A Plague Of Diseased Pigs Is Poisoning China's Rivers, And Maybe Your Dinner

Pigs in Sichuan Province
Pigs in Sichuan Province
He Linlin

BEIJING - Last month, more than 16,000 dead pigs were found in tributaries of the Huangpu River, not far from Shanghai, in eastern China.

At the same time, scores of diseased pig carcasses were also found miles away in Liuyang River, in the south-central Hunan Province. The massive number of dead pigs discovered nationwide caused great public concern.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China supplied the market with 700 million pigs in 2012. That’s about half the pig production of the world. Even with a conservative estimate of a natural mortality rate of 3 to 5%, that means 18 to 35 million pigs die of disease every year. Disposing of these carcasses is not a simple affair.

In theory the Chinese government has come up with a sanitary way for farmers to decontaminate and dispose of these carcasses. Diseased animals have to be buried at least 1,5 meters deep or cremated. Farmers can apply to receive a subsidy of 80 Yuan ($12) for each diseased pig they dispose of in this way.

But in practice, dead pig carcasses are most often thrown into rivers or dumped somewhere. A large number of them are sold on the black market, and end up on people’s plates.

Our knowledge of this phenomenon is based on numerous investigative news reports, court reports, and academic studies. However it is little known that dead livestock or poultry can have serious public health consequences.

According to Xie Yan, an associate researcher at the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the illegal disposal of dead animals is bound to pose a threat to the environment and to public safety. For instance, a virus that is originally only found in animals can come into close contact with humans –leading to zoonosis, where an infectious disease is transmitted from animals to human. The most obvious examples of such a transmission are the SARS virus and bird flu. Dead pigs spreading infectious diseases are in our near future.

In 2005, Sichuan Province, in southwest China, reported 215 human cases of Streptococcus suis, with 38 deaths. Subsequent investigations showed that the outbreak was caused by diseased pigs sold on the black market. All the deceased had been in contact with the pigs, from either slaughtering, processing or eating them.

In 1997, after the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Taiwan, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) issued a 10-year ban on the export of Taiwanese pork and pork products. The epidemic had been caused by pig carcasses discarded in a roadside ditch.

What is particularly worrying in China is that the sanitary disposal of animal carcasses is not a priority – although it should be. The existing system has a lot of loopholes, and a new more realistic and practical system has yet to be introduced.

Although China is the world's biggest pig breeding country, it lags behind in carcass disposal standards and related subsidies to farmers.

Major obstacles

At the end of 2009, the Chinese government introduced regulation standards on how to process diseased animals and diseased animal products. This includes the aforementioned burying carcasses 1,5 meters deep or cremating them and farmers being eligible for a subsidy for each carcass they dispose of this way. But this hasn’t helped control the anarchic way farmers dispose of animal carcasses. Based on our investigations, there are three major obstacles preventing farmers from conforming to disposal standards.

First, farms with less than 50 pigs are excluded from receiving subsidies for disposing of pig carcasses. Yet, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, one third of China’s farms – representing 220 million pigs – have less than 50 pigs each. Using the 5% natural mortality rate, that is 11 million dead pigs per year that aren’t eligible for subsidies. A number that can rise much higher in the case of a disease outbreak.

Second, the subsidy is far too low. The cost of incinerating is both costly and technically complex – and thus not very practical for a small farm. Even deep burial, which is the most practiced disposal method costs much more than 80 Yuan per pig. It is estimated that the process of digging a pit, transporting and disinfecting a carcass according to regulatory standards is at least about 160 Yuan ($26) for an adult pig, half that for a piglet.

Third, according to the market price of pork, the death of a pig costs the farmer between 1120 ($180) to 1400 Yuan ($226). Added to the cost of disposing the carcass according to standards, and it’s understandably not worthwhile for farmers.

Meanwhile those who enforce these regulations are overwhelmed and unable to regulate efficiently. They are also tasked with epidemic prevention, quarantine and offering farmers technical advice and guidance. The resulting anarchy leads to infected pork ending up in the plates of Chinese citizens.

In our investigations in Chinese pig producing regions, we found that many farmers sold their dead pigs on the black market – where they could get between 2 (30 cents) and 6 Yuan ($1) per kilogram.

Xinhua news agency reported that the Chinese Ministry of Public Security launched in March 2012 a campaign against food with banned additives, illegal cooking oil, “unfresh” pork and counterfeit drugs as part of a “dinner table safety” initiative. Between 2011 and March 2012, local health officials uncovered 170 cases involving 6,000 tons of “unfresh” pork.

Meanwhile, few people know that illegally disposing of diseased carcasses is very common. Regulation standards stipulate that carcasses must be buried deep, far away from schools, public areas, residential areas, villages, animal breeding areas and slaughterhouses, drinking water sources, rivers and etc. According to a survey of 150 farms in Jiangsu Province, eastern China, in 142 cases, diseased pig carcasses were disposed of in very shallow pits without being disinfected, covered in only a thin layer of soil. Most often they were just a few meters away from ponds and rivers.

From trash to treasure

It is not all bad news. In recent years certain regions have started to turn the dead pigs from trash to treasure.

For instance, when Zhu Fangmin of Suining County, Jiangsu Province, found out in 2011 that each year about 6,000 diseased pigs die in his county, he asked himself how he could turn this grim statistic into a profit. He invested nearly one million Yuan ($160,000) to set up a carcass treatment plant in his village. The dead livestock goes through a series of treatments including high-temperature and high-pressure processing to exterminate pathogens carried by the dead animals and is turned into industrial oil or fertilizer.

The plant can dispose of 150 to 200 dead pigs every day, earning Zhu more than 100,000 Yuan ($16,200) in profit in 2012 and enabling local farmers to get a compensation of 1000 Yuan ($162) for each pig they bring into the plant.

In comparison to selling infected pigs to unscrupulous businessmen for 100 ($16) to 200 Yuan ($32), this scheme is much more motivating for farmers.

Taiwan, which is also a big pork producer, no longer has the same problem with carcass disposal. Before the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, carcass disposal was not monitored. But when the outbreak occurred, almost four million pigs were destroyed and had to be buried, posing a huge risk to public safety. Thanks to persistent research, Taiwan came up with a system where 80% of its diseased pig carcasses are now processed into industrial oil and fertilizer.

Moreover the Taiwanese government grants a subsidy of more than 60% of the cost of building a carcass processing plant.

Another difference with China is that in Taiwanese pigs are all insured, which means that farmers are covered in case their pigs die. Taiwan has also set up an extensive monitoring system, where all pigs and pig farms are registered and subject to meticulous controls.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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