DAVID Dodwell recently wrote poignantly in the South China Morning Post about the far-reaching impact of African swine fever. Given his masthead, he focused on China, but also on its global reach and impact.
David typically researches and writes of global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong viewpoint. Anyway, here’s a little of what he had to ‘say’ in a South China Morning Post print edition under the headline ‘More than just the pigs’. I found it interesting. I hope you do.
“Officials admit it (ASF) has now reached virtually every province. Han Changfu, minister of agriculture and rural affairs, says there is “a complicated and grim situation”. There are also reports it has spread into Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.
Media reports say around one million pigs have been slaughtered so far.
With a countrywide population of around 433 million pigs (which produce over 700 million pigs for slaughter every year), most expert sources predict an even more massive culling to come. The farm-centred Rabobank predicts that China’s pork output is likely to fall by 20 percent to 30 percent over 2019, with herds being cut by up to 40 percent.
This fall will not just be due to mass culling. With officials anxious to isolate outbreaks and pig farmers unable to get pigs to market, many are expected to abandon pig breeding. One farmer was quoted as saying he planned to move over to growing strawberries.
Meanwhile, Rabobank says there is likely to be a nationwide shortage of pork products amounting to around four million tonnes – almost one-tenth of China’s annual consumption.
Instructions to “let them eat strawberries” will not be swallowed very well. Given the size of China’s pig farming sector, it is perhaps surprising that African swine fever has not arrived earlier. First recorded around 1907 in Kenya, it has been endemic to Africa for over a century, spread by soft ticks through local populations of warthogs, wild boar and bush pigs, which carry the virus, but suffer no symptoms.
Swine fever was recorded as spreading to Lisbon in 1957 and is now endemic across Europe, in particular across the former Soviet economies in eastern Europe (135,000 pigs were culled in Romania last year). For pigs, the virus is grim and normally fatal. Within days of developing a high fever, the skin goes purplish.
There is discharge from the eyes and nose and bloody diarrhoea. They die within days. Mercifully, the virus has yet to find a way of leaping across into humans.While we might think we are lucky that this global pig pandemic has not yet morphed into a long-expected human pandemic, the catastrophic economic implications of African swine fever still loom large.
Pork is the world’s most widely consumed land-based protein source. We slaughter about one billion pigs a year – about 23 million a week – with China, the EU and the US accounting for 85 percent. We slaughter more chickens (about 60 billion a year) but they do not add up to the same volume of meat as comes from pigs.
We slaughter around 300 million cows a year, and even though they produce more meat per cow, pigs still provide more meat in total.
The fever is hard to wipe out because it lives on for so long in pork products (it can live for one month in salami, 140 days in cured Iberian pork and almost 400 days in Parma ham), and because pigs are carried such long distances to capture countrywide price differences.
So for the coming two years at least, we can expect a sharp fall in domestic Chinese production, significant increases in pork imports (Brazil is likely to be a huge beneficiary) and price hikes for all meat products as unsatisfied demand for pork switches across to poultry and beef.
The story for global food security is likely to be sobering, as industrial farming concentrates reliance on a dwindling range of protein sources and a rising world population creates a relentless pressure to supply more meat. We should give a thought to the debt we owe the pigs that have become our industrial commodities, and recognise the dangers we have created for ourselves in engineering our food in this way.”