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The other pandemic

"The spread of ASF to so many provinces also indicates that efforts to contain the disease have been lacking."

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it is easy to overlook another viral outbreak that has taken a heavy toll on people’s livelihood since it began in 2019. We refer to the African Swine Fever (ASF) that has wiped out by some estimates as much as a quarter of the country’s pig stocks, threatening our food security.

Since the Department of Agriculture confirmed the first case in July 2019, ASF outbreaks have been reported on Luzon, Mindanao, Leyte and Samar Islands. Ilocos Norte is the only province in Luzon free of ASF after the disease was reported in Abra and Apayao provinces in March.

In March, the department reported that ASF had spread to 12 regions, 40 provinces, 466 cities and municipalities, and 2,425 barangays to date, causing a loss of over 3 million pigs.

 The decline in hog production has caused a contraction in pork supply and an unprecedented increase in its price. This, in turn, has also affected prices of other basic agricultural commodities.

The government’s immediate reaction was to impose price ceilings on pork, an artificial measure doomed to fail because prices will eventually find their true level. A “pork holiday” in Metro Manila only served to emphasize the futility of price caps.

The next step the government took to lower prices was to increase the supply of pork by allowing more imports, but local hog growers said this would kill the industry faster than ASF.

The head of the National Federation of Hog Farmers, Chester Tan, also noted that ASF had reached Philippine shores precisely because it slipped through our borders. If the virus slipped in when imports were kept to a low 54,210 metric tons (MT), how much more could slip by the authorities if the volume is increased three-fold to 404,210 MT, Tan said.

The argument clearly suggests a failure on the part of the Bureau of Animal Industry and National Meat Inspection Service to monitor closely the flow of pork and pork products that pass through our borders and the need for the agencies to improve their surveillance work.

The spread of ASF to so many provinces also indicates that efforts to contain the disease have been lacking—and that hog farmers in unaffected areas of the country cannot afford to be complacent.

As if these twin viral disasters were not enough, Senator Panfilo Lacson has raised allegations of corruption in the issuance of meat import certificates under the minimum access volume or MAV scheme.

Last month, Lacson said he learned that a syndicate within the Department of Agriculture was collecting a kickback of P5 to P7 for each kilo of imported pork products.

The department, the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission and the Senate have launched their respective investigations.

In a radio interview, Lacson summed up the problem well: “There is nothing more basic than food, especially in a pandemic. If corruption infects the Department of Agriculture that should be at the forefront of food security efforts, it goes beyond human conscience.”

Corruption, it seems, may have reached pandemic proportions as well.

Topics: Editorial , The other pandemic , COVID-19 pandemic , African Swine Fever , ASF , Department of Agriculture
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