As it continues to spread across the globe, African swine fever’s far-reaching impact on the pork, feed and grain markets is still being assessed by experts.
“ASF is something that’s very hard for the market to understand,” said Stefan Vogel, head of commodities for Rabobank U.K. “We have never received so many calls and questions from clients on one single topic as we have this one.”
What is known at this point is that in China, which is the world’s largest pork producer and consumer, and where the outbreak began, Rabobank estimates the pig herd may shrink by 50% by the end of 2019. Analysts say it may take more than five years for China to recover to levels prior to the outbreak as challenges, including a lack of solutions to prevent or treat the disease and a lack of capital, will restrict restocking.
But the outbreak stretches far beyond the borders of China, with parts of Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe among the hardest hit. The virus has been found in at least 36 countries on three continents since June 2018, according to the International Organization for Animal Health, which noted that it had been controlled or eradicated in half of those countries, most of them in Africa. As of early September, 18 countries had reported cases of ASF.
What these countries have discovered is that the virus — which is usually fatal to pigs but does not infect humans — is difficult to kill. With no available vaccine, prevention remains the best defense, and many countries around the world are working to bolster their defenses against the virus.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has even added more dogs to its “Beagle Brigade,” which sniffs out pork hidden in travelers’ luggage at international airports and border crossings. As of early September, there had been no reports of the virus reaching the U.S., which has the third largest hog population behind China and Europe. If ASF were to spread to the U.S., it would mean the world’s top three pork producing markets, which account for 86% of the planet’s pork output, would be impacted.
Besides the obvious impact on the pork sector, the implications for the global grain and feed markets also could be significant. Denver, Colorado-based CoBank conservatively estimates that if China’s hog herd declines by one-third, soybean meal consumption will drop by roughly 9 million tonnes and corn consumption will decline by 28 million tonnes. A silver lining is that Chinese consumers already are switching to poultry, fish and beef from pork, so feed demand in those sectors could increase to soften the blow. But chicken and fish convert feed more efficiently than hogs and cattle, so there is risk that global feed demand declines if the shift in consumption is a long-term trend.
While scientists work to develop a vaccine, the global pork industry must increase education efforts so that pig farmers recognize ASF symptoms and know how to prevent the virus from spreading. Countries also should follow the lead of China, Australia and Japan, which have proposed hefty fines and even prison sentences for travelers transporting diseased pork. Perhaps that sounds extreme, but it really isn’t given what’s at stake. Eradicating this disease will require a global team effort involving the public and private sectors.