believe that people are trying to farm under such conditions. The area, in the middle of the township, is with no doubt, unofficially reserved for those township folks who wanted to utilize it for their farming activities. There are few agricultural activities but is dominated by pig farmers. The conditions in which animals are reared under are, for the lack of a better word, appalling. The area is filthy and smelly. The current situation of ASF made it worse as there are dead pig bodies everywhere. What makes it worse is that there is a stream crossing through the township which has raw sewage flowing into. Frustrated farmers are dumping their dead pigs in the stream, which obviously is a source of water to other animals in the area and perhaps other humans downstream.
According to the farmers there, this settlement has been in existence for over 20 years. Government is well aware of these conditions. The farmers there say they have pleaded with the municipality and provincial government to assist them to improve the conditions. However, nothing has been done. They say they’ve had numerous fruitless meetings with government officials. In this area alone, hundreds of pigs have already died way before the officials arrived to start culling and destroying the pigs. According to the farmers, they have been offered compensation for the animals which would be killed. The compensation, according to them, was a payout of R20/kg.
Themba Sibaya, a young farmer in the area says before the officials came, he had already lost 36 of the 42 he had, seven of which were his breeding stock. This means he was only to be compensated for the 6 that was left. According to Themba, since he is unemployed, pig farming has been his livelihood since 2011. But now he has nothing. He says just like him, there are farmers who have lost the majority of their stock to the disease before officials arrived in the area. There were farmers who had more than 200 animals and lost almost all of them. Mr. Mokwena, who was the first farmer in the area in the late 90s, was left with only 1 pig when officials arrived for culling. He was only compensated for that one. For the smallholder farmers in that area, this could mean the end of the road. They must start looking for an alternative income stream, at least until it is safe to restock. How they’ll even be able to restock is not certain.
While the industry is busy now on a culling mission to protect the commercial sector, who is protecting these smallholder farmers? Such loss of income has and will, for quite some time, have a devastating effect on them and their families. Wasn’t there a preventative measure that could have been applied, especially because these conditions were known to them for many years? The farmers are insisting that if the government had listened to their plea of many years, to secure them an area suitable for their farming activities and developed proper infrastructure this could have been avoided. The industry also needs to get involved in ensuring that they open up the industry for smallholder farmers. The pork industry is one of the most closed industries in terms of transformation than any other industry. Opening it up for smallholder farmers would assist in formalizing some of these operations. Both government and the private sector have a responsibility to assist these farmers. It should not only be government’s responsibility. Both must come up with ways to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, at least not at this magnitude.