Emerging Chinese farming technique prompts disease and welfare concerns
Pigs are being farmed in multi-storey buildings in China but the new practice comes with significant risk.
A Chinese pig-farming trend is concerning Australian experts who fear the practice could increase disease risk.
African swine fever devastated the nation’s traditional farms, and multi-storey buildings were viewed as an efficient replacement to raise pigs quickly and were approved by the government in 2019. China’s 1.4 billion inhabitants already consume close to half the world’s pig meat, and that demand is expected to grow.
Similar operations were trialled in Europe but were mostly discontinued due to consumer concerns about welfare, and such operations will unlikely not be popular in Australia as farmland remains plentiful.
Curtin University animal welfare expert Professor Clive Phillips is concerned the unnatural conditions inside the facilities could make pigs susceptible to disease. He worries that if pigs are not given suitable foraging material, fresh air, and access to sunlight their welfare could be poor.
“One standard is they should be able to stand up, lie down and turn around, but I think it’s a lot more than that,” he said. “They need space to interact with each other and have things in their environment they consider pleasant.”
Because pigs are naturally forest-dwelling animals, Professor Phillips believes it’s hard to meet their needs in intensive systems, and that can have significant health implications. “If you put them in intensive conditions where their welfare isn’t good then their immune system is often depressed and you end up having to maintain high health status in the pigs by including lots of antibiotics in the feed.”
Do pig high-rises help prevent the spread of disease?
A key benefit of farming animals indoors is that they have less exposure to wildlife carrying diseases like avian influenza, however packing animals tightly together in buildings has its own risks.
One major facility operates in Hubei province in the city of Ezhou, 68km southeast of Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 is believed to have originated. While other diseases like Ebola, HIV and the plague have long been known to originate in animals, the pandemic has renewed interest in animal farming and its contribution to zoonosis.
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Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at Australian National University and Canberra Hospital, said new housing systems and the spread of disease within them must be “rigorously tested”. “There's no doubt that the closer you have animals or people together, the more disease spreads. Then the more drugs you use to try and stop that disease,” he said.
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