African Swine Fever’s Tragedy of the Commons

( Gordon Spronk )

No matter how many miles separate China and the U.S., they are connected by shared and limited resources. As African swine fever (ASF) wages war on the world’s largest pork-producing nation, it also threatens the U.S. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together, says Gordon Spronk, DVM, of Pipestone Veterinary Services. He believes this relationship can best be explained by the “tragedy of the commons” concept. 

“A good example of the tragedy of the commons is sharing of limited resources like fishing grounds,” says Spronk, a member of the National Pork Producers Council’s (NPPC) Board of Directors. “If one party goes in and takes all the fish during a critical season, then they impact the use of that resource for everyone. We all share a common interest in making sure everyone understands the importance of maintenance of the resource and sharing of limited resources by everyone.”

This concept applies to the current ASF situation, Spronk says. But in this case, we’re talking about the shared resource of healthy swine herds and the direct value of keeping the ASF virus out of everyone’s swine herds. 

“Whatever we can do to help China [they currently have ASF, while the U.S. does not] helps us,” Spronk says. “Half the pigs in our world are there. Anything we can do to assist them is beneficial to us all.”

As the world’s largest pork-consuming nation, China is an important trading partner for U.S. pork. Last year, about 17% of total U.S. pork exports went to China. 

“We are eager for the current trade dispute to end and for the restoration of more favorable access to the Chinese market,” he says. “We also support the continued evolution of China’s pork production system, including the adoption of international, science-based production and animal welfare practices supported by the U.S.”

It’s Not 1960 
Today’s agricultural scene is vastly different than it was in the 1960s when the U.S. pork industry eliminated hog cholera, for example, Spronk says. 

“We live in a different world now — the ability of people and goods to travel rapidly between countries changes the risk profile and probabilities,” he says.

It’s not just veterinarians and pigs moving, the entire global economy is on the go all the time. Products are flown from one country to another in the same day. This heightens the importance of NPPC’s animal disease-related asks for the new farm bill, he adds. 

“The impact of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, which, like ASF, would immediately close all export markets, would cost the beef, pork, corn and soybean sectors alone almost $200 billion over 10 years,” Spronk says. “NPPC is asking for mandatory farm bill funding for the vaccine bank, the National Animal Health Laboratory Network and for state animal health agencies for foreign animal disease (FAD) emergencies preparation. This funding is more important than ever, given the current ASF threat and the lack of a vaccine to contain an outbreak.”

Shared, Yet Varied Challenges 
As our countries become more intertwined, the cultural differences are harder to ignore. Spronk recently returned from one of many trips he makes to China each year as a field veterinarian for Pipestone. He admits China’s response to ASF can be hard to understand if you don’t know their culture. 

From governing and education systems to language and business practices, China and the U.S. are dramatically different. But they share a common factor: both countries are major producers and consumers of pork. 

“Pork is a staple of the Chinese diet and culture,” he says. “Maintaining a supply of affordable pork for its citizens is paramount for China. While they are continually striving to improve production practices, China has not yet achieved the level of efficiency and quality that we enjoy in the U.S.”

China’s pork producers are also dealing with endemic animal diseases every day. Many producers don’t have access to technology and other resources that have allowed U.S. pork producers to establish the world’s best practices, Spronk adds. 

“Simply put, the quality of animal care across China varies,” Spronk says. “A major factor is the lack of skilled veterinarians and reliable diagnostic laboratories. As a result, producers’ ability to correctly identify, diagnose and treat animals is limited.”

The U.S. has a dramatically different veterinary education system, Spronk says. The U.S. also has more continuing education opportunities for vets, which helps them stay current in their ability to make a diagnosis of a field observation. 

“There is great economic importance of accurate and timely diagnosis of animal disease,” Spronk says. “We have a tremendously robust diagnostic laboratory network at the state and national levels that is a challenge for many other countries to achieve.”

Both countries face labor challenges of different kinds. Due to a shrinking labor pool in rural America, the U.S. needs better access to foreign workers through visa reform. In China, many pork production employees work far from home and are provided food and housing by their employers on site. This lifestyle, common across many industries in China, is increasingly being rejected by a new generation in China, Spronk says.
Dead Pig Disposal Dilemma
Reports of live pig burials in China are difficult for many to imagine or accept. Spronk says this method of euthanizing pigs in China is intended to reduce the risk of ASF through contaminated blood, as ASF is highly transmissible through blood. 

Containment of infected blood is critical for the prevention of disease spread and is a bigger challenge than most people realize, Spronk says.

“In China, a lack of resources and access to technology have led to a culling method that is unacceptable in the U.S. and other parts of the world,” he says. “Disposal will be a problem in the U.S. as well if we get one of these foreign animal disease viruses.”

Spronk says the U.S. needs approved methods of carcass disposal for federal, state and government agencies, especially in case of an FAD outbreak like ASF.

“We share a common interest of fighting this disease,” Spronk says. “The more we can do to educate pork producers in China and the U.S., the better off we all will be.” 

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