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Op-Ed: Protecting Puerto Rico’s economy from contagious disease

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, the total value of Puerto Rico’s agricultural production was $485 million in 2017. Of this number, more than $6 million was attributed to the sale of hogs and pigs from 423 farms. These statistics highlight that Puerto Rico’s pork industry is not only culturally but also economically significant to the island.

African swine fever (ASF), a highly contagious and deadly viral disease affecting domestic and feral swine, looms as a potential threat to Puerto Rico’s pork industry. While ASF is not currently in Puerto Rico, it was detected in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 2021. While humans cannot contract the disease, they can easily spread it if they encounter pigs or carry pork when they travel. ASF threatens to cause significant losses for the local economy, impacting pork producers and farmers as well as the average Puerto Rican citizen.

The economic impact on the agriculture industry
If an outbreak is detected in a wild herd or on a farm, the disease is so contagious the entire stock would have to be put down. This means pork producers could lose an entire herd and face a devastating loss in potential revenue as well as investment/sunk costs — and an outbreak could cause a ripple effect across the industry.

The potential industry economic consequences can be examined by looking at a neighboring Caribbean country — in 2021, authorities detected ASF in the Dominican Republic. The outbreak has crippled the country’s swine industry, slowing the production of pork products down by 30% over the past two years. To continue to provide Dominicans with pork products, the country filled the gap in products with supply from the U.S.

While this helped strengthen trade, it also resulted in the divergence of money from the local economy and producers to imported goods. As a result, pork products became even more expensive and pork producers are faced with an uphill battle and tough decisions regarding whether to re-establish their herds.

Economic consequences for the average Puerto Rican
The international community is already experiencing a record level of inflation — food prices for March 2023 grew at a rate of 8.5%. While food price increases are slowing down in 2023 compared to 2022, experts say this year’s average will settle around 8%.

Besides inflation, there are numerous other causes contributing to food price increases. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, weather events and animal and plant diseases are common disruptions that can impact the supply available — causing prices to increase. An outbreak of ASF would cause a chain reaction, from producers to local businesses and then to the citizens of Puerto Rico, by causing a loss of pigs, a scarcity in pork products, a disruption in the food supply chain and, ultimately, a rise in price.

Author Sarai Rivera-Garcia’s is a US Department of Agriculture APHIS Epidemiology Officer.

We’ve recently experienced a scenario like this — in December 2022, egg prices rose to record numbers due to an outbreak of avian flu in combination with, inflation and supply chain disruptions. Much like the price of eggs, pork products will follow the same pattern of major price increases if Puerto Rico were to be affected by ASF. If ASF were detected in Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans would potentially not only struggle to find pork but be able to afford it — severely limiting their access to a major food product.

What can be done to prevent ASF in Puerto Rico?
The good news is ASF is not currently in Puerto Rico. However, it is extremely important that residents work together now to become informed about the disease and take precautionary measures. Puerto Ricans should make sure their community is aware of the threat of ASF.

Residents can take precautions in accordance with federal guidance from USDA. In 2021, the agency issued a Federal Order, creating a Foreign Animal Disease Protection Zone and suspending the interstate movement of swine products from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to the mainland United States. This means residents cannot not ship pork products through the mail or pack pork products when traveling.

Additionally, individuals should avoid visiting a farm or any other premises with pigs. Limiting the shipment and movement of pork products and human interactions with pigs and wild swine is crucial to ensure that the disease does not enter Puerto Rico.

2023 continues to be a year of economic uncertainty. To avoid further disruptions and increased costs, as Puerto Ricans, we should work together to increase awareness and understanding of ASF in our community and follow federal guidelines. If we can come together to combat the threat of ASF, it could make a significant difference in protecting the local economy.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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