Can African Swine Fever lead Bazna pigs to the verge of extinction?

At the beginning of July, I visited some of the Bazna pig farmers who Slow Food is supporting in an effort to prevent the disappearance of a breed reared historically by the Saxon inhabitants of Siebenbürgen, or seven towns, the German name for Transylvania.

The farmers raise their Bazna pigs free-range, the breed being well-adapted to wide, open spaces, with no special needs apart from the shelter they return to spontaneously to spend the night. Living and foraging in the open-air on grasses and fruits such as acorns make for robust pigs that fulfil their full genetic potential, especially in terms of the quantity and quality of their fat (including healthy fats such as MUFA, Monounsaturated fatty acid, and PUFA, polyunsaturated fatty acid. Hence the excellent nutritional properties of their pork and its by-products.

“We have bred the Bazna pig for generations,” says Transylvanian farmer Adrian Scumpu. “Traditionally every family here in Bazna used to raise up to ten pigs a year and slaughter two of them. Local breeds like Bazna and Mangalica would be raised out in the open-air since, given their high fat percentage, they throve outdoors even at low temperatures”.  Adrian is one of the founders of the Slow Food Bazna Pig Presidium and beside him as he speaks is a pen housing about ten pigs. They have black coats with characteristic white bands ringing their trunks, starting at the shoulder and including the forelimbs. They are not particularly big and their heads are of average size with a slightly concave profile. The ears turn forward from a horizontal position and the necks are short, broad and thick. The trunks are relatively large and round with slightly convex spinal cords. The backs are long and broad, slightly oblique and muscular, while the hind limbs are well-developed but not particularly thick.

The Bazna pig used to be bred by the Saxon population that inhabited the Siebenbürgen, the seven towns of Transylvania. During the 19th century, the breed was crossed first with Mangalica pigs and then with Berkshires to produce the pig as we know it today. In 2017 a group of farmers from Bazna travelled to Saxony to find out more about the breed. Adrian and his brother Lucian, mayor of the small town of Bazna village, also began to breed Bazna pigs and obtained the necessary certification to attest their authenticity.

We find ourselves in the middle of the green Transylvanian countryside, surrounded by hills. The pigs are in small groups and appear docile and friendly to humans.

“It’s a good sign when pigs aren’t scared and coexist peacefully,” observe Anna Zuliani and Pietro Venezi of the Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (VSF) association. They have supported Slow Food for many years and collaborated on its position paper on animal welfare.

Consumers lost interest in the Bazna pig breed in the 1990s, when they began to prefer English breeds with a smaller quantity of fat. “During that period, we too converted to foreign breeds for a while, says Ben Mehedin of Adept Foundation, “but we soon realized they were unsuitable for free-range farming since they suffered the weather conditions, especially during the winter, and fell ill very easily.” Ben, who is the coordinator of the Slow Food Presidium producers, is doing a lot to reintroduce and promote this old breed. Thus, over the last ten years, interest in the Bazna pig has enjoyed a revival. The 2nd edition of the Bazna Festival, held in September 2015, was the starting point for the creation of the Slow Food Presidium with a hard core of farmer members.

The fortunes of the Bazna pigs improved until 2020, when a new threat appeared: African Swine Fever (ASF), a highly contagious and deadly swine disease carried mainly by wild boars. ASF does not infect humans but is easily passed on from one pig to another by direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected specimen. Measures to prevent contagion include limiting the movements of pigs from one farm to another and preventing exposure to the outdoors to avoid contacts between domestic pigs and infected boars.

“The main challenges we are currently facing are bio-security rules aimed at preventing ASF. It is crucial to find ways to combine bio-security with the preservation of the breed,” says Lucian. “There are currently only certified 341 Bazna pigs and the breed is at risk of extinction. Before ASF hit the country, there were 640.” Why these worrying numbers? Because farmers were forced to change practices significantly by limiting outdoor movement, the main reason for raising such a rustic breed in the first place. Whenever they detected a sick pig on their farm, they were obliged to slaughter all their animals and now they are forced to keep them enclosed in pens with canopies. Concerned about the welfare of their pigs, Presidium members are attempting to ensure animals more room, allowing them to run around the farmyard at certain times of the day and resorting to expedients such as chains to play with (so-called enrichments). That said, they are fully aware that the breed needs more direct contact with wild nature.

“We don’t think it makes sense to keep these pigs indoors,” says Marin, one of the breeders who warmly welcomed us to his farm. “If pigs used to the outdoors – especially Mangalica pigs, which are also common in this area – are regularly kept inside, they get aggressive with each other and break things. And insofar as they are more subject to stress, they also pick up more parasites.”

All the farmers we spoke with were worried about the fact that, for the moment, there seems to be no solution to ASF and that they will probably not be allowed to return to free-range outdoor farming in the short term. They are also determined not to give up, however. “As long as we can do it, we won’t stop” is their motto.

The visit with Vétérinaires Sans Frontières was organized as part of the Ppilow project, which adopts a multi-actor approach in an attempt to co-build solutions to improve the welfare of poultry and pigs reared in organic and low-input outdoor farming systems. ASF is a huge problem with significant consequences for the welfare of local breeds meant to be reared outdoors to express their full potential and strong points. Our talks with the breeders focused a lot on the matter of how to satisfy their welfare needs without compromising their health.

One thing is certain: rustic breeds are the most robust of all but also the ones that provide the smallest ecological and carbon footprint. Slow Food’s efforts to protect them are part of its defense of biodiversity at every level. Faced with swine fever, farmers in Bazna as in other affected areas, such as Bulgaria, Ukraine and, more recently Italy, risk having to give up a vital heritage of traditional pig breeds that do not tolerate being closed in barns and whose basic need is to roam outdoors in natural spaces. Confining them means compromising their welfare, hence the quality of their meat.

Our work with Vétérinaires Sans Frontières aims to come up with solutions to ensure biosecurity without losing the genetic heritage and centuries-old culinary traditions. On June 29-30, VSF will organize an international workshop on ASF in Sofia, Bulgaria, to share the experiences of EU farmers raising local breeds and to suggest effective and targeted disease control strategies for this important sector. It will be possible to participate online by registering at this link. The program is available here.

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