An epidemic of African Swine Fever is sweeping through China's hog farms, and the effects are rippling across the globe, because China is a superpower of pork. Half of the world's pigs live in China — or at least they did before the epidemic began a year ago.
"Every day, we hear of more outbreaks," says Christine McCracken, a senior analyst at RaboResearch, which is affiliated with the global financial firm Rabobank.
McCracken and her colleagues now estimate that by the end of 2019, China's production of pork could be cut in half. "That's roughly 300 million to 350 million pigs lost in China, which is almost a quarter of the world's pork supply," she says. "It's a massive number." (This measures the reduction in pigs slaughtered annually, which is roughly twice the number of animals in China's swine herd at any one time.)
The estimate, McCracken says, is based on information from her company's clients in China, which include meat packers, companies that sell animal feed, and animal health experts.
African Swine Fever is not the same as "swine flu." This disease is harmless to humans. It can spread through contaminated pork products or the clothes of people working with infected pigs. It does not travel through the air, but it's long-lived and hard to get rid of — which Chinese farmers are learning the hard way.
"They've had a hard time repopulating herds," McCracken says. "It's hard to decontaminate a facility in a short amount of time. Generally, it takes at least six months, sometimes three years, to decontaminate a site."
Up to now, Chinese consumers still are finding enough pork to buy. McCracken says that's mainly because many farmers slaughtered their herds early, out of fear of infection. In the past month or so, however, supplies have started to run short, and pork prices are now rising sharply in China.
In fact, people around the world are now starting to feel the effects.
With fewer pigs, China is importing less soy meal to feed them. That alone has been enough to push down global prices for soybeans, which means less money for farmers in Brazil and the U.S.
The effect on soybean prices may turn out to be modest. According to a preliminary analysis by Amani Elobeid, an economist at Iowa State University, and Miguel Carriquiry, at the University of the Republic in Uruguay, a 30% cut in China's pork production could reduce the price of soy meal by 3 to 5%. In an email to NPR, however, they noted that the analysis "is VERY preliminary and should be used with caution."
The growing Chinese pork shortage is good news, though, for pork producers in the rest of the world: China is now starting to import more pork, driving up prices.
McCracken says the epidemic is still going strong. "It's really hard to see how this is going to end," she says. "Though at some point there will just be better, more 'biosecure' facilities that have less of a chance of getting the virus."
African Swine Fever is present in wild pigs in Europe. European pork producers have managed to protect their commercial herds from infection through careful precautions, preventing any potentially contaminated food or clothing from entering the facilities where pigs live.
Almost half the pigs in China, on the other hand, came from hundreds of thousands of small, backyard operations, which have been particularly hard-hit by the epidemic. If those farms can't protect their animals from infection, they may not survive.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
China is truly a superpower - of pork. It is home to half of all the pigs in the world. But right now a disease called African swine fever is sweeping through Chinese hog farms. And it's having ripple effects for farmers all over the world as NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The swine fever epidemic in China and the rest of Southeast Asia began a year ago, and it's still spreading. Christine McCracken and her colleagues at the big financial firm Rabobank have been talking to their clients in China, companies in the pork business - trying to figure out how bad it is.
CHRISTINE MCCRACKEN: Every day, we hear of more outbreaks.
CHARLES: According to their latest estimate, African swine fever is killing off so many pigs that by the end of this year, China's production of pork could be cut in half.
MCCRACKEN: That's roughly, you know, 300 to 350 million pigs lost in China, which is, you know, almost a quarter of the world's pork supply.
CHARLES: Which I found stunning. Should I be stunned by that?
MCCRACKEN: You should. It's a massive number.
CHARLES: African swine fever is not swine flu. This disease is harmless to humans. It can spread through contaminated pork products or the clothes of people working with infected pigs, not through the air. But the virus is really hard to get rid of, which Chinese farmers are finding out.
MCCRACKEN: They've had a hard time repopulating herds. It's hard to decontaminate a facility in a short amount of time. Generally, it takes at least six months to sometimes three years to decontaminate a site.
CHARLES: McCracken says many Chinese farmers have slaughtered their herds early out of fear the animals might get infected, so there's still pork on the shelves. In the past month or so, consumers in China are starting to see the impact. Pork prices are rising. In fact, the impact is rippling across the globe.
With fewer pigs, China's importing less soy meal to feed them. That alone has been enough to push down global prices of soybeans, which means less money for farmers in Brazil and the U.S. On the other hand, it's been good news for pork producers in the rest of the world. China is starting to import more pork, driving up prices. And McCracken says the epidemic is still going strong.
MCCRACKEN: It's really hard to see how this is going to end, though at some point, you know, they'll just be better, more biosecure facilities that have fewer chances of getting the virus.
CHARLES: Traditionally, almost half of the pigs in China came from small backyard operations, hundreds of thousands of them. Those farms, though, if they can't protect their animals from infection, may not survive.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD PANDA'S "I AM REAL PUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.