Swine fever ails more than just China’s favourite meat, with millions of small farmers, exports likely to suffer

A pig farm in China’s southern Jiangsu province. We can expect a sharp fall in domestic pork production for the coming two years at least, David Dodwell writes. Photo: AP

One of my more shocking journalistic journeys was made in the mid-1980s, visiting a nondescript factory in the heart of Chongqing. I had asked to explore China’s farming industry, but the ministry of foreign affairs had some difficulties in getting me near an actual farm. Instead, this factory processed all of Sichuan’s pig intestines – 300 million a year.

I watched mountains of recently warm intestines stretched along clean metal tables, while one end of each intestine was plugged to a tap in the wall. After their inside walls had been flushed clean, the intestines were wrapped into tidy bundles of 12, put into huge ceramic jars, generously salted and then taken down into underground storage.

From September, when the weather began to cool, the jars would be brought out of cellarage and loaded onto barges down to Wuhan. From there, the jars took the train to Beijing and then the trans-Siberian railway across to Europe. The bosses told me this single factory supplied the great majority of Europe’s sausage casings.

So news that African Swine Fever has swept into China is a big deal, with massive ramifications not just for millions of Chinese pig farmers and the world’s largest consumer market for pork meat, but for industries across the world, whether it is German sausage makers, or Iowan soybean exporters.

The scale of China’s pork crisis is unclear. Most agree it arrived in Liaoning in the north in August last year, perhaps from Russia or Eastern Europe. Routine Chinese official paranoia about admitting a problem or being honest about the details means that it is uncertain, eight months later, just how far the swine fever has spread. Remember the reticence in admitting even the existence of SARS even after it had broken out in Amoy Gardens in Hong Kong?

Police officers and workers in protective suits are seen at a checkpoint on a road leading to a farm where African Swine Fever was detected, in China’s northern Hebei province, in this file photo from February this year. Photo: Reuters

Officials admit it 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 1 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 per cent to 30 per cent over 2019, with herds being cut by up to 40 per cent.

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 4 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. That perhaps explains Pumbaa’s “hakuna matata” – Swahili for “no worries” – popularised in Disney’s Lion King. But we can leave Disney to deal with that little contradiction.

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 1 billion pigs a year – about 23 million a week – with China, the EU and the US accounting for 85 per cent. 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.

Pork for sale at a supermarket in Beijing. About a billion pigs are slaughtered for meat every year, with China, the EU and the US accounting for 85 per cent. Photo: Reuters

Farmers prefer them because a pig can breed three times a year, and produce litters of six to 12 piglets, which means up to 36 piglets a year, compared with cows bearing one calf a year. Calves need at least a year to reach “slaughter weight”, while piglets are ready for slaughter in six months.

It is this grim arithmetic that has for millennia made pork the meat of choice in China. Clay effigies of pigs have been found in Chinese tombs dating back 8,000 years. But this arithmetic does not work well with the arrival of African Swine Fever. Apart from being fatal to pigs, it has the potential to prove fatal to the livelihood of millions of small farmers across China.

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.(agribiznetwork.com)

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