Pork Imports Won’t Save the Philippines From Swine Fever

Some pink pigs

When Marlon Malong’s pigs got sick in October 2020, he asked a veterinarian if there was any vaccine that could save them. The veterinarian said the pigs would not survive another week because African swine fever had already arrived in the Philippines’ Pangasinan Province and was sweeping through pig farms in the area. If they did not succumb to the disease, they would have to be culled anyway.

“My pigs were sick for seven days,” says Malong, who raised a few dozen in concrete pens in his yard before the disease arrived. “They had tiny purple spots all over their skin. We had no use of them anymore. We could neither sell nor eat them.”

He was able to sell 35 of his fattening pigs before the virus reached his farm, but another 35 of his free-range native hogs died of the disease, which has a nearly 100% mortality rate. Unable to earn a living from pigs, he has since converted his old pig pens into chicken coops.

Since the presence of ASF was first confirmed in the Philippines in September 2019, the disease has been detected in more than half of the country’s 81 provinces, and more than 3 million pigs—a quarter of the country’s total inventory—have been culled. Backyard hog farmers have gone bankrupt, and industrial farms have laid off workers and even ceased production, resulting in more than US$2 billion in losses within the hog sector and related industries.

As recently as 11 May, the government of President Rodrigo Duterte declared a “state of calamity” aimed at containing the spread of ASF, rehabilitating the hog sector and curbing rising pork prices. But rather than investing in local pork producers and safeguards to protect their hogs from the virus, the Duterte administration has blamed local pork vendors for the country’s rising prices and paved the way for foreign pork producers to outcompete the local farmers who have kept the Philippines’ pork industry self-sufficient for decades.

Layoffs and Payouts

In March, commercial pork producer Robina Farms shut down a farm in Bulacan Province, north of Manila, because of an ASF outbreak, costing the company more than US$11 million in losses. The company has also laid off 226 workers at another farm in Antipolo, east of Manila, and reported losses of more than US$20 million since February, according to labour organiser and former Robina Farms employee Gaudencio Garcia.

Robina Farms did not respond to a request for comment about its losses and layoffs.

“ASF cannot be tackled separately from globalisation.”

But commercial production only accounts for a third of the Philippines’ pigs; out of 12.7 million farmed pigs in the country in 2019, 8.2 million belonged to small-scale, backyard farmers like Malong, who bear the brunt of the government’s containment policies.

In December 2019, the Department of Agriculture introduced the 1-7-10 Protocol: hogs within a 1-kilometre radius of a detected infection would be culled immediately, while those within seven kilometres would be confined and tested for the disease. Those within 10 kilometres would be closely monitored for symptoms, which include high fever, loss of appetite and lesions on the skin. 

“Hog raisers are worried about reporting ASF outbreaks because all pigs near the site of infection would be culled, but some of those might have been healthy,” Malong says. Some hog raisers in his area culled their sick animals without notifying municipal authorities so that they could continue selling the ones that did not show symptoms. 

An empty pig pen
An empty pig pen in May 2021 in Rodriguez, Rizal Province—ground zero of an African swine fever outbreak in the Philippines since 2019.

The Department of Agriculture initially offered farmers US$60 in compensation for each culled pig, then raised it to around US$100. But even that fell well below the US$167 average market value for a pig. In April, the government doubled the payout to around US$200, but legal hoops such as registration and insurance requirements, and snail-paced disbursements, remain an ongoing burden for backyard pig farmers.

A Flood of Foreign Meat

On 1 February, President Duterte ordered a 60-day price cap on pork products in Metro Manila, following a claim by Secretary of Agriculture William Dar that meat vendors were hoarding pork products to artificially raise retail prices. Meat vendors protested against the price cap by launching a three-day “pork holiday” in which no pork would be sold. When the price cap expired in early April, Duterte hit back against local pork producers by enacting Executive Order 128, which drastically lowered the import duties that have historically protected domestic industries. 

On 15 May, Duterte repealed EO 128 following protests by lawmakers and agricultural organisations and replaced it with a new executive order with slightly higher tariff rates. Under the “state of calamity”, the government still aims to raise pork imports from 50,000 to 250,000 metric tonnes to keep prices low for consumers. Hog farmers and activists say the move still threatens their livelihoods, as well as the country’s food security.

“Flooding the market with foreign meat products does not guarantee a decrease in the price of pork,” says Feny Cosico, secretary general of Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (AGHAM). She likens EO 128 to the Philippines’ 2019 Rice Liberalization Law, which allowed for a flood of rice imports and caused local rice farmers’ earnings to plummet while hardly affecting prices for consumers.

Moreover, Cosico says, promoting pork imports fails to address the root of the problem, as major pork-exporting countries are still being ravaged by ASF, and the virus can remain infectious for weeks within chilled or cured meat.

“Importing more meat poses greater risks on public health and safety. The Philippines does not have sufficient meat inspection facilities, so we can’t even tell whether these commodities are free from ASF, which can persist in meat products over long periods,” Cosico says. 

“Flooding the market with foreign meat products does not guarantee a decrease in the price of pork.”

Farmer advocacy group Samahan ng Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) has filed a criminal complaint against agriculture secretary Dar for delaying the establishment of border inspection facilities. Other organisations such as the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Fisheries Inc. and the United Broilers Association have pointed out that shoddy inspections of meat imports have contributed to the entry and transmission of diseases such as ASF and avian flu in the Philippines. 

As local farmers languish under the government’s containment and import regimes, meat importers and foreign producers are relishing their gains. In March, the US Meat Export Federation announced that although the Philippines “has historically been largely self-sufficient in pork production”, US imports rose by 15% in 2020. The trade association also questioned whether concerns that imports harm domestic production “stand up under scrutiny”.

But according to the Filipino development research organisation IBON, pork retail prices have remained high, even amid the influx of imports; the only difference is that local farmers have had to slash their profits to remain competitive. 

The Colonial Roots of an Infectious Disease

ASF was first detected in 1921 in the pigs of European settlers in Kenya, which was then a British colony. Like many emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, it is thought to have been transmitted through contact between animal species that would not have occurred without human intervention—in this case, the exposure of European domesticated pigs to indigenous, likely asymptomatic wild warthogs. 

After devastating settlers’ pig stocks in Kenya, the virus spread across Africa to Portuguese-controlled Angola, then to Portugal in 1957, leading to outbreaks across Europe, then China in 2018 and the Philippines in 2019.

“Neoliberalism underscores the agrarian problem in the Philippines, which stems from the Spanish colonial period, when plantations for export crops were first established.”

Environmental activists note the irony in the Duterte administration’s attempts to combat a disease borne out of colonialism by promoting colonialism’s modern iterations—globalisation and neoliberalism—in which the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization routinely reward Global South countries that liberalise trade at the expense of domestic industries and social programmes. In 1980, under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines became the first country in Asia to take a structural adjustment loan from the World Bank, which required the government to remove import restrictions and promote exports. Like colonialism, market-oriented restructuring of the economy has hurt small-scale food producers and risks surfacing new infectious diseases.

“Neoliberalism underscores the agrarian problem in the Philippines, which stems from the Spanish colonial period, when plantations for export crops were first established,” says Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of the environmental advocacy group Kalikasan. “Technological advancement has allowed the mechanisation of agriculture, favouring export-oriented, large-scale agricultural production. Small-scale farmers are at a disadvantage and are unable to compete against industrial farms like Robina.”

Moreover, industrial, export-oriented farming necessitates the clearing of forests for plantations and ranches, which brings humans and domesticated animals into contact with wild animals.

“Pathogens, or disease-carrying organisms, are initially endemic to certain places such as mountains and forests. When this habitat is destroyed, usually through man-made activities like wildlife poaching or deforestation, these pathogens transfer to other places,” Bautista says.

“ASF cannot be tackled separately from globalisation,” says Cosico of AGHAM. “Economic policies creating an import-dependent and export-oriented economy should be revoked, because these smother whatever little protection is left for local producers.”

Science for the People

Environmental activists and small-scale farming advocates say the solution to the Philippines’ ASF problem does not lie in liberalising trade but in protecting domestic industries through people-centred science.

Ryan Damaso, coordinator of Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (MASIPAG), says agricultural development must be prioritised by the government to achieve food self-sufficiency and security. “This includes increasing government subsidies to help backyard producers to repopulate their swine, educating hog raisers on the importance of biosecurity measures and ramping up testing and inspection facilities,” he says.

Damaso also advocates for the adoption of agroecological farming practices, which integrate indigenous knowledge of the environment into farming techniques and eschew monocropping and synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. “This practice allows ecological diversity in farm systems, improves soil quality and resistance to lethal pathogens, and aims to free farmers from corporate dependence and takeover,” he says.

Malong, who learned these lessons the hard way when his hogs succumbed to ASF, has since adopted some agroecological practices on his farm: he no longer uses high-yield varieties of grain or synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. 

“Raising various kinds of livestock such as ducks, chickens and goats also provides food security for farmers in case of disease outbreaks, like ASF,” he says. 

Malong has even built up the confidence to start investing in pigs again, knowing that the new biodiversity on his farms serves as a buffer against infections and the total loss of his livelihood from a future ASF outbreak. In fact, equipped with knowledge to mitigate ASF, the disease may not even be the greatest threat to his pig business.

“I bought two piglets the other day,” he says with a bitter laugh. “But they escaped.”

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