Did you know that much of Asia is currently in the grip of an epidemic that is wiping out millions? Did you know that this disease started in northeastern China in August 2018, swept down into Vietnam and then jumped across to the Philippines and Indonesia? Did you know that China has resorted to quarantine, to extermination of the infected and to mass burial? Did you know that that same country has also had to release much of its national strategic reserves in a bid to stem the effects of this disaster?
Did you know that this is all true, but the disease in question (the African swine fever) is sweeping through porcine communities and is completely harmless to humans? That’s right, much of Asia is currently in the grip of an epidemic that is wiping out millions of pigs. Indeed, some estimate that it has already wiped out a quarter of the global pig population. A quarter! (Or, “a fourth!”) This is a disaster for China where pork is so important. There are more than 400 million pigs there and pork makes up 60 per cent of Chinese meat consumption. The country even has a national strategic pork reserve (held in underground vaults?) which it has had to release meat from in order to try and drag down record high pork prices. There are fears that this current epidemic may wipe out half of China’s pig population.
The virus is spread, in part, by pigs eating virus-laden pork scraps. It kills nearly every pig it infects and there is no vaccine. The virus can spread pig-to-pig or can hitch a ride on shoes or truck tires and can survive for months in frozen or cured pork, infecting pigs that eat it. Because pigs eat anything, they have become highly prized by the world’s poor: pigs will live off scraps and waste and turn that refuse into meat. But that ability to eat food scraps is now killing them. And killing off the small scale poor farming enterprises which make up 40 per cent of China’s pork production. China has banned raw swill and is shutting down small farms and promoting well-funded producers which can afford costly biosecurity measures and fatten pigs on things other than garbage.
In so doing, China is following the path trekked by Spain and Portugal after an outbreak of African swine fever in the 1960s which led to regulations and the consolidation of the industry into big farms. A more recent outbreak in Russia also saw small-scale pork production fall dramatically. China has offered some compensation for culled pigs, but the rates are low and the money isn’t necessarily making its way to those who need it most. Other countries, such as Cambodia, offer no compensation at all, leaving farmers with culled pigs, no money, debt, and a highly uncertain future. The trouble is, these poor farmers will still be attracted to raising pigs on scraps – they are just such a cheap way to get meat. And thus the risk of another epidemic will still exist.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.