As millions of pigs disappear in China, the rest of the world is beginning to notice.
The country’s pig population, the largest in the world, is likely to shrink by almost a third, losing 130m animals as African swine fever ravages the country’s farms.
The outbreak will reshape protein markets across the globe, driving up meat prices as China, the leading consumer and producer of pork, braces for years of shortages and disruptions to its food supply.
“This has been a game-changer,” says Jais Valeur, group chief executive at Danish Crown, Europe’s leading pork processor. “We’re only starting to see the real impact of African swine fever.”
The ASF virus, endemic to Africa, is fatal to pigs and has no cure. The current wave of cases began in Georgia in 2007 and spread to parts of eastern Europe and Russia before reaching China in August.
After eight months of Beijing claiming the situation was under control, the crisis has now become undeniable. The Ministry of Agriculture said last week that a preliminary estimate forecasts pork prices to rise more than 70 per cent year on year in the second half of 2019.
The sharp drop in China’s pig population has sent shockwaves through the world food industry. Hog futures have leapt in Chicago. Shares of meat companies have soared in São Paulo and New York. US pork sales to China recently hit a record high despite a 62 per cent tariff imposed during the course of the trade war between the countries.
China’s 1.4bn people consume 55m tonnes of pork products a year, by far the most of any country. Household meat consumption has steadily risen alongside incomes, with the bulk of demand met by a domestic pig population more than 430m-strong before the outbreak.
But deaths from the disease and culling are expected to leave 130m fewer pigs in China by year-end, estimates Christine McCracken, a New York-based analyst at Rabobank.
“It’s a big deal. They have half the world’s pigs and they’ve lost 30 per cent of that production,” she said.
The impact will endure. Ernan Cui, China consumer analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics, said that while eradicating ASF in other countries had taken at least five years, the Chinese market’s size, regulatory structure and low sanitation standards would prolong the crisis.
“For the country as a whole it could be a very long process — more than a decade is very likely,” she said. Ms Cui added that the disease should ultimately accelerate industry consolidation, as small farms, which make up about two-thirds of the market, struggled to deal with the costs of containing the disease.
Rabobank predicts a shortfall in other import-reliant countries of Asia and Latin America in an “unprecedented shift in trade”, as meat supplies redirect to China.
The shifts should be felt across places and species. Europe is already China’s top trading partner in pork. Mr Valeur said Danish Crown’s frozen shipments to China had doubled since February, when celebrations ushered in the Year of the Pig.
Normally, most imports were limited to items such as pig feet, ears and organs. But “over the last two months pretty much everything is in demand from China”, Mr Valeur said.
Brazil is a country that is “well positioned for rapid growth” in pork exports to China, while its beef and chicken exports could also rise, said Morgan Stanley. São Paulo-based JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, said: “It is noticeable that China is moving to import more, and this new demand encompasses all types of protein and not just pigs.” The company’s shares are up more than 50 per cent this year, partly on hopes of higher sales to China.
Expectations of Chinese buying have also fed a big rally in Chicago livestock futures, which track transactions in the US. Hogs for June delivery were 96 cents a pound on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange last week, up more than a quarter from March 1, when China began stepping up purchases of US pork that now total more than 127,000 tonnes.
But, owing to the ongoing trade tensions between the US and China, American pork producers are suppressing their enthusiasm. Tyson Foods, the largest US meat packer, said it was “closely monitoring” the ASF situation and “assessing the potential impact on market conditions”.
Beijing raised its pork tariff in response to duties imposed by the Trump administration on Chinese products last year. China also bans pork that is cut from pigs that have been fed ractopamine, a growth supplement used in at least half the US industry, said Dermot Hayes, a professor at Iowa State University.
The US, Canada and Mexico are meanwhile mobilising to keep ASF out of their continent. Discovery of the virus could halt North American exports of pork just as China’s increased demand squeezes supplies.
The US government is educating farmers on biosecurity protocols and is using beagles at seaports and airports to sniff for smuggled products.
“Our stakeholders are very, very unnerved out in the rural areas,” said David Herring, the pork council’s president. “They understand the potential rewards of not having African swine fever, and it’s a hair-on-fire issue.”