The Year of the Pig might begin next week, but right now it’s looking pretty dire for swine in China.
Almost 1 million pigs have been slaughtered over the past six months as the country battles African swine fever. And with no sign of the disease coming under control, more culls are set to come which could cripple the domestic pig farming industry.
China produces more than half the world’s pigs – 700 million a year. Most of those stay within China’s borders, with just 1.6 million exported last year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
African swine fever is not harmful to humans and is unlikely to become zoonotic – pass from animals to humans – in our lifetime, says Dirk Pfeiffer, an expert in infectious diseases at City University of Hong Kong. But the most virulent strain of the disease is almost 100% deadly to pigs.
The Chinese government has set up epidemic zones across the country, restricted the movement of live pigs, and closed live pig markets in affected areas. Pfeiffer said that if not brought under control, the outbreak could ruin millions of small pig farms across the nation.
“A big part of the problem is the very high percentage of small- to medium-sized producers who are likely to not be able to implement the required biosecurity measures (to stop the disease spreading),” Pfeiffer said.
“The effect of this epidemic will be that the number of small farms will reduce, and more large farms will be set up, or existing large ones will increase their production capacity.”
African swine fever, which affects only wild boars, warthogs, bush pigs and domestic pigs, is endemic in sub-Saharan and West Africa and was first detected in Kenya in 1921. China confirmed its first outbreak on August 3 last year.
Experts say most of the initial cases were caused by feeding kitchen waste, called swill, to pigs. It is characterized by pigs developing hemorrhaging lesions on their skin and internal organs.
There is currently no treatment or vaccine for the disease.
Guang Defu, from China’s Ministry of Agriculture, said China had responded to the crisis in a “timely, open and transparent” manner.
Beijing keeps frozen pork reserves, which have been used in the past to alleviate market pricing problems and, if necessary, could potentially be drawn on in the coming months.