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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Explained: Why a disease of pigs has China in despair

To prevent the spread of the disease, over 5 million animals have been culled since the first outbreak was reported in Shenyang in northeastern China at the beginning of August 2018.

Written by Mehr Gill , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 10, 2019 7:58:58 am
ASF is a highly contagious and fatal animal disease that infects domestic and wild pigs, typically resulting in an acute form of hemorrhagic fever.

An outbreak of disease has been sweeping through swine populations in China, leading to massive mass cullings and a subsequent increase in the price of the country’s favourite protein.

The killer African Swine Fever (ASF), which does not affect humans but is catastrophic to pigs, has been seen in other Asian countries as well. To prevent the spread of the disease, over 5 million animals have been culled since the first outbreak was reported in Shenyang in northeastern China at the beginning of August 2018.

Most recently, the Philippines, the world’s seventh-largest pork importer and tenth-largest pork consumer, has had to cull more than 7,000 pigs to arrest the spread of ASF.

In China, the world’s largest exporter and consumer of pork, the price of the meat is estimated to have risen by more than 50 per cent over pre-outbreak levels. In the week ended August 28, the average price of pork, excluding offal, was 31.77 yuan (or about Rs 320) per kg, The Wall Street Journal reported recently, quoting figures provided by China’s Ministry of Commerce.

African Swine Fever

ASF is a highly contagious and fatal animal disease that infects domestic and wild pigs, typically resulting in an acute form of hemorrhagic fever. It was first detected in Africa in the 1920s. The mortality is close to 100 per cent, and since the fever has no cure, the only way to stop it spreading is by culling the animals. ASF is not a threat to human beings since it only spreads from animals to other animals.

The pork industry has taken a hit whenever outbreaks of ASF have been reported. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, pork producing countries like Brazil, and some countries in Europe and in the Caribbean region, suffered heavy losses in the first outbreak of ASF outside Africa in 1957.

In 1994, the disease resurfaced in Africa, and “devastated pig production in many countries”. According to the FAO, “its extremely high potential for transboundary spread has placed all the countries in the region in danger and has raised the spectre of ASF once more escaping from Africa. It is a disease of growing strategic importance for global food security and household income”.

The current outbreak

According to FAO’s September 5 Asia update on the spread of ASF, the affected countries include China, Vietnam, Mongolia, Cambodia, North Korea, Laos, and Myanmar. The Philippines has since been added to this list.

In China, over 11,70,000 pigs have been culled since the first ASF outbreak of August 3, 2018. In Vietnam, which confirmed its first ASF outbreak in February this year, over 45,00,000 pigs have been culled.

Impact of shortage

Apart from pork becoming dearer to people who eat the meat, especially in China where it is the mainstay of the diet, the outbreak has affected small farmers who do not have the resources to protect their pigs from the disease. According to FAO, pork farming makes up 10 per cent of Vietnam’s agriculture, and pork accounts for nearly three-quarters of the meat consumed in the country. China has over 2.6 crore pig farmers; half of its production of pork is undertaken by small-scale farmers.

Pork is also a culturally significant meat for the Chinese people, symbolic of a family’s well-being. An editorial in the South China Morning Post recently said, “…The plight of the pork industry is making a bigger impact on Chinese politics than a patriotic reaction to three months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong.”

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