One morning a farmer might notice that one of his animals isn’t acting quite the same as the day before. The next day, it’s a few more animals. A week later, the whole herd has gone down with a disease that appeared out of nowhere. Farmers who have lived through BSE or foot-and-mouth understand the devastating and sudden impact that a disease outbreak can have.

African Swine Flu (ASF) is the next big threat. ASF (named after its discovery in Kenya, a century ago) is a highly contagious viral disease that spreads quickly through pigs and hogs. The virus causes high fever, lameness, vomiting and internal bleeding, resulting in death within ten days. It is spread when a pig is in contact with an infected animal (dead or alive). Shoes, clothes, knives and vehicles can also be vectors for the virus, allowing it to travel significant distances. Currently, there is no vaccination for the disease and mortality rates stand at least 90%.

The one saving grace of the Flu, is that it does not impact humans; and given that there is no threat to human health, the damage is primarily economic.

Its spread through China was rapid: an estimated 200 million animals have been lost this year alone through a combination of the disease and culling. China produces 47% of the world’s pork and the majority of the producers are small-scale subsistence farmers. These producers face financial ruin and hunger when their entire herd is wiped out. Part of the explanation as to why the disease has spread so quickly is the predominance of these farmers in China and South East Asia. Their lack of understanding of basic biosecurity measures has meant that little could halt the disease’s spread – disinfecting boots, washing vehicles and disposing of waste products could all help to contain the spread of the virus. Governments around the world need to dedicate more resources to working with subsistence farmers to educate and support them to adopt best practices in order to make them more economically viable and deliver better animal welfare.

Due to the increasingly globalized nature of our food systems and the international trade in animal products, the disease spread rapidly across the globe as processed pork products were shipped from country to country until it reached epidemic proportions. The ASF contagion rate increased exponentially as it entered the industrial farming system and it created a perfect incubator for ASF to move from animal to animal. As SFT has long emphasised, industrial farming methods lead to high levels of disease contagion when animals are crammed together in confined spaces, with antibiotics given in higher and higher doses for disease suppression.

ASF has now reached Poland, Romania and Belgium and the risk of it entering the UK and destroying the UK pork industry is significant. “This is the biggest animal disease outbreak we’ve ever had on the planet,” Dirk Pfeiffer, a veterinary epidemiologist at City University of Hong Kong told the Guardian.

The Chinese Government struggled to take control of the situation. Official statements were made that the disease was spread by wild hogs coming into contact with farm animals. Fearing authorities culling their herd and cutting off their income without recompense, farmers slaughtered at the first sign of illness and sold the pork in the local market or through illegal cross-border exchanges. Due to the difficulties in containing the disease thus far, scientists across the world are racing to develop a vaccination to halt its spread.

What impact has this outbreak had on the global pork industry? So far, wholesale pork prices have remained fairly static. China still has a significant quantity of safe frozen pork to supply their domestic market, and there has been a peak in slaughtering as farmers race to beat the virus’s spread. This has depressed the market to a certain degree. However, as stockpiles of frozen meat decrease and slaughter restrictions tighten, prices will inevitably increase.

That is something that American pork producers are counting on. The disease has not reached the US and officials are doing everything possible to keep ASF out of North America. If the US remains disease free, it provides an opportunity to sell at a higher price and gain a greater market share in China, where the demand for pork products continues unabated, despite the collapse of the domestic industry.

However, this potential opportunity for US farmers to export their pork to China comes in the midst of a trade war between President Trump and President Xi Jinping. Historically, corn and soy have been a major export of the US to China. However, due to the substantial tariffs applied by the Chinese Government in the last twelve months, exports of these agricultural products have fallen. This market depression has been further compounded by the fact that Chinese pork producers have had little need to purchase feed once their herds have succumbed to African Swine Flu.

Yet, there could be a glimmer of light for US farmers who wish to trade with China: at the recent G20 meeting, Xi Jinping agreed to purchase more “farm products”. While unspecified as to what that includes, pork products could be at the top of the list. Currently, Chinese tariffs on US pork are 50%, which might have dissuaded Chinese purchases in the past, but if this was lowered, US farmers might find a new outlet for their products.

This potential expansion though raises questions of supply. Before the outbreak, the average person’s pork consumption in China was 30.6 kg per year, three times higher than the poultry consumption. Analysts say there isn’t enough pork in the world to cover China’s expected shortfall at this level of consumption. This outpaced demand could result in global prices of pork rising significantly and putting it out of the reach of some consumers. Without pork available, consumers (whether Chinese, American or English) are likely to turn to other meats as a substitute. That could mean significant increases in poultry and beef – which could have climate implications given the GHG emissions associated with the industrial production of livestock.

All this suggests that the coming months will bring some challenging times for pork producers across the world, and only time will tell who the winners or losers will be.

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