An ounce of prevention to prevent a pork pandemic

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An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure has taken on new meaning over the last six months. COVID-19 has taught Canadians that prevention, including social distancing, masks, and handwashing, are small steps that can make a big difference in the fight against a virus.

Canada’s pork producers have been thinking a lot about prevention over the last three years since African Swine Fever started to have a major impact around the world. Now producers are asking the Federal Government to invest an ounce in a pork pandemic prevention plan to help avoid the devastating consequences and high cost of the cure.

ASF is a highly contagious viral disease that results in significant production and economic losses wherever it is found. While initially isolated, ASF has spent the last three years spreading across eastern Europe and Asia.

The devastation that ASF has brought with it has been considerable. Estimates are that ASF has caused China’s hog herd to shrink by 40%, about 180 million hogs. It has caused pork prices to skyrocket, led to shortages and has devastated rural communities where countless jobs have been lost as farms, processing plants, feed, and input suppliers have all had to shut down as they have tried to control the virus.

The consequences of an ASF detection in Canada would be devastating. If ASF is detected, several things will happen almost at once, with the impacts felt immediately.

First, quarantines will be established, and an eradication plan will be put in place to try and stop the disease. An aggressive eradication effort is core to the plan, but it will require a significant mobilization of resources. The eradication plan alone will cost millions.

Second, the border will close. Canada’s beef farmers suffered through a border closer because of BSE, something that still has lingering consequences almost 20 years later. ASF will be worse, much worse. Canada exports $ 4 billion of pork, 70% of our production, to more than 90 markets around the world. Every single one of those markets will likely slam its borders shut the day that ASF is detected in Canada.

Third, as borders close and exports stop, processors will be forced to cut capacity or close completely. Regardless, jobs will be lost. Canada’s pork processors provide tens of thousands of good middle-class jobs across Canada. Every single one of them will be at risk if ASF is detected.

Fourth, as processors stop processing, pork producers will be left with no market for millions of pigs. Farmers will go out of their way to limit the fallout, but it will be severe. Financially they see businesses they have poured their soul into losing value overnight. Their income will disappear. In the meantime, an animal welfare crisis will be created as farmers figure out what to do with millions of pigs that no longer have a market. The financial and animal welfare crises will lead to a mental health crisis.

If we are lucky, the borders will start to open in months, and recovery will be able to start, but it will take years before Canada recovers. However, Canada’s pork value chain will never be the same.

The cost of the cure will be counted in billions. Eradicating the virus, income support for tens of thousands of out of work Canadians, aid for the thousands of farm families who will struggle through the fallout will be significant. All of this will need to happen as billions of dollars in economic activity simply disappears.  It’s estimated that the economic impact could exceed $50 billion dollars and kill the family farm.

To say the impact will be devastating is an understatement. That is why an ounce of prevention is worth so much.

Canada’s pork producers and government have already invested significantly in prevention. Farmers have and continue to spend millions across the country to improve on-farm biosecurity. In Budget 2019, the Federal Government confirmed an investment in the Canada Border Services Agency to deploy more detector dogs across the country. There has also been a significant investment in financial and human capital as governments and industry plan and prepared for ASF.

But more can and needs to be done to prevent the high cost of the cure.

That is why Canada’s pork producers are calling on the government to use Budget 2020 to invest $50 million over three years in a seven-point pork pandemic prevention plan. The plan will boost biosecurity and traceability, prepare response programming, improve communications, engage with small-scale producers, increase research, and appoint a Chief ASF Officer. Investing in these targeted activities can make a big difference in the fight to prevent ASF.

Canadians now know why prevention is worth so much. Pork producers hope that the government hasn’t forgotten this lesson when it comes to ASF.

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