Whatever happens, most of the world will eat less pork
SYDNEY, Australia; HONG KONG––Will African swine fever, a viral disease now projected to kill at least half the pigs in China and a quarter of all the pigs in the world, accelerate the trend toward vegan eating?
Or speed the transition toward factory farming?
Pandemic hit pigs worldwide to little notice
World Organization for Animal Health president and chief Australian veterinary officer Mark Schipp at an October 31, 2019 media conference exponentially increased global awareness of the African swine fever pandemic quietly raging since 2007, spreading from 14 nations in eastern Europe to most of southeast Asia, hitting China hardest.
Skipping over most of western Europe, the African swine fever pandemic has also erupted in Belgium, near the French border, and has jumped across the South China Sea to parts of Indonesia and the Philippines.
What happens next?
ANIMALS 24-7 has several times since 2014 reported about the African swine fever pandemic, to surprisingly little notice in view of the magnitude of the animal health and welfare issues involved, and the potential the pandemic has for changing human diets.
Regardless of whether meat-eaters are willing to quit eating bacon, ham, lard, pickled pigs’ feet, and pork in other forms, the crash already underway in the global pig population mandates that far fewer pigs will be eaten in the near future.
What happens next depends on whether makers of plant-based pork analog products can expand production and ramp up marketing enough to permanently capture market share before the pig farming industry recovers.
“I don’t think the species will be lost”
“I don’t think the species will be lost,” Schipp said, “but it’s the biggest threat to the commercial raising of pigs we’ve ever seen,” no small matter in view of the millions of pigs killed by foot-and-mouth disease and efforts to control it as recently as 2001, 2005, and 2007.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea, pseudorabies, and classical swine fever have also hit pigs hard in recent years, but African swine fever, Schipp pronounced, “is the biggest threat to any commercial livestock of our generation.”
That statement would also encompass mad cow disease, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), H5N1 and other avian influenzas, and swine flu, all of which have also killed people.
100% fatal to pigs
African swine fever is harmless to humans, but is 100% fatal to pigs.
Spread among pigs by direct contact, by contaminated feed, and by ticks, African swine fever was first identified in South Africa.
“African swine fever spread from Africa to Portugal in 1957 as a result of waste from airline flights being fed to pigs near Lisbon,” recalled ProMed infectious diseases moderator Arnon Shimshony in 2014. “Although this incursion of the disease was eradicated, a further outbreak occurred in 1960 in Lisbon, and African swine fever remained endemic on the Iberian peninsula until the mid-1990s.”
Further outbreaks hit France, Italy, Malta, Belgium, and the Netherlands. “The disease was eradicated from each of these countries,” Shimshony said, “but in Sardinia it has remained endemic since in 1982.”
African swine fever jumped to Brazil in 1978, but was eradicated by culling after 224 reported outbreaks.
Unstoppable after infecting wild boar
Initially known to infect only domestic herds, African swine fever exploded out of control after crossing into wild boar. Boar translocated for hunting are believed to have carried African swine fever throughout eastern and central Europe after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Boar have been extensively culled in many parts of Europe to try to slow the further spread of African swine fever, including as many as 800,000 boar in Germany alone, but the culling is believed to be only buying time, not likely to keep the disease out permanently.
“Experience in Europe with African swine fever has shown that once the disease becomes established in wild pigs, it is extremely difficult to control in both wild and domestic pigs,” summarized Bloomberg reporter Jason Gale on November 1, 2019 of comments emailed by United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization animal health officer Andriy Rozstalnyy, “especially when the wild population is dense and swine production is characterized as extensive, semi-intensive, or ‘backyard.’”
No vaccine yet––or soon
The eventual brake on African swine fever is believed to be the development of an effective vaccine, ideally in a form which could be administered to both wild and domestic pigs.
Currently there is no vaccine against African swine fever, and none on the immediate horizon. Schipp noted some recent progress, specifically that the complex structure of the virus has at last been decoded.
But the best-funded and most advanced African swine fever research project to date was dismantled for budgetary reasons in 2004, soon after the U.S. Department of Agriculture transferred the former Plum Island high security disease research center just off Long Island, New York, to the then newly created Department of Homeland Security.
The USDA had studied African swine fever at Plum Island since 1989, in hopes of developing a vaccine.
New lab three years from opening
Reported Oma Seddiq of Politico on October 28, 2019, “The 65-year-old Plum Island lab will be replaced – the island is now for sale, according to the Department of Homeland Security – by the National Bio & Agro-defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas. The $1.25 billion facility, which is expected to open by 2023, will fall under USDA jurisdiction and house the [restarted] African swine fever research program.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. front line of defense against African swine fever is the Swine Health Information Center in Ames, Iowa, founded in 2014 by the National Park Board.
The USDA “recently awarded the center a grant of roughly $1.7 million to conduct studies in Vietnam on how to control the disease,” Seddiq said.
China moving toward more pig factories––maybe
New outbreaks originating from China have so far in 2019 hit Mongolia, both North and South Korea, and East Timor, Indonesia, Schipp mentioned. Australia has not yet had outbreaks, but the estimated 24 million feral pigs in Australia, as well as the farms producing about 4.85 million pigs per year for slaughter, are believed to be highly vulnerable.
Along with the deaths of pigs caused by African swine fever itself, Chinese agriculture and health authorities have reportedly culled about 1.2 million apparently healthy pigs from infected herds, who could potentially have been immune carriers.
“In China, previously they had a lot of backyard piggeries,” Schipp said. “They’re seeing this as an opportunity to take a big step forward and move to large scale commercial piggeries. The challenge will be to other countries without the infrastructure or capital reserves to scale up in those ways.”
Will continuing demand for pork support investment in new facilities?
Pigs raised indoors in confinement are more easily isolated from the African swine fever virus, and outbreaks among them are more easily detected.
Thus African swine fever could provide the impetus for significant expansion of western-style factory farming to parts of the world where it has yet to dominate pig production––but only if consumer demand for pig meat remains strong enough to encourage the necessary investment in new production facilities.
Currently, reported Gale for Bloomberg, “The price of pork has nearly doubled from a year ago in China, which produces and consumes two-thirds of the world’s pork. And China’s efforts to buy pork abroad, as well as smaller outbreaks in other countries, are pushing up global prices.
“China’s top priority”
Explained Orange Wong earlier for the South China Morning Post, “Stabilizing pig production amid rapidly rising pork prices has overtaken the 14-month trade war with the United States and the four months of political unrest in Hong Kong as China’s top priority. The virus, which was first detected [in China] a year ago, has now spread to all 31 Chinese mainland provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions.”
The Chinese pig population on farms has dropped 40%, to about 275 million, since African swine fever arrived, and may fall by as much as 70%, some epidemiologists predict.
U.S. producers, with about 78 million pigs now on farms, and a stockpile of more than 20,000 tons of unsold refrigerated pork, are eager to sell more to China, but even if all trade barriers were removed, imported pig meat, even at peak, accounted for only about 2% of Chinese consumption, vice minister for agriculture Yu Kangzhen told media. Even if China could somehow capture the entire global pork trade, it would replace less than 15% of Chinese domestic production, Yu Kangzhen said.
No rising demand for dog meat
One South China Morning Post writer, He Huifeng, alleged on October 22, 2019 that the Chinese pork shortage has triggered “renewed interest in dog meat.” This claim was widely amplified by far right media in the U.S. and Europe, but He Huifeng presented no actual evidence that the long declining demand for dog meat is showing any signs of revival, or that a revival would even be likely in response to pork scarcity.
Pork is a longtime dietary staple throughout China, chiefly because historically pork has been abundant and inexpensive.
Dog meat, on the other hand, has never been commonly consumed in most of China, and has never been more than a relatively pricy status food, served and eaten in small portions in specialty restaurants, even in the regions where it has been relatively popular.
Last dog meat markets close in South Korean capital
South Korea, meanwhile, culled at least 154,548 pigs on 94 farms to try to stop African swine fever, amid rumors that North Korea, where pig meat accounts for about 80% of human protein intake, might be experiencing famine as result of outbreaks underway since May 2019.
Nonetheless, two days after He Huifeng hinted that dog-eating might make a comeback, Park Won-soon, mayor of Seoul, the South Korean capital, announced the closure of the last eight dog meat vendors in the city, at the Gyeongdong and Jungang marketplaces.
The Moran Market, in the neighboring city of Seongnam, had for half a century been the biggest supplier of dog meat to Seoul, but closed in 2018.
“Prime market for alternative meat phenomenon”
Looking ahead, editorialized the South China Morning Post on October 27, 2019, “China is a prime market for the alternative meat phenomenon sweeping the West. Plant-based options help ensure food security, are environmentally friendly and, as a result of the way industry trends have moved, are hi-tech.
“Three years ago,” the South China Morning Post remembered, “in an effort to ward off health problems such as cancers, obesity and diabetes, Beijing issued dietary guidelines recommending a halving of meat consumption. But a pressing reason [for moving toward a plant-based diet] would also seem to lie in the African swine fever outbreak.
“Promoting plant-based meat alternatives makes good sense”
“China is the world’s biggest pork consumer, accounting for 50% of the global total. But the nation’s 1.4 billion people are lovers of all sorts of meat,” the South China Morning Post continued, “last year consuming 86 million metric tons, more than any other country. Demand increased by 14% between 2017 and 2018, in keeping with global trends that the wealthier a society gets, the more it can afford meat.
“Firms trying to break into the market have to be aware that alternatives are far from new,” the South China Morning Post warned. “Mock meat [mostly made from tofu and seitan] has been part of the culinary tradition for 1,400 years, and China already has numerous players with a wide range of products.”
The bottom line, though, the South China Morning Post concluded, is that “in a world with a fast-growing population and rising appetite for meat, with Asia and Africa the biggest growth areas, governments have to look to sustainability. Encouraging and welcoming competition and promoting plant-based meat alternatives makes good sense.”