This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
The year of the pig isn’t going well for the world's pork industry. Experts predict that China, the world's biggest pork exporter, will lose up to 200 million pigs this year from African swine fever. If this happens, we will see the global population of pigs plunge to “historically low” levels, meaning prices could soar as much as 70 percent, according to the Chinese agriculture ministry last week.
Currently, China's pig supply is unmatchable to any other country. Even if China loses 200 million pigs—which is around half of its total pig population—it will still have almost three times as many pigs as the United States.
“A lot of herds will disappear due to infection and liquidation,” Rabobank senior analyst Chenjun Pan told South China Morning Post. “There will be a great shortage. We don’t think any country in the world, or the whole world combined, could cover this supply gap. Even after increasing the imports, there remains a supply shortage.”
The deadly outbreak was first reported in August last year in the northeastern part of China, in Liaoning province. Since then, the disease has spread to 25 provinces and even some areas in neighbouring Vietnam and Mongolia. In response to the initial outbreak, Beijing launched an emergency plan and control measures to kill pigs suspected to be infected. Now more than 950,000 pigs all over China have been culled in an effort to contain the disease, which is deadly to pigs but does not pose a risk to humans.
To avoid being affected in the containment efforts, some farmers rushed their pigs to the markets early. This caused prices of pork products to drop earlier this year, right around the time of Chinese New Year.
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), around half of the world’s pigs are raised in China, and the Chinese are the biggest consumers of pork per capita. Although the country’s reported having 200,000 tonnes of pork still in reserve, that is far from enough to satisfy the demand worldwide.
To cater to the domestic demand for pork products, China’s looking to increase import from the world market. Although China’s currently in the midst of a trade war with the US—another top pork exporter—and in spite of the huge added cost, China has started putting orders for US pork products again in March in anticipation of the shortage.
In March, China claimed to have the epidemic under control. However, farmers and other industry insiders told Reuters the actual situation of China’s African swine fever epidemic might be different from what officials reports suggest since cases in rural areas of China are often unreported.
With the authorities downplaying the severity of the disease, the chance that the disease will continue to spread beyond China’s borders continues to be very high.
While it might take many years for China’s pork production to completely recover, China could probably look to Russia for solutions. After the pork industry was ravaged by the same disease in 2007, Russia has now managed to save and even double their pork production.