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Why Minnesota farmers are watching China’s swine fever outbreak closely

In 2018, Minnesota was the number three state for raising pigs in the U.S.

In 2018, Minnesota was the number three state for raising pigs in the U.S., with a total production value of $2.612 billion, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
REUTERS/Daniel Acker

African Swine Fever is entirely harmless to humans. But for pigs, it’s deadly. The disease is highly contagious and there is no known vaccine or treatment.

The disease has appeared many times over the last few decades in Europe. But more recently, the disease devastated over half of China’s domestically raised pigs — around 300 million, according to conservative estimates. And the recent Chinese outbreak raised a big question for U.S. farmers: Could it happen here?

Even while dealing with the trade war with China and considering the day to day fluctuations of the market, African Swine Fever is on the minds of Minnesota’s agricultural industry. “I think that’s probably one of the biggest worries we’ve got,” said Kevin Paap, President of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

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#3 in the U.S.

In 2018, Minnesota was the number three state for raising pigs in the U.S., with a total production value of $2.612 billion, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. That’s fifteen percent of the total agricultural economy in Minnesota. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 8.7 million hogs and pigs on Minnesota farms in June 2019.

A disease like African Swine Fever would do major damage to the economy of the state, and the farmers that rely on production for work.

Rep. Collin Peterson
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Collin Peterson
“It’s not a food safety issue, but it’s a very important agricultural issue not only for livestock, but for those that raise corn and soybeans,” Paap said of African Swine Fever. Corn and soy, two crops that also make up a large portion of Minnesota’s agricultural economy, are used as feed for pigs. If the disease were to make headways in the U.S., it could have a ripple effect, dragging down other parts of the agricultural industry along with it. And it already has, when it comes to exporting those crops to China.

“We’re in a tough situation and it’s not just trade that’s a bigger problem frankly, than these trade deals at this point in terms of the prices [for soybeans],” Collin Peterson, who represents Minnesota’s Seventh, told AgNews 890 in late August. “So we’ve, the market has gone away and China and they’re saying may be 50% by the time we get done with this African swine fever.”

State officials said they have been taking prevention and preparation seriously. The Minnesota Board of Animal Health held four consecutive days of workshops in last month for first responders. The workshops simulated how to investigate the disease, stop pork shipments, deal with diseased animals, and finally allow healthy farms to continue business.

While humans are not susceptible to the disease, it is highly contagious and can spread by direct contact from pig to pig through bodily fluids. It can also contaminate feed or the clothes of someone who has come into contact with the pigs. It can contaminate pork as well, which a small number of farmers in Minnesota have been approved to process as food waste and feed to their pigs. Symptoms of the disease include high fever, loss of appetite and red skin lesions.

Once swine fever spreads, there’s not much that can be done other than culling herds and placing carcasses in hazardous waste sites. In China, that’s exactly what the state has done, subsidizing impacted farms. But while the disease has slowed, it is still active in the country and there have been reports of the government underreporting cases in order to declare the crisis over.

So the key is inspection and prevention, say Minnesota officials.

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health advises that people who recently traveled out of the country should not be allowed near livestock for at least five days. African Swine Fever “could devastate the ag economy if it arrived and spread throughout the state,” representatives for the Board said.

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Legislative Response

In Congress late last month, Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) introduced legislation meant to protect against African Swine Fever: The Protecting America’s Food & Agricultural Act. The proposed legislation would authorize U.S. Customs and Border Protection to hire more agriculture specialists and inspectors to monitor for any sign of the disease. Axne, along with Rep. James Baird (R-Indiana), has taken the lead asking CBP to prioritize watching for the spread of African Swine Fever in Europe and Asia.

Peterson, the Chair of the Agricultural Committee, is an original co-sponsor of Axne’s bill. His office said more specifically, the bill would allow for the hiring of 40 CBP agricultural specialists each year until a shortage is filled, 200 agricultural technicians each year for administration and support, and 20 new canine units.

“From a U.S. perspective, our number one goal is prevention. There’s no treatment, there’s currently no vaccine for it, and it’s certainly very deadly,” said said Paap. “Prevention is the number one thing for keeping it out of here.”