African swine fever: native breeds at risk

For far too long, african swine fever (asf) has been putting native pig breeds in europe at risk.

17 Sep 2023

Slow Food is committed to amplifying the voices of small-scale free-range farmers are heard in the places where the measures to combat and contain the disease are decided.

At Cheese, representatives from the Presidia of the Bazna Pig in Romania, the East Balkan Pig  in Bulgaria, the Tortona Valleys Salami,  and the PGI for the Cinta Senese pig  in Italy, all of whom raise rustic pig breeds in free-range conditions, met with Veterinarians Without Borders and the Extraordinary Commissioner for African Swine Fever of the Italian Government in a dedicated conference.

This discussion yielded a significant result, and not just for Italy: small-scale producers will be able to participate in the national technical table dedicated to ASF. This announcement was made by the Extraordinary Commissioner responsible for managing the emergency, Vincenzo Caputo: “A representative of small-scale producers will be invited to participate in the technical table initiated by the government,” Caputo said. “It’s a promise from me: even the smallest-scale producers must have a say in shaping our response.”

This announcement followed the speakers’ descriptions of their often dramatic experiences with ASF.

Free-range or semi-free-range pig farming

To understand the issue at hand, it must be noted that free-range farming, contrary to common belief, fosters a deeper relationship with animals than industrial farming, as it allows them to express their innate behavioral characteristics. If a traumatic event such as mandatory culling occurs, the damage to the farmer is not only economic but also psychological. The biodiversity of animal breeds and the land on which they live is also affected, with consequences for the ecosystem and the social structures that depend on it.

Like grazing for dairy breeds, extensive pig farming provides a range of ecosystem services in forests and helps counter the depopulation of rural areas by creating economic opportunities. Indeed, several European governments have invested public funds in reviving extensive pig farming in recent decades. Yet the spread of ASF jeopardizes the many efforts made to strengthen an extensive farming model that represents, as an alternative to industrial animal farming, a route towards ecological transition.

Experiences within the slow food network

Elisabeth Paul and Stefano Chiellini are farmers in the ASF red zone in Italy. They complain of the ways small-scale farmers are penalized. “When swine fever arrived, we weren’t prepared. We were warned that we had to increase security measures, which older farmers in the area struggled to implement. In the space of a few weeks we were under pressure to slaughter. We sold our high-quality meat and found ourselves with empty stalls within months; there were no more pigs. Today, we can’t produce, and those who can are sourcing meat from outside the area. Only 5-10% of the promised compensation and funding has actually arrived, and there are several bureaucratic hurdles to overcome. Organic farming has been penalized, and there are no resources to help producers like us rebuild our businesses.”

“Intensive farms,” Stefano Chiellini added, “received compensation up to 35 times higher than what was paid to us. Protocols are needed for farms that have resisted until now; protocols to allow them to continue outdoor farming. Knowing that a representative of local small-scale producer associations will join the technical table is important: they are the ones who live and work in the affected areas, and they know what can be done.”

Bazna Pigs in Romania

Romania and Bulgaria

Ben Mehedin, coordinator of the Bazna Pig Presidium, reports an improving situation, but swine fever has hit hard in Romania: 6000 farms have been affected since 2017, though only 11 of these outbreaks have been reported in 2023 so far. Apart from preventive measures to eradicate the virus, farmers have also focused on traditional prevention measures, though it is not entirely clear how the virus spreads.

The situation in Bulgaria is alarming. Along with native pig breeds, traditional knowledge of transformation techniques for various sausages that are part of the gastronomic heritage of the Eastern Balkans is at risk. “Pig farming is a tradition here,” says Dessislava Dimitrova, President of Slow Food in Bulgaria. “Many people have always raised their own pigs in the yard, ensuring subsistence during the winter. During communism, the focus was on the industrialization of agriculture and food production, limiting the knowledge passed down within families to a few elderly individuals. Current EU regulations don’t help. It’s not just about saving a rare breed and savoir-faire, but a farming system that benefits nature. These pigs turn over the soil while rooting, spreading seeds and cleaning the undergrowth. However, from 5000 animals, we are now down to just 350.”

Enhancing traditional knowledge

Slow Food believes that farmers possess invaluable knowledge that should not be underestimated or disregarded. To overcome a challenge of this magnitude, it is essential that the ability of farmers to respond is enhanced.

Veterinarians Without Borders has stepped in to help, collaborating with Slow Food to find solutions that avoid the destruction of extensive pig farming. According to Giorgia Angeloni, “90% of free-range farms have been destroyed due to regulations that are no longer realistic. We must protect the remaining animals and safeguard the entire supply chain. African Swine Fever has a significant economic impact on already fragile rural areas. It should be noted that once the genetic heritage of a breed is lost, it cannot be recreated. What we hope for is that ASF control measures take into account the vulnerability of rural farmers.”

by Paola Nano, [email protected]

cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from september 15-18. see you there! #cheese2023

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